Endangered species

The DLR is back!

While sipping on our ironic piña coladas on holiday, we were able to have a wide variety of intellectual conversations on the philosophical topics du jour, such as:

  1. could sitting on a beach doing absolutely nothing be considered a form of biopolitical protest, or is it just really lazy?;
  2. Pippa or Kate?; and of course
  3. if a piña colada is drunk in the jungle and no one is there to witness it, is it still ironic or merely demonstrative of a guilty love for pineapple-based cocktails?

But one topic kept recurring, just like itself, and that was the Arab spring. Like all good holidaygoers, this obviously got us to thinking: what happens next in the Arab world? Essentially, that question boils down to a broader one: what happens when dictators fall?

Dictators are already a dying breed. Following democratisation in Latin America from the late 1970s, the end of the Cold War’s Eastern European governments and the removal of several key Asian and African dictators, often supported by the US or USSR over the past decades, there aren’t many of these rare and beautiful animals left.

So ronery: there just aren't many larger-than-life dictators left.

Now, the Arab spring is possibly putting an end to another list of dictatorships. Ben Ali: gone; Mubarak: on trial for murder; Ghaddafi: holed up as NATO bombs the jiggery out of his property portfolio (except in London, where squatters are doing a less violent job); Assad: brutally repressing a potential revolution; Saleh: bricking it as tribal fighters lay siege to Sanaa.

The problem is, there is little certainty about what comes after dictators and how the process is managed. The DLR has done a little back-of-the-envelope calculation and looked at dictators who died in office during the 20th century, from Stalin to Nasser, Franco to Samora Machel. In these cases, the outcome for the state was dependent on a variety of different factors, from the size of the country, the cause of death, the presence of succession plans, ideologies, military strength and political party influence. Hence, the death of Kim Il-sung by natural causes with a hereditary succession plan in place and a strong and supportive military there to implement it led to Kim Jong-il (the same was true in Syria after the death of Hafez al-Assad and in Taiwan after Chiang Kai-shek’s passing).

Franco had already designated Juan Carlos as the next head of state, easing Spain to a democratic transition. But the death of Samuel Doe, who was tortured before braining himself (with the torture videotaped, distributed and sold on the streets of Monrovia), in a rapidly splintering Liberia with no party or military strong enough to prevent Charles Taylor’s assumption of power, only led to more war, bloodshed and general nastiness.

A strong ruling party can often prevent chaos, even if it leads to a period of uncertainty amid political jockeying. Bizarrely, a cult of personality appears to aid most party transitions, even though it would appear that this would only weaken a succession. Hence, after Mao’s death, the Gang of Four were finally usurped by Deng Xiaoping; after Stalin’s brain haemorrhage Khrushchev eventually overcame the challenge of Beria and Malenkov; and the legendary Turkmenbashi’s death led to a military-supported transition to the awesomely named Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, after the slightly less awesomely named constitutional successor, Öwezgeldi Ataýew, was arrested.

Turkmenbashi built this golden statue of himself that rotated to face the sun. He also created a national holiday called Melon Day and renamed January after himself and April after his mother. In honour of his inspiring vision, we would like 3 o'clock to now be known as DLR Hour.

In the case of the current Arab upheaval, orderly transition plans are rare. A clear transition plan often helps prevent disorder, but this has been lacking in Tunisia, partially present in Egypt, rejected in Yemen and is totally absent in Libya and Syria. Political and/or military continuity also smoothes the path of change, although given the scale of unrest in the Arab world, party transitions aren’t as feasible in the current climate.

The form of unrest thus far in the Arab world suggests that the transition could be similar to that of Eastern Europe, where popular revolution facilitated democratisation and a turn to the Washington consensus. However, popular uprisings do not always lead to stable democracies: Indonesia is doing well after more than a decade, as are Taiwan and South Korea after two, but the Philippines regularly suffers from further popular unrest and occasional coup rumours while Thailand is beset by fractured politics. Moreover, countries such as Syria and Yemen do not have as well formed a political opposition as existed in, for instance, Poland with the formation of Solidarity in 1980.

The outcomes for the Arab states will therefore depend on the strength and support of the military for political change, external support from the EU and US and the credibility of the new government. Tunisia and Libya could follow the Eastern European model: democratisation with strong EU backing, although turbulence is likely. Egypt’s military may be loath to lose any political influence and may attempt to more closely manage any future democracy. Syria and Bahrain may undertake only superficial political reform, while Yemen could well fall apart.

If this is how it pans out, it could best be described as a fairly mixed bag of results, but it still reinforces the trend of the past few decades, namely the decline of that now most endangered of species: the colourful anti-American or US-supported dictator. As they go the way of the dodo, should even the House of Saud begin to sweat under their dishdashas?

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