My experience as a dictator

I was a dictator for half a day during a simulation in a Public Administration and Democracy course I took at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, where I was finishing up my MPA in 2010. I volunteered to be the General of a fictitious state, ‘Kush,’ which is landlocked between the mongrelized state of Zanj and neo-capitalist Sahel in Africa. A small country, whose chief exports were Peanuts and a fledgling Airlines to support it, I was to be the General who had overthrown the King and the one who was tasked with restoring ‘democracy’. Sounds familiar? Based on my experiences being a ‘dictator,’ and living the life of one, albeit fictitiously, I learned during this process that a ruler, once in power will try to stay there for as long as he/she can. In the absence of a strong state and constitutional mandate, most rulers tend to be Machiavellian in their approach to power. They will hold onto it at all costs, unless the incentive to give it up is higher.

source: Creative commons
source: Creative commons

During my brief rule, I had unlimited power and equally big challenges: An Army at my command and the entire country with millions of starving people to feed. I jailed all possible opponents, executed a few, appointed new judges to the Supreme Court and modified the constitution. I also sold the mining rights for our Bauxite and Manganese ore that could bring in a few million dollars in the next five years. I tried to do ‘good,’ even if it meant hurting a few people and destroying the careers (not to mention lives)of a few others. The one tactical move I made during this process, is this: If I had to retain power, I had to keep the laws that kept the status quo, in place. This meant more ‘emergency laws,’ more ‘control’ mechanisms, that enriched my power, as a ruler. In my attempts to remain in power for as long as it took to restore ‘order’ and ‘normalcy,’ I manipulated laws and people to my liking and allied with those who agreed with me and distanced those who did disagreed – this was a battle for survival, my own as well as that of my beloved country, Kush. There was no room for dithering.

 

Egypt as Kush?

I would argue that there are striking parallels between our fictitious Kush and current day Egypt. In this blog post, I will examine the ongoing situation in Egypt, with the military in power under General Sisi and argue that the ‘democracy’ he restored is nothing but a sham and the U.S. needs to leverage its foreign aid, work with the European Union (E.U) and Gulf Arab states to push Egypt towards actual democratization. General Sisi, who is the Commander in Chief of the Egyptian Armed forces since 12 August 2012 and the current Deputy Prime Minister of Egypt, played a key role in the ouster of Mr. Mohammed Morsi, the former President of Egypt in the 30 June ‘revolution.’ His rule is increasingly being seen as autocratic, if the recent extension of the Emergency laws, massive crackdown on Muslim Brotherhood members is an indication. Egypt may not be as landlocked as Kush nor as desperately poor, but it is getting there. With a drop in tourism, increased unemployment and dip in Gross Domestic Product, the country is struggling to provide employment for its millions of youth. The country is in a crisis situation, according to International Crisis Group (ICG), in a recent report.

 

This ‘democratic revolution,’ as we are seeing is turning out to be nothing but another Hosni Mubarak style rule by the Army. As a recent New York Times Op-Ed pointed out, : “There seems to be no end to the draconian controls as the military seeks to restrain the news media, manipulate the courts, misuse security services and restrict civil society groups. If it prevents the Muslim Brotherhood from operating at all, as many expect, it will go even farther than Mr. Mubarak. The process of revising the Constitution that was put in place by the government seems as flawed as the one implemented by Mr. Morsi. The results are almost certain to be regarded by many Egyptians as illegitimate.”

 

Emergency Laws in Egypt

The Emergency Laws of 1958 that were put in place as Law No. 162 of 1958 put severe restrictions on media, suspension of constitutional rights and extended Police powers, another indicator of the autocratic behavior of its current leader. A recent Al Jazeera English report points out that the Emergency laws existed for the 30 year rule under Mr. Hosni Mubarak, and they were withdrawn for a brief period of time after his ouster. General Sisi’s administration has brought it back into play, citing increased disturbances from the Muslim Brotherhood activists and other ‘terrorists,’ who are planning attacks against the government.  The article further points out that the ongoing crackdown against the MB is the reason that the Emergency Law is in place: “Authorities have been cracking down on Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists since his ouster, arresting at least 2,000 the past month. Senior leaders of the Brotherhood, a powerful organization in Egypt, have been charged or are under investigation on series of allegations, particularly incitement to violence. At the same time, extremists’ attacks on police stations, government offices and churches have grown more brazen in southern Egypt.”

I would argue that these laws are the stick that the current interim government is using to beat the opposition. Even though the Emergency Laws cannot be in place for any longer without a public referendum, the current government is likely to ensure that they remain, so it gives the government unlimited power to detain, deal with the opposition it faces.

 

Does the U.S., E.U. have a role to play?

It is always good to ask who gains and who loses, when analyzing political transitions. The same may be true in case of Egypt today. With the old order under Hosni Mubarak, the Army, ruling elite and certain businesses thrived. And given the strategic geopolitical location, much of the Arab world and its rulers also thrived with the arrangement, as it stood. Business was as usual. With the current influx of money from Gulf States and the importance that they are giving to keeping the MB out of power, there are clearly divisions within the ruling elite that need to be factored in our analysis.

This quote from the NY Times Op-Ed is instructive: “All this comes on top of a crackdown on peaceful demonstrators after the coup that killed more than 1,000 people. The Obama administration has quietly suspended assistance to the Egyptian government and called off military exercises, but it will soon have to decide whether to allow the transfer of other aid to the military. Given the government’s insistence on repressing its people and pursuing a self-destructive course, that money should be withheld.”

As the same  NY Times Op-ed further points out, using America’s strategic leverage in forcing Egypt to adhere to international norms (lifting the Emergency Laws, providing due process to Mr. Morsi ) may be the only way out of the current quagmire. This, coupled with European Union’s mediation may solve the current crisis, as the ICG points out: “The European Union (EU) has emerged as an important potential mediator, a fact that reflects the intense anti-Americanism that has enveloped both sides of the Egyptian divide. Others (including, behind the scenes, Washington) should work in unison. The goal, easier said than done, must be to propose a middle ground between the Islamists’ insistence that Morsi be reinstated and the constitution restored, and the resolve of the military and its allies that there

will be no turning back.” This is becoming increasingly hard as the MB’s position has not softened, nor are General Sisi and others in the interim government willing to negotiate with them. Islamist TV channels have been shut down, hundreds of MB activists’ arrested, and bloody crackdowns against them continue.

The M.B. feels increasingly that it has not received a fair deal. As the ICG report cited earlier points out: “They blame a military intent on restoring the old order, and an elite dismissive of their right to participate in politics. Hence their relatively uncompromising position on issues such as Morsi’s reinstatement (though they apparently might contemplate a possible resignation as part of an overall package) and the validity of the 2012 constitution they consider their crowning achievement and basic guarantor of their political freedoms.” This seems eerily similar to my experience, leading Kush. Faced with opposition from other ‘old-order’ loyalists, I refused to negotiate, jailing a few and remaining stubborn in my belief that the country did not have to go back on that path, again.

 

As Simon Blacke points out in his perceptive article here: “Egypt underscores an important lesson from history: with rare exception, even when you topple the ruling elite, someone else will simply step up to fill the void… just as the French traded Louis XVI for Maximilien Robespierre’s Reign of Terror in the 1790s. This is why advocating for political change, while virtuous and noble in deed, is ultimately a wasted effort. Power-hungry megalomaniacs and their sycophantic yes-men will always rise to the top, conning the masses along the way that ‘change is coming’. It’s all a big snow job.” Also, sadly, my behavior as the de-factor ruler of Kush during the simulation exercise in class was not too far off from that of General Sisi and his cohort. A man’s dark, ugly side emerges when he is given unlimited power. This ‘democratic revolution,’ facilitated by General Sisi is an unfortunate example of that.

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