Thursday, June 21, 2012

When the dictator dies a footnote

Did it really matter on Wednesday whether Hosni Mubarak was clinically dead, completely dead, or alive and dying in a suite at a military hospital in Maadi? The death of a dictator is a dramatic moment in the life of a country, and usually one of great duplicity.

Take the death of Syrian President Hafez Assad in June 2000. There were, of course, the requisite street weepers lamenting the departure of the all-embracing father. And yet the burial ceremonies were devoid of sentiment, of any genuine sense of loss. Thirty years of Baathist grayness bequeathed a mourning period of comparable grayness, interrupted by a brief yearning that the son might bring Syria color. But the pampered children of tyrants are usually tyrants themselves, and Bashar Assad has not disappointed in that regard.

Assad’s death reminded us of that of Joseph Stalin. Behind the frenzied sobbing was an unstated frisson of rebirth. When he died in 1953, the Soviet leader left behind a terrible feeling of emptiness, for having filled so much of the nation’s space during three decades of rule. But then many realized that it was not about space, but about oxygen – the oxygen that Stalin had sucked up from his own society; and with his death the population breathed more easily again.

Moammar Gadhafi was the rare Arab autocrat (Iraq’s Nuri al-Said was another) who did not die in his bed – an exception confirming the rule. The revenge he faced was terrible, but it was also unsatisfying. For societies wishing to transcend dictatorship, the ritual slaughter of the leader makes the deconstruction of the previous order much more difficult. How useful it would have been to see Gadhafi before a tribunal, disclosing the myriad networks and methods that kept him on top for so long, exposing those who had facilitated his dominance. Instead, Libyans were offered the sight of a decomposing corpse.

And yet Egypt’s version of authoritarianism was surprisingly subtle. For decades we imagined that Hosni Mubarak was the pharaoh. He was, but over and around him were the timeless mechanisms of the Egyptian state, there to serve the leader, but also to reject him when his hubris threatened to undermine the edifice as a whole.

Mubarak’s desire to hand over to his son Gamal was never going to succeed. Egyptians did not overthrow a dynasty in 1952 to bring another back in the second decade of the 21st century. When the people turned their rage on Mubarak in January 2011, the military considered its options. At stake were the armed forces’ vast interests in Egypt’s economy, but also their annual dividend from the United States. The president tried to maneuver and linger in office, but he failed. The generals gave him a shove and eventually put him on trial, allowing him to be sentenced. But they also had his sons and a bevy of intelligence chiefs declared innocent, avoiding too broad a discrediting of the political system they had so diligently upheld.

Dynastic succession is a way of cheating death, and one of the strange realities of absolute leaders is how tense is their relationship with death. For a long time Arab societies never mentioned death and illness when referring to their leaders. Gadhafi was obsessed with his health, and reportedly pursued eternal youth through various potions; Assad hid the fact that he was dying until the day he expired; Mubarak was no better, even as he increasingly resembled a wax doll in the months before stepping down; and senility was not enough to persuade Tunisia’s President Habib Bourghuiba to retire, until he was ousted by Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, part of whose legitimacy was initially based on the fact that he was young and spry.

A fundamental aspect of supreme power is the concealment of death. Death is the vulnerability that despots cannot afford to emphasize because it renders them human, and there has to be something supra-human in the imposition of absolute authority over the lives of others.

That is why the profoundest innovation of the Arab uprisings in the past year is that they have obliged despots to confront the reality of their own mortality. Gadhafi provoked a civil war whose logical finale was always going to be either his triumph or his physical elimination. Bashar Assad is marching in the same direction. From the moment Mubarak left the presidency, but opted to remain in Egypt, he knew that his demise would become a public concern, and therefore escape his control. Ben Ali and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh may have fled in time, but the revitalizing nectar of power is no longer theirs.

Mubarak doesn’t seem to matter any more. As the Egyptian armed forces impose their writ, prompting mass protests from those who fear that the gains of 2011 are being reversed, the old man has become a footnote. Democracy requires much more than this to take hold, but one facet of a more democratic Egypt – or a Syria, Libya and Yemen – is when the death of a leader does not compel society to suddenly stop in its tracks in anticipation of an indefinite future.

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