Bonfire of the dictators

In the last part of our series, Robert Fisk ponders the fate of the despots who fought grimly against a revolutionary tide

Robert Fisk
Saturday 31 December 2011 01:00 GMT
Left to right:   Former Egptian president Hosni Mubarak, Syrian president Bashar Assad,  fallen Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali
Left to right: Former Egptian president Hosni Mubarak, Syrian president Bashar Assad, fallen Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and former Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali

How come they lasted so long?

We are so keen to analyse the revolutions that tore the Middle East's dictatorships apart this year that we have forgotten the record of endurance of these vicious men and their sheer, dogged, ruthless power to survive.

European autocrats could sometimes manage a few decades: Hitler lasted only 12 years, Mussolini 21; Franco at 39 years, Salazar at 36 and Stalin at 31 years were exceptions. But Gaddafi survived for 42 years, Ali Abdullah Saleh 33 (and counting), Mubarak 30, the Assad family 41 years (also counting), the House of Saud – as rulers of Saudi Arabia – has so far lasted 69 years and the al-Khalifa family (rulers of modern Bahrain) a mere 228 years. How do these guys cling on?

A patriarchal society, a religion that speaks of submission, a refusal to rebel when Western enemies are "at the gates", tribalism? Or is this just a reflection of our own "civilisation"? "People will endure their tyrants for years," that old fraud Woodrow Wilson told his chief propagandist George Creel as they set sail for the Paris Peace Conference in 1918, "but they tear their deliverers to pieces if a millennium is not created immediately." Just so in Egypt, already in Libya, we fear, and quite possibly in Syria; speak it not in Yemen. Only brave little Tunisia has held its post-revolutionary nerve.

But oh how they clung on, these little men. Their Arab peoples were infantilised, turned into schoolchildren who must obey the beneficent headmaster – Mubarak actually called his people "children" in his last broadcast – and given fake newspapers, fake ministers, fake elections; until, with education, foreign travel and technology, the people suddenly grew up and realised that their own dictators were children. But it's more than that.

So here's a year-end column for followers of Arab revolutions; it's really a manual of Middle East tyrants and their habits, although those with an interest in Putinism might find a few useful hints. The Arab Tyrant Manual is the invention of one "Iyad al-Baghdadi" who proclaims his residence in Dubai but insists he is neither Syrian nor Libyan, which leaves little to be guessed, and whose work has now been publicised by writer Rania Massoud in the Lebanese newspaper L'Orient Le Jour.

It comes in the form of Tweets (something in which this writer does not indulge) but it makes fascinating reading. Provided by Massoud from al-Baghdadi, therefore, it is sound if ultimately deadly advice for dictators past and present (Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Saleh, Assad and kings galore).

Firstly, insist that your country is not "X" ("X" experienced a revolution just before yours). Blame everything on al-Jazeera then close their office in your country. Say that you "support youth" (while your security forces are killing the same young people). Condemn Islamists; start at the bottom rung (Muslim Brotherhood) then work your way straight up to the evil al-Qa'ida. At the beginning (of social unrest), pretend that nothing is going on, and, when you learn of the seriousness of the crisis too late, address your nation at midnight. Warn against sectarianism, tribalism and other 'isms' that get people frightened. Blow up a church and blame Islamists. Announce that your remaining in power is synonymous with stability.

Get the point? This is picture-perfect stuff, TS Eliot-like in its specificity, photographic in its image of every, repeat every Middle East dictator. But there is more: announce a new government, and then another one. Burn down police stations and blame it on protesters. Insist that all is going fine. Once the situation gets worse, cut all telephone lines and block access to social media. When things get really bad block the internet. Insist that protesters represent only a very small minority of the people. Remind everyone of the last election results. Declare that change is indeed necessary, and promise many cheerful things if young people will just stay at home. Order the Interior Minister to kill the lot, and then fire him for excessive use of force.

All this proves of course, just how dismal is the sense of originality among the dictators of the Middle East. Al-Baghdadi's list just goes on and on, and gets funnier and funnier: organise demonstrations in favour of your own regime. "Agree to be interviewed by a well-known journalist; Christiane Amanpour will be fine. Forbid protesters' funerals. If Westerners criticise you, denounce their interference, adding that they don't understand the culture of your country. Warn about the economy – young people are destroying their nation – but whatever you do, don't mention the economic state of the nation before the revolution began." And, just in case, reserve a hotel suite for yourself in Saudi Arabia.

Another list of advice for autocrats, sometimes painfully identical, comes, quite by chance, from the pen of Lebanese writer Melhem Chaoul. A dictator's power is personal and absolute, he says. Laws exist only to protect the system of domination. Whoever is in power must be surrounded by a loyal family circle. Terror, corruption and propaganda are the triple pillars of this power. Citizens who object become "rats" (Gaddafi), "monstrous criminals" (Assad), "earthworms" according to Saddam. Everyone is invited to participate in the "comic opera" of corruption, from the small customs officers to the great merchants of Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Sanaa and Tripoli. "If there is one right under an Arab dictatorship," Chaoul says, "it is the right to be corrupt. Everyone is implicated, everyone is an accomplice. Those who refuse to play this game are suspects and traitors ... Watch out! Honesty is suspect."

Chaoul agrees with al-Baghdadi, that "It's us or chaos!" is a common theme of dictators under pressure; stability at any price. The aim of Arab dictators is to create fear of civil war. "When these regimes pretend to struggle against 'terrorism', especially the Islamist-fundamentalist version, they are fighting against groups that they themselves have created," Chaoul says. The "ultimate rampart" of the regime are the tribes (Alawites of Syria, the tribes of Tripolitania, tribes allied to Saleh, the Sunnis of Tikrit under Saddam) who become militias, under-trained and over-armed, keeping watch over the regular army and police.

I have watched these dictators for almost 40 years and I understand their ways. They must know how to talk with crowds and walk with kings. Sadat of Egypt was never so happy, so he used to tell us, as when he holidayed in his humble Delta village, Saddam would dress in Kurdish peasant costume, Gaddafi enjoyed his wretched tent, the emerald princes of the Gulf would constantly repeat the mantra of desert purity. Yet presidents, prime ministers and secretaries of state would feel at ease in their palaces. And in one sense the masters of the West and the masters of the Desert could feel at home; they all knew, after rendition and the mutual exchange of torture techniques, that beneath the throne lay the forceps, the pliers and the electrode.

And thus a form of civil war (civil war-blood or civil war-lite) is the only way to overthrow regimes – Egypt in the second bracket, Libya and Yemen in the first – but the two lists of behavioural traits above have an unstoppable power to convince.

Oddly, no Arab appears to have traced the parallel behaviour of western leaders when their dictator-acolytes run into trouble - or added relevant advice. Perhaps I can help. Continue supporting the "moderate" dictators you pay or who abandon "terrorism' or protect their nations from "Islamist terror" (Mubarak/Ben Ali/Gaddafi) until it's too late when – in the final days, and when the people are clearly going to topple the local nabob – you call for their overthrow in the hope that the people will think you were on their side all along.

If the local Genghis Khan appears to be winning, and especially if he's got lots of oil, then you can militarily help the rebels by trying to kill your former ally. This is especially useful if you have previously slobbered all over him in your desire to steal his country's natural resources.

The Blair-Cameron Punch-and-Judy show with the author of the Green Book is a text-book example. No wonder one of Gaddafi's acolytes messaged a British go-between after the attack on Gaddafi's home in Tripoli with the simplest of questions, "What are you doing?"

There is, of course, another pre-planned path for Western leaders: rage against oil-poor dictators who kill their fellow countrymen, but call for them to "step aside" rather than "step down" (Assad) if you or your local ally (Israel) fear that their replacement might prove a lot worse. If, on the other hand, they are immensely wealthy and also strategically useful (Bahrain), you may criticise them, but under no circumstances call for their overthrow. Ditto for Saudi Arabia and all the other glittering kingdoms of the Gulf.

And advice for both Arabs and the Western leaders who rule them by proxy. Be patient. The Bahrainis rose up too soon. The Egyptians rather late. But revolutions are often followed by counter-revolutions (Field-Marshal Tantawi and the Muslim Brotherhood versus the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square, for example, soon to be followed by Tantawi versus the Brotherhood) and they go on for a long, long time. We journalists like to have neat, date-packaged stories, to wrap up revolutions by edition times when in fact – oh, woe betide all editors – the Arab Awakening will continue long after we have died of old age.

So this is a column to cut out and keep over the next year. Read, learn and inwardly digest. And if you really can't make out right now whose side to support or desert, call for "both sides to exercise restraint" until you've made up your mind. Touche.

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