Naked dictator

Those who live in the Middle East or follow events in the region have become familiar with such scenes in the past. But during the spate of popular revolts rocking the Arab world in 2011, more people around the world are catching a glimpse of one of the most bizarre aspects of modern dictatorships: the megalomania and insularity that rises up around such regimes and their leaders.

When certain types of crises emerge, the leader in question emerges from his cocoon and is obliged to address the national public, and the world.

Usually, the leader expresses defiance, while relying on the stale rhetoric of blaming foreign conspiracies for the tumult.

The leader then vows to defend his country and regime to the last breath, spouting the slogans of turning the country’s capital into a mass grave for the conquerors or infiltrators.

In the most recent instance of this phenomenon, the leader of Libya made the same fiery pronouncements, pledging that the invaders would meet their imminent doom in his heavily fortified stronghold of Tripoli.

Instead, the Libyan rebels breezed through the supposed fortress effortlessly and quickly gained control of the majority of the capital. Many people were no doubt convinced that Colonel Moammar Gadhafi would put up a fiercer fight in Tripoli, trusting blindly in the statements of an absolute leader whose hold on power was represented by an ever-smaller clique of supporters.

Such strongmen live in a virtual world of their own creation; perhaps Gadhafi even believed his tall tales about the resources and manpower he controlled. But while his personal behavior might be bizarre, Gadhafi’s hold on political reality has much in common with that of other authoritarian rulers, who live in their own cocoon and believe in their invincibility.

The sudden and surprising fall of Gadhafi is a lesson for other leaders in the region and the rest of the world. Africa is particularly relevant here, since the three Arab leaders who have been swept away during 2011 are from this continent. African countries, like Arab countries, have heavy young populations, and there are many states ruled by small, corrupt and insular cliques. Most of them, however, lack the kind of oil lifeline from which Gadhafi was able to benefit and use to hang on to power.

It will be no surprise to see such leaders-for-life fall elsewhere in the world, and not just the Arab region, when they surround themselves with yes-men, and yes-women, and give their people virtually no say in anything of importance.

Such leaders engage in a bizarre farce as their state media trumpet the news that there are no problems in the country, and that the leader is invincible. The farce then turns to tragedy when the pent-up frustration and anger are unleashed, as people suddenly wake up to the reality that the emperor has no clothes.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 24, 2011, on page 7.




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