The year 2011 was an alarming one for dictators, as a series of mass uprisings toppled several authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. The so-called “Arab Spring” inspired wild hopes, with some optimists even declaring that the 20th century phenomenon of the dictator was finished, and a new era of democracy was dawning- just like in Eastern Europe in 1989. True? False? Let’s survey the Year in Dictators and find out!
The action started in Tunisia in late 2010, when a man named Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated to protest the rule of President Ben Ali, and immediately triggered a mass uprising. By January, the hitherto unassailable dictator was in exile in Saudi Arabia and lots of politicians and journalists were pretending to know something about the country. Tunisians are secular, they told us, so don’t worry about religious radicals coming to power! A few months later, an Islamist party won 30% or so of the vote, making it the largest bloc in Tunisia’s parliament, with great influence over the country’s new constitution. Awesome! Which brings us to…
Egypt - not only the most populous country in the Arab world but also home to the University of Al- Azhar, the world’s most important center of Islamic learning. Starting in February, a series of protests led to the downfall of long term dictator Hosni Mubarak, who learned that America is only your friend until she isn’t, as Obama urged his nation’s faithful ally of three decades to stand down so that some reactionary, authoritarian anti-Semitic types could take over. Well that’s not exactly what he said, but that’s obviously what was going to happen, and it’s what’s happening right now. Awesome!
Then there’s Libya, where Colonel Gaddafi learned the hard way that it doesn’t pay to give up your weapons of mass destruction, or to hang out with Tony Blair. After 41 years of doing his own thang, he was faced by an immensely incompetent uprising which would have failed had not a NATO mission led by Britain and France with major support from the US eventually assisted an unappealing mob of ex-Al Qaeda men and other unlovely sorts in killing the Brother Leader. At least 50,000 people died in a haphazard military campaign that was supposedly waged to save lives, and which had nothing to do with regime change, HONEST! It’s hard to say what’s going on there now because the media isn’t doing much reporting, but I do hear that Gaddafi’s son is yet to see a lawyer after weeks in captivity and that polygamy is now legal. Awesome (if you’re a dude)!
There was unrest elsewhere in the Middle East, but not much change. Bahrain held firm. I think something happened in the Yemen, but nobody reports on it that much. Let me Google it…
….no, the president is still hanging on, although he’s supposed to be gone by February. In Syria Bashar Assad has responded to unrest like a proper dictator and killed lots of his own people. Will his regime fall in 2012? I have no idea. But having seen what happened to Gaddafi he has a pretty strong motivation to keep on killing.
And that’s it for the alleged Brave New World of democracy. Elsewhere, 2011 was not bad at all for dictators. Consider the ex-USSR for instance:
In Turkmenistan former dentist Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov switched the portraits of his predecessor Turkmenbashi for his own years ago and nobody noticed any difference.
In Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov has ruled with an iron fist since the country was part of the USSR. His repressive system is working well, and the jails are nice and full.
In Tajikistan, ex-collective farm boss Emomali Rakhmon is still rocking the presidential palace. Not long ago he banned all religious education for those below the age of 18; he’d rather everybody read his own books about Zoroaster.
In Azerbaijan, Ilham Aliyev continues as president of the country his daddy used to run.
In Kazakhstan, oblivious to the lessons of Libya, Nursultan Nazarbayev recently started hanging out with Tony Blair. Blair denies he is making any money from the friendship, but the Kazakhs claim he already has a gleaming new office in Astana, the capital.
Meanwhile I hear Africa still has some dictators, and there are also a few dodgy fellows knocking about in Latin America. North Korea just swapped one psycho for his puffy faced son, while China remains a one party state. Russia which although not a dictatorship is certainly authoritarian, recently experienced some uprisings but the challengers Mr. Putin faces for the presidency in 2012 are (as usual) discredited frauds and rich dilettantes doomed to failure.
Authoritarian rule is the norm rather than the exception in human history and even in liberal democracies many yearn to impose their will on others. In the EU for instance, whenever the public makes the wrong decision in a referendum, their leaders make them vote again until they get it right! In the Middle East meanwhile I suspect that secular dictators are about to be replaced by religious dictators- plus ca change, and all that.
Happy New Dictators!