Dictator keeping power
Hosni Mubarak, Muammar Qadhafi, Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali, Saddam Hussein, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and perhaps soon Bashar Al-Assad: once the masters of all they surveyed, autocrats who ruled with an iron fist. Now, with the benefit of hindsight—and the assistance of a recent book—we can gain an insight into how they kept themselves in power and why the behaved as they did. perhaps we can even understand why they eventually fell.
The Dictator’s Handbook, by US-based political scientists Bruce Bueno De Mesquita and Alastair Smith, distills decades of scholarly research into one handy guide to what they argue are the essential lessons to which every tyrant must learn to stay in power. This research might also help their unfortunate subjects understand their predicament.
We can apply the insights of this research to the rise, rule and fall of the Middle East’s now-humbled strongmen and shine a spotlight on their remorseless cruelty towards their opponents, their indifference to the suffering of most of their people, and the stunning, systemic kleptomania of their regimes.
A Charmed Circle
The first thing De Mesquita and Smith point out is that a dictatorship, by definition, is a system in which a very small group of people—usually just one person—make the decisions. But this individual stands atop a very fragile edifice: no person, however ruthless or gifted, can rule an entire state by himself. Instead, to borrow the authors’ terms, every dictator relies upon a small coalition of “essentials,” people whose support he needs to maintain his rule. Outside this circle is a wider group of “influentials,” people who may have some say over how the state is run, or a role in carrying out policy. Everybody else, the bulk of the population, are “interchangeables,” who have no say at all.
A successful dictator, they maintain, is one who carefully maintains his grip on the loyalty of his coalition of “essentials,” and at the expense of the welfare of everybody else if need be. Without the backing of his key supporters, a dictator has few options when faced with a serious challenge to his rule: he will likely become an exile, a prisoner, or a corpse.
This stark fact explains much of the behavior we saw from Mubarak, Qadhafi, Ben Ali and their contemporaries.
The Military: A family affair
What better way to ensure the loyalty of the small, key group of supporters you need to stay in power than by filling it with members of your family? At the time of his downfall, the elderly Hosni Mubarak was widely assumed to be preparing to hand over power to his son, Gamal. Both father and son always denied this, but Gamal was a senior figure in the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) until it was dissolved in 2011. In this, Mubarak was only unusual in that his son was a banker and businessman rather than a military man. In other Arab states with less-developed state institutions, where brute force—or the threat of it—was somewhat more important, this proved to be a popular move with dictators. (Though it is worth bearing in mind that since the monarchy ended, all of Egypt’s presidents began their careers in the military, including Mubarak.)
In Libya, Qadhafi relied heavily on his children and relatives to command the security services that kept him in power. His son, Khamis, was the commander of the ‘Khamis Brigade’ (despots are famed for despotism, not imagination), a military formation with a key role in internal security; another son, Saadi, was the titular head of the Libyan military’s Special Forces units. Members of Qadhafi’s clan and tribe commanded other key units, in a bid to foster loyalty.
In Yemen, where Saleh is unusual in that he has been forced to step down more-or-less peacefully, his family is a veritable military dynasty, perhaps appropriate for a former general who seized power in a coup. His son Ahmed commands the elite Republican Guard, while nephews Yahya, Tareq and Amar head the paramilitary Central Security Force, the Presidential Guard, and the National Security Organization (the intelligence service) respectively. Saleh’s half-brother, Mohammed Saleh Al-Ahmar, is the commander of the Air Force.
A similar situation can be seen in the Assad dynasty in Syria. The original heir-apparent of Hafez Al-Assad was his oldest son, Basil, a military officer who was in charge of presidential security until his death in a car accident in 1994. Hafez’s brother, Rifaat, was in charge of a large portion of the military (he commanded the forces that crushed the uprising in Hama in 1982), until he contested his brother’s rule when Hafez fell ill in the early 1980s, leading to his exile. This role is now filled by Maher Al-Assad, son of Hafez and brother of the current president, Bashar. He commands the Syrian army’s Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division, giving him effective control of the bulk of Syria’s military forces. As added insurance, the Syrian intelligence service was headed by the president’s brother-in-law, Assef Shawqat, now the deputy minister of defense.
Saddam Hussein adopted a similar system of rule in Iraq before he was toppled. He came to power after pushing out the previous president, Ahmed Al-Bakr, who was actually his cousin. Once in power, he surrounded himself with his relatives. His half-brothers became senior members of the internal security forces, and he also gave his son, Qusay, a substantial role in the security apparatus. In addition, one of his most feared henchmen, Ali Hassen Al-Majid Al-Tikriti, or ‘Chemical Ali’, was his first cousin.
In cases where there are large ethnic or sectarian divisions, a larger constituency is also often favored, often as part of a ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy, and also because it can form a recruitment pool for the dictator’s forces and supporters. In Iraq, the ruling elite was drawn from Sunni Arabs, who formed the bulk of the officer corps of the Saddam-era military and the government, despite being a minority in the state as a whole. Within that group was a smaller coalition of supporters drawn from the same clan and tribe as Saddam Hussein. It goes without saying that Saddam was himself a Sunni.
The situation is even starker in Syria, where Syria’s Alawis, from whom the Assad family originates, form a substantial part of the armed forces, especially its leadership. Most of the professional soldiers, as opposed to conscripts, are Alawis, and core units like the 4th Armored division is virtually all Alawi, as are the key security services.
Corruption and Cronies
We can also find answers to the question of why dictators tolerate corruption (aside from simple greed) when it creates so much anger amongst their people and tarnishes their reputations abroad even further. De Mesquita and Smith argue that in order to maintain a power base amongst the “essentials,” a dictator is not related to, it is usually necessary to dole out material rewards. As well as keeping existing cronies loyal, it also means that a tyrant will always find someone new willing to do his dirty work if it becomes necessary to ‘reshuffle’ his supporters.
One of the most efficient means of distributing goodies is via official corruption. If henchmen (and the occasional henchwoman) are given a license to steal, then they can enrich themselves without a dictator having to buy their support outright. As De Mesquita and Smith point out, “Resources spent saving the lives of the people cannot be spent on cronies.” The dictator can also reward disloyalty by prosecuting his ungrateful underlings for said corruption and replacing them with someone else. It is also an excellent source of unaccountable, hard-to-trace revenue, maximizing a ruler’s freedom of action.
De Mesquita and Smith therefore argue that corruption often functions as a political survival strategy for tyrants. While the leader of a democracy must provide public goods in order to appeal to as many people as possible (or at least a few more than their opponents in the next election), a dictator can lavishly reward a few essential followers, whose own interests are tightly bound up with those of their benefactor, by allowing them to squeeze the population at no cost to himself.
This was readily apparent in many of the countries that experienced revolution in the Arab Spring, where many ordinary people were living in poverty or seeing their living standards fall, while a wealthy well-connected elite profited enormously from their proximity to power.
Tunisia was particularly unfortunate in this regard. American diplomatic cables, accessible via Wikileaks, exposed the notorious corruption of president Ben Ali’s family, particularly his wife and her relatives. American ambassador Robert Godec wrote in 2008: “Whether it’s cash, services, land, property, or yes, even your yacht, President Ben Ali’s family is rumored to covet it, and reportedly gets what it wants…Seemingly half of the Tunisian business community can claim a Ben Ali connection through marriage, and many of these relations are said to have made the most of their lineage.”
Corruption did not end there, but was reportedly pervasive at many levels of Tunisian officialdom. Mohamed Bouazizi was reportedly regularly harassed by the police and officials seeking bribes until the day he snapped and set himself alight, inadvertently sparking off the waves of revolution that rocked the Arab world in 2011.
There was also great public anger at the perceived level of official corruption in Egypt, with outrage over the violent death of Khalid Said at the hands of the police, reportedly because he possessed evidence of their involvement in trafficking narcotics. The coterie of rich businessmen around Gamal Mubarak was also a target for popular resentment in an era when unemployment was endemic and prices rising.
In Libya, living standards for the bulk of the population were declining, despite the state’s oil wealth and the recent lifting of international sanctions. Qadhafi’s family and members of the elite also acquired huge fortunes in the wake of Libya’s rehabilitation,while ordinary Libyans struggled to get by. Aside from widespread official corruption, there were complaints of disparities in government investment in the different regions of Libya, with the east allegedly disadvantaged in favor of areas populated by loyalists with closer links to Qadhafi.
In Saddam’s Iraq, crippling UN sanctions provided unparalleled opportunities for corruption, with smuggling enriching the regime and its small coterie of flunkeys while the people starved and grew sick and died without access to medicines.
In Syria, a similar picture of cronyism emerges. The cousin of President Bashar Al-Assad, Rami Makhlouf, controlled businesses with effective monopolies in a variety of industries. One example is Syriatel, Syria’s biggest mobile phone service. After he became a target of the protestors’ ire, Makhlouf announced that he was stepping down to focus on charity work in mid-2011. There is little doubt that he and his family remain fully paid-up members of the power elite.
Dictators therefore have a strong incentive to let their people go hungry while their supporters and cronies grow rich: people struggling to survive are usually too preoccupied with the hardships of their day-to-day existence to try to rise up, while their supporters will be ever-eager to assist in keeping the ordinary people down so they can claim their share of the spoils.
Nonetheless, dictators can fall. As was have seen over the past year, the rulers of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been more or less toppled, while Assad is clinging on in Syria in the midst of a bloody, life-or-death struggle.
In the case of Libya, it was only external intervention by NATO and some Arab states that allowed the rebels to win in the face of Qadhafi’s superior firepower. It was his coalition of “essentials” that was destroyed, not his control over it. In Yemen, only Saleh himself is out of office, though he remains in the country and it is unclear what has really changed, with his relatives and old supporters still holding key posts.
In Egypt and Tunisia, it seems that Ben Ali and Mubarak had not been careful enough in maintaining their ruling coalitions. In the Tunisian case, the small, highly professional military was never an indispensable part of the inner circle, and when the time came it refused to step in to save Ben Ali.
In Egypt, the military realized that it was probably in its best interests to sacrifice Mubarak, in order to maintain the status quo and retain its traditional privileges as far as possible. In other words, Mubarak was unable to keep control of the coalition that kept him in power: he became an “interchangeable” himself, as did Ben Ali.
It is unlikely that either of them appreciates the irony of the situation.