VIEW: First Tunisia, now Egypt? —Dr Syed Mansoor Hussain - Monday, January 31, 2011

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Non-representative governments that deny political oppositions a chance to develop inevitably foster the rise of religious fundamentalism. The mosque becomes the centre of the only organised opposition and this stimulates growth of Islamist ideologues

Whenever I think of autocrats who style themselves as ‘presidents for life’, I am reminded of an old joke. Bad enough that half of all marriages end in divorce, but then the other half end in death! Something similar is probably true of dictators. After years of ‘mistreatment’, many are finally ‘divorced’ by their ‘subjects’ and the rest eventually die in office.

Looking at what happened in Tunisia and is now happening in Egypt, one thing stands out that Africa is home to some of the longest ruling autocrats and dictators. Ben Ali of Tunisia had been around for more than a quarter of a century and Hosni Mubarak has ruled Egypt for close to 30 years. There are of course the two that have been around almost forever, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. The latter came pretty close to being ousted after recent elections but is still clinging on to power and will probably die in office. As far as Gaddafi is concerned, Allah knows best.

It would seem to me that like medicines, leaders and dictators should also come with an expiry date and instructions saying ‘do not use after’ such and such time. Both Ben Ali of Tunisia and Mubarak of Egypt played an important role early on as rulers of their respective countries but eventually outlived their usefulness. In time all such autocrats develop a notion that only they can save their country from chaos and ruination. Sycophants that surround them and family members and supporters that feed at the trough of public largesse in their name encourage this exalted sense of self-importance.

If allowed to wield unlimited power, even the most devoted public ‘servant’ is eventually corrupted. Lord Acton’s famous observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes into play in almost all cases. More importantly, aging autocrats start depending upon political repression and development of a personality cult to perpetuate their rule and in doing so create a web of nepotism and corruption that makes them increasingly unpopular among ordinary citizens. Most of them also aggressively suppress all political opposition.

Continued repression of political opposition creates a political vacuum that is eventually filled after the ouster of the ruling autocrat by any relatively organised group that can swing things its way. In Pakistan the agitation against Ayub Khan in 1968 led to another martial law and the eventual dismemberment of the country. The agitation against Bhutto a decade later did not bring his political opponents to power but gave us the horrible years of Ziaul Haq. In Iran the revolution against the Shah was eventually hijacked by the mullahs.

In the age of the internet, opposition to dictators is now often generated through social networking sites populated by relatively anonymous citizens of the World Wide Web rather than by organised political parties. This creates a conundrum. At least when it is political parties, however weak and disorganised, that initiate opposition to an autocratic rule, the people have some idea of what to expect after the leader is finally ousted. But as the lessons of the past suggest, most spontaneous ‘revolutions’ starting with the French revolution onwards arguably end in something worse rather than something better.

Democracy, however much reviled in many developing countries, especially in the dictatorship-prone Muslim world, is the ultimate antidote to autocracy as well as chaos that results after the ouster of an autocrat who has been around too long. The internet has brought democracy to a new level. As long as a country and its citizens have access to the internet, autocrats are no longer able to manipulate public opinion as they could in the past. International electronic media also is now impossible to suppress. The role of TV, especially of a network like Al Jazeera, has proved particularly important in informing the Egyptian people about the progress of the popular movement against Mubarak.

Autocracies and personal dictatorship all over the world are now being shaken and sometimes toppled by restive populations that have access to the internet and the electronic media. In this there is an object lesson for the inherited monarchies as well as the last remaining dictatorships of the Middle East. As the people in these countries get educated and have greater access to modern communications and electronic media, the autocratic systems of government will be at increased risk. Benevolent dictatorships as well as benevolent monarchies are anachronisms and are unlikely to last for much longer.

One of the bugaboos always trotted out by Muslim autocrats and hereditary monarchs to defend their rule is that only they can hold ‘Islamism’ at bay and once they go the ‘extremists’ will take over. The truth is exactly the opposite. Non-representative governments that deny political oppositions a chance to develop inevitably foster the rise of religious fundamentalism. The mosque becomes the centre of the only organised opposition and this stimulates growth of Islamist ideologues. Moreover, the cynical support offered by many Muslim autocrats to Islamist parties at the expense of relatively secular opposition inevitably sets the stage for a theocratic resurgence.

As I watch what is happening in Egypt, I am once again convinced that indeed the ‘worst democracy is better than the best dictatorship’. Those of us in Pakistan who continuously moan and groan about our present democratic set-up are well advised to remember that we at least have the choice to ‘throw the bums out’ in a couple of years. And that also without having to come out into the streets and being forced to consume teargas and face baton charges, rubber bullets or water cannons.

I will take a constitutionally elected Zardari, warts and all, any time over the likes of Hosni Mubarak or Muammar Gaddafi. I know that Zardari must be re-elected in a couple of years or else he will be history and that sounds quite reassuring.

The writer has practised and taught medicine in the US. He can be reached at

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