David Calling

The Fundamentals of One-Man Rule

What’s happening in Tunisia is a copybook example of the structural fault of dictatorships, namely that change is impossible without violence. Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali has ruled that country since 1987, and was set to go on ruling it indefinitely. He had of course made sure to have no successor; that is standard procedure. After all, Ben Ali came to power through just such a coup against his predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, who had declared himself President-for-Life. It is also standard procedure that Ben Ali had an aircraft standing by so he and his family could fly out — with probably as much of the treasury as could safely be loaded in the hold.

Hundreds of dissidents — some of them democrats, but others Muslim extremists — have been jailed or are in exile. The secret police and the army kept Ben Ali safe from assassination, so there was nothing for it except a popular uprising like this. We do not know the true number of those shot and killed on the streets, and probably never will. Riots and corpses are to states like these what elections are to democracy.

Someone will emerge to take power — he will declare that he expresses the will of the people, pay whatever price is necessary to obtain the loyalty of the secret police and the army, and set about eliminating opposition — and the whole nightmare cycle of dictatorship will begin once more.

In neighboring Egypt, Hosni Mubarak has been in power for over thirty years, and nobody can predict how or when he will go or who will succeed him. Once again, dissidents and Muslim extremists are in prison or in exile. Same in Libya, where Mu’ammer Gaddhafi has been in power for forty years. Same in Saudi Arabia where the king and the crown prince are both over eighty and succession is uncertain; some are predicting violence there. Same in Syria, where the elder Assad pushed his son into power. In Iraq it took a military campaign and 150,000 American soldiers to break one-man rule, but even that show of superior strength may not be enough to do the trick. The system of one-man rule has a horrible self-perpetuating vitality, and whoever can devise a peaceful way to be rid of it deserves the Nobel Prize.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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