When dictators fall

On New Year’s Day, 1959, the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista packed his family and his gold into an airplane, and took off for Spain.  A week later, when the charismatic hero of the revolution addressed an adoring public in Havana, he seemed curiously unwilling to celebrate, and instead aimed his considerable rhetorical arsenal against political groups not directly under his control.

That was the beginning of a half-century of horror – a suffocating nightmare from which the Cuban people have yet to awaken.

Similar dismal scripts followed the overthrow of the shah in Iran, and of Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua.  Celebrations of freedom gave way to a more savage and lasting oppression than the old regime’s.

There are no iron laws in history, however.  The fall of Ferdinand Marcos in the Phillipines restored democracy to that country.  The same transpired in Argentina when the military junta ceded power after its defeat at the hands of the British.  More surprisingly, the collapse of the Suharto regime began a democratic experiment in Indonesia, a country with no history or tradition of political freedom.

With the fall of tyrants, nothing is fated, nothing is promised.  The problem is that these great upheavals of power are also reversals in the flow of time.  They appear, to the rejoicing crowds, like a happy ending, but are in reality the start of an uncertain tale.

Those who have never endured life under a dictator can’t imagine the nauseating hopelessness everyday life can achieve.  Fear sucks the air from the atmosphere.  The sight of a policeman, a sycophant, a censored news report poisons the happiest moment with feelings of shame and disgust.  Hypocrisy becomes the highest virtue – the ability to smile outwardly, and weep and rage in one’s soul.

Without freedom, the day is long.  Time is the ally of tyranny, an oppressive force which, by sheer dreariness and repetition, breaks down the strongest will.  Tomorrow will be like yesterday:  and the dictator, in his heroic pose, will cast a sickly shadow over both.

So when history miraculously resumes, when the clock begins to tick again, and the regime of lies crumbles before something very like the truth, it’s understandable for the long-suffering population to wish to celebrate an ending.

But consider the task ahead.  Political life, and many social and economic arrangements, have been hollowed out by the dictator.  Corruption like a contagious disease has spread from the palace to the marketplace to the home.  With the despot’s departure, distrust will replace fear as the overwhelming emotion of the public square.

People have little experience in self-rule or civic-mindedness, but own vast stores of knowledge in how to lie and cheat to feather one’s own nest.  The government which follows the dictator’s will be composed of his creatures or of neophytes, will preserve his system or trample on it, will be called “provisional” or “popular”:  regardless, it won’t last.  Citizens will learn that, beyond hatred of the old regime, they share little in common.  Some will advocate democracy.  Others, the triumph of some messianic ideology.  Others still crave economic betterment, or revenge for past humiliations.

At some point, a powerful and attractive voice will cry above the turmoil, “I can restore order” or “I can purify society” or “I can find work and dignity for all.”  And that will be the hinge of history, with freedom and tyranny in the balance.

To say yes to the charismatic voice is to open the door to an Ayatollah Khomeini, a Fidel Castro:  to slip from bad to worse.  The crowd, weary of celebrating liberation, will acquiesce in silence to a resurrected oppression.

The starting-point of these reflections is the fall from power in Egypt of Hosni Mubarak, after 30 years of rule.

Nobody knows what the future will bring for Egypt.  I mean that quite literally:  nobody, on principle, can know, because complex systems are inherently unpredictable and every human being is a complex system.  In the matter of prophecy, President Obama and CIA are off the hook.

But we know that the path to freedom will be long and difficult, and will require the intelligent assistance of friends of freedom everywhere, but most particularly in the United States.  The sanest message the Obama administration can send at the moment is that this is a beginning, not an end.

Egypt has some traditions of self-rule, though few Egyptians alive today will remember.  The country also spawned the Muslim Brotherhood, which the US should make every effort to marginalize:  not because it is anti-American, but because it is anti-democratic.  Although, unlike Al Qaeda, the Brotherhood is happy to play the electoral game, its political objective is identical to Osama bin Laden’s:  the restoration of a powerful caliphate.

As part of their long march to freedom, Egyptians must decide whether democracy is a suicide pact.

A more immediate concern is the Egyptian military, who have inherited power in an opaque arrangement that is unlikely to endure.  Apparently the military enjoy some popularity among the people.  They possess most of the guns and much of the wealth – Mubarak, we would do well to remember, was a fighter pilot.  There will be a temptation for the officer class to divvy up the pot now the boss is gone, as happened in Paraguay after Generalissimo Stroessner was pushed out.

The US should have some influence over the Egyptian military, since we pay them big money.  But we should cherish no illusions on this score.  The rules of the game are now broken:  anything goes.  The military will cut its own deal with Egyptian society, and with the world.  From one of its officers, I suspect, will come the siren song of restoration of order and final solution of problems.  The new riddle of the sphinx will be a choice between faux Napoleonic glory and real democratic drudgery.

On the answer given by the Egyptian people will hang their fate and the possibility of freedom in the land of Pharaoh.

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