Regime Changes

Dictatorships rarely end happily—for rulers or their people

Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and not all figure it out. It's a problem for everybody else when they leave.

What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia last week sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations—at least through Arab democratic populations.

Except for the exceptional and complex case of Lebanon, since the demise of the Ottoman Empire and its successors and dependents (in Tunisia’s case, the Beys of Tunis, from the end of the seventeenth century until Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1883), Arabs have mostly known European empire, exploitative military, political, and recently hereditary family dictatorships—a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. Secular absolutism lacks the rationale, as well as the radiance, of absolute religion, as in Morocco—whose rulers claim descent from the Prophet Muhammad, a crucial recommendation.

The deposed president Ben Ali spent the first part of his career as a promising young army officer. That led him into intelligence and security, always a highway to success in the contemporary Arab world. He took courses at Saint-Cyr in France and the American Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird in Maryland. He ascended to the Tunisian presidency when President-for-life Habib Bourguiba became too enfeebled to carry on—thirty years after he founded the republic. Reportedly the succession was arranged collaboratively by Italian and Algerian intelligence. The former French colonial power and the CIA reportedly were not involved, although they took a proprietary interest in the regime that followed.

Ben Ali’s economic and educational reforms produced the best educated and most prosperous of the Maghreb states, with the result that an underemployed intellectual class and a frustrated middle class both contributed to his downfall. During Ben Ali's presidency, his wife, a nouvelle-riche ex-hairdresser, and her immediate family were generally credited with a rapacious personal enrichment that contributed massively to the ruling family’s popular repudiation. It is a familiar story, with parallels among business and banking elites of Western countries, where enrichment is also prized, but political elites and their wives are usually more discreet.

At this writing, efforts to construct a transitional Tunisian government are going badly, because the public, having—to their astonishment—ousted Ben Ali, now seems unwilling to see him replaced either by former associates or figures from an opposition that has been largely exiled.

Classically, this is where a would-be Napoleon steps in, although the army in Tunisia has fairly successfully kept its hands clean during the regime’s rise and fall. But neighboring states—Algeria, Libya, and Egypt—hardly provide models for Arab elites who want to think events in Tunisia are the dawn of a new era. The number of young men in the Maghreb states who have burned themselves to (or near) death during the past week presumably hoped that they might do for their countries what a despairing provincial fruit-vender accomplished in igniting the Tunisian uprising.

And what about Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast? As a former member of the Socialist International, helped into power by French Socialists during the Mitterrand presidency, Gbagbo contends (or at least his Evangelical Protestant wife contends) that God sent him to rule the Ivory Coast, no matter what last month's internationally supervised presidential, the United Nations, the African Union, and various foreign countries have to say about the electoral victory of his long-time rival Alassane Ouattara. His French lawyers want a recount.

He still controls the seat of government in Abidjan and his supporters roam the city. The internationally recognized president is besieged by Gbagbo’s army and volunteers in the luxury Hotel Du Golf, living on provisions helicoptered in by a UN force, which, like the African Union troops to which it is officially allied, backs off when bands of Gbagbo-supporting youths block roads and tell it to go away. One of the French journalists there, who was also in the Balkans in the 1990s, calls the UN troops “expensively useless.”

But if the UN were to go about installing leaders by force in various countries, no matter how just the cause, there would be hell to pay elsewhere, including in the United States. Haven't American conservatives been explaining for years that the UN, instigated by liberal elites and the left-wing New York Times, is waiting to send its black choppers to arrest U.S. patriots and install aliens and androids in Washington? It might be practicing in Africa.

Gbagbo has the support of a solid ethnic bloc of some 45 percent of the electorate, whereas Ouattara, a Muslim with a French wife, is supported by heterogeneous minorities and by foreigners. Gbagbo is playing the nationalist and anticolonialist cards—the president-for-life card—as the "international community," which has cut off the funds that pay his army and civil servants, are trying to starve him (and them) out.

He may find cause for reflection in news of the return to the international scene of a former president-for-life, Jean-Claude Duvalier, who has just arrived in Haiti to general astonishment, accompanied by an entourage including a young woman described as his girlfriend. According to an elderly cousin who visited him at his hotel, after twenty-four years and eleven months of absence, "he was homesick."

The cousin said that the so-called Baby Doc "is happy to be here." At noon the Haitian police called at the hotel and took away Baby Doc, clinging to the young woman's hand.

© Copyright 2011 by Tribune Media Services

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About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).