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Any student (or casual observer, for that matter) of history has to marvel at the interesting times in which we live. Countries like Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and others in the Middle East that have been ruled for decades by one person and their respective families and close allies have found their grips on power disappearing, if not out right faltering. As momentous as this has all been to watch, it does beg the question of what the thinking has been of these powerful individuals as the masses have filled the streets chanting for them to go away.
In each of the cases we have seen this year, the powerful personality cults that each of these fallen (and soon-to-be fallen) despots have cultivated for generations collapsed. It is not uncommon to turn on news coverage of the events over the past eight weeks to see that the plastered images of smiling leaders on billboards, government buildings and plazas become physical targets and flashpoints for their people’s rage. It should also come as no surprise that when people are bullied, harassed and victimized enough, there comes a breaking point where they’ve had enough and push back. That’s what we’re seeing today.
Accomplished analysts of all stripes can point to the various nuances of each country for reasons why the people in the streets are responding in the manner that they are, but there is a fundamental part of human nature that causes us all to push back when we’ve had enough. For whatever reason, people finally realize that the fear that has been used to control them is just that – a means of control. If they decide to confront it head on, they stand the very real chance of overcoming it. Given the people we have all seen in the streets throughout the Middle East and North Africa, there are enough people willing to band together and bear the risks and costs to their own lives to shake off that fear.
While I remain very concerned about who ends up holding power in these respective countries, as well as their views of the United States and Western world, I have to admit that part of me feels inspired by what they have done. It takes a tremendous amount of courage to face one’s oppressors, and clearly courage is not in short supply.
Their actions have reminded me of how members of my own generation (Generation X) stood up in Tiananmen Square in the late spring of 1989, seeking a government that had its interests rather than one more interested in reinforcing the government’s authoritarianism. The shock of watching the Chinese Army bayoneting its next generation of best and brightest certainly shocked the world, but it should be of no surprise that those in power – be it in China, Libya or elsewhere – will do anything to keep hold of it when confronted by those who want take the reins of power from them.
Hence comments like those of Libyan despot Moammar Gaddafi take on a whole new meaning. His usual rambling, incoherent and conspiracy laden messaging abilities, stating that, “People who don’t love me don’t deserve to live,” is a sure way to let your people know where they stand.
Gaddafi and those like him have long professed to love their people and have carefully choreographed and cultivated images of themselves as heroic father figures protecting their children. While young children would present them with flowers and gifts and ego-enhancing chants from enthusiastic crowds roared forth, Gaddafi and other despots have held their people by their throats and thought the world and their specific world was all the better for it. History is littered with people like him: Iraq’s Saddam Hussein; Romania’s Nicolae Ceausescu; Cuba’s Fidel Castro; the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos; and so on.
The sheer brutality of these men and their regimes is well documented, but it is more than interesting to watch the actions of the teetering dictators as they look to hold onto what power they have. If the deployment of police and military forces into the streets is not enough to persuade you to go home, shut up and go along with how things have been going for the past several decades, maybe some outright payoffs and cash to the populace will settle you down. That is one strategy that Gaddafi has tried over the past few weeks, but like everything else he has done of late, it has been a disaster.
If there is one thing history teaches us, there are no real retirement plans for despots. They never seem to know when it’s time to move on and hand off their authority to someone else or even when they’ve gone too far with their own people. They are in every sense disconnected from the reality in which they live and reign. Egypt’s recently deposed president, Hosni Mubarak, may be the most glaring example of this disconnection condition, as he couldn’t seem to figure out why his people were so upset with him and wanted him gone. You can change all of the government ministers and draperies you want to feign that “change has come,” but when people ultimately want you gone, they want you gone. Mubarak is by no means alone in suffering from this condition. There are still dozens of others like him who believe in the personality cult they have fostered, proclaiming them omnipotent and without fault.
For all of their faults and countless sins for which these despots must ultimately answer, we know one thing is for sure – their egos remove them from any sense of reality, and when that happens, leadership fails. Maybe that is the reason conquering Roman generals would have a slave whisper in their ear, “Remember Caesar, thou art mortal,” as they would parade into the city in triumph.
Something tells me today’s despots don’t necessarily believe in that phrase, but rest assured, when the people gather en masse in the town square and start chanting for you to leave, career mortality, as well as physical mortality, is exactly what they have on their minds. That’s a lesson the mind of despot will never understand.
This piece was originally posted in Security Debrief.