Global Eye

When a dictator falls

They came. They saw. They ruled. They were ousted. They became the proverbial general in his labyrinth, the fallen dragon breathing less fire than smoke. Dictators across the world have caused havocs not only in their own countries but also have created a lasting fear of losing democracy, the only measure of freedom in the liberal world. Deposed dictators, there have been many, have seen their reign-time legacy shredded to bits, only to be reinvented in popular imagination as an ogre, a funny villain, a disgraced caricature of their former selves.

So when Hosni Mubarak, the man who ruled Egypt for almost three decades until he was swept from power in a surging tide of mass protests in February 2011, his fall was sudden and steep. Mubarak had surpassed expectations in his rise and he surprised everyone in his unexpected downward spiral, brought about by unprecedented mass dissent. The little-known vice-president who was elevated to the presidency in the wake of Anwar Sadat’s 1981 assassination had managed to hold on to his seat of power for 30 years, surviving six murder attempts in the course of his rule, including one when his limousine was attached in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, during an African summit in 1995.    

But Mubarak, despite dodging bullets and escaping unhurt from murder traps, could not withstand the storm that was raised when Egypt came onto the streets to demonstrate against his dictatorship. Although he had positioned himself as a trusted Western ally, his regional clout had been waning and when fused with the rising domestic unrest, Mubarak was compelled to announce that he wouldn’t fight the next re-elections on 1 February 2011. But that didn’t suffice for the democracy-hungry Egypt and on 11 February, vice-president Omar Suleiman made the laconic bureaucratic declaration that Mubarak was indeed stepping down. To quote TS Eliot, ‘That is the way the world ends, not in a bang but in a whimper.’

Since his fall from grace, Mubarak had to stand trial over the deaths of the 2011 anti-government protesters, on whom the Mubarak army had launched a lethal crackdown that had resulted in innumerable deaths. To complete the cycle of disgrace, on 2 June 2012, he was found guilty of complicity in the murder of some of the demonstrators, and along with his interior minister Habib Al-Adly, Mubarak was sentenced to life imprisonment for his crimes against humanity. However, even as an Egypt supreme court has recently ordered Mubarak’s release from jail, in the wake of the second wave of protest and the resulting military coup that ousted Mohamed Morsi, the former dictator is, nevertheless, trapped in his own labyrinth, as he spends his days in house arrest, stripped of former glory and power.

Closer home, we have Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf, the former army chief and president of the country, who ruled for eight years and changed the course of our riot-ridden, terrorism-infested western neighbour. A 1999 coup against the Nawaz Sharif government brought the four-star general to power in Pakistan. A US ally, he ruled from 2001 to 2008, but had to step down in August 2008 as demand for his impeachment surged high and the suspicion that he had a hidden hand in the assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto on 27 December 2007 took a hold on Pakistan’s collective psyche. Since then, Musharraf lived in a self-imposed exile in London for four years, until March 2013, when he decided to return to his home turf and field himself as an election candidate, only to have his filed candidature disqualified, formally chargesheeted, arrested and subject to trial in several cases, including Bhutto’s murder.   

Musharraf, whose relationship with India has been topsy-turvy, particularly because of his role in the 1999 Kargil War, therefore, had an equally dramatic rise and fall, spanning a presidential career of less than a decade. At present, Musharraf’s life is a political spectacle as the theatre of his trial unfolds on the splintered stage of Pakistani politics, which is undergoing tectonic shifts, grappling with ISI-driven militancy on one hand and trying to keep on track the train of democracy. Moreover, it’s only ironical that Musharraf had to face the ignominy of not only being allowed not to contest the 11 May elections, but also to witness the landslide victory of his archrival Nawaz Sharif, against whom the dictator had brought in a coup and deposed the serving prime minister. For all practical purposes, Musharraf is a laughing stock and the generalissimo appears to still inhabit the self-created bubble when power was in his hands and he called the shots in Pakistani geopolitics.

Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the president of Tunisia from November 1987 to January 2011, is another classic example of the fallen tyrant. He too was felled in the first quakes of the Arab Spring, was the first to be deposed in the series of dethronements that happened in the first half of 2011. The mass protests in Tunisia forced Ben Ali to flee to Saudi Arabia, where he still is, as a political refugee. He has been sentenced to two life terms for his criminal transgressions, which include incitement to violence and murder and brutal crackdown of popular protests.


However, no account of fallen dictators would be complete without the harrowing tale of the life and death of Muammar Muhammad Abu Minyar al-Gaddafi, who de facto ruled Libya for 42 years, and was known as the Revolutionary Chairman of the Libyan Arab Republic (1969 – 77), Brother Leader of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiya (1977-2011), until the Libyan civil war threw him out, giving one of the most violent deaths ever conjured in the annals of history. Colonel Gaddafi died on 20 October 2011 in what came to be known as the Battle of Sirte, in a most inglorious manner, when he was discovered hiding in a culvert west of Sirte. He was killed by the rebels, known as the National Transitional Council forces, who shot him after beating him up mercilessly, the videos and images of which have done the rounds on internet, shocking everyone beyond belief.

Colonel Gaddafi’s fall from grace, therefore, was the steepest and lowest, and in his death, he was met with such degradation that he hadn’t imagined dishing out even to his mortal enemies. But in the end, Gaddafi died the worst and most violent of deaths in his own loyal bastion, Sirte, which fell into rebel hands after a protracted and bloody battle with the Colonel’s men. The boss of Tripoli, the darling of Western governments, the demon leader of Middle Eastern politics, who sealed deals with London, Washington and Tel Aviv with regularity, was duly abandoned by the West when the needle of destiny pointed against him.  


However not all dictators met disgraceful ends. Many ruled for long and stepped down after age became a hindrance. Augusto Pinochet, the notorious dictator and 30th president of Chile was one such lucky person. He ruled from 1973, after a military coup against president Salvador Allende overthrowing the latter, till 1990, when he transferred power to a democratically elected president, Patricio Aylwin. But Pinochet’s rule was marked by a reign of terror, with thousands killed and over 30,000 tortured by the state. Pinochet died in December 2006, and since then, details have emerged of his alleged misdeeds, including the charge that he had the famous poet Pablo Neruda poisoned!
These Tamburlaines of modern world live fast and furious, and they die either old and decrepit, or hounded off like a mad dog. They remain in popular culture as puzzles of history and cults of
intriguing personality.
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