[Sampler issue] ‘The last moments before the downfall of any dictator are all surprisingly similar’—Read an excerpt from The Dictatorship Syndrome by Alaa Al Aswany

The JRB presents an excerpt from The Dictatorship Syndrome by noted author Alaa Al Aswany.

Alaa Aswany first and foremost reminds the storytellers of the world that at this point in time they all have a moral responsibility to look the reality in the eye and tell the story of the truth. The great story teller cures the current perils of humanity with his words.
—Ece Temelkuran, author of How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship

The Dictatorship Syndrome
Alaa Al Aswany
(Translated from the Arabic by Russell Harris)
Haus, 2019
Copyright © Alaa Al Aswany

Read the excerpt, from Chapter Four, ‘The Conspiracy Theory’:


The wide dissemination of such a shabby forgery [the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion] shows how easy it is for a conspiracy theory to go viral. Without exception, every dictator who has seized power in the modern era has ridden the crest of a conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory asserts that the events we experience do not happen spontaneously or naturally but are the results of a plot hatched in secret. This way of thinking is perfectly apt for a dictator, as he does not view himself as simply a president or prime minister but as a great leader who embodies his nation and turns the hopes and dreams of his people into reality. He presents himself as a strongman blessed by fate and uniquely capable of saving his nation from perdition and bringing about its rebirth and victory. A dictator, afflicted by megalomania, is incapable of imagining that he can do anything wrong. He is incapable of accepting any criticism and does not depend upon, despite enjoying, approval from other people. Nor can he admit that his opponents act according to any form of logic or sense of resolve; to his mind, opposition is irrational. Consequently, in his opinion, any opponents are no more than a group of traitors or agents funded by hostile intelligence bodies with the aim of sabotaging or bringing down the state.

The last moments before the downfall of any dictator are all surprisingly similar, confirming to us that all tyrants think in this way, no matter the country or culture they belong to. In the last press conference held by Hosni Mubarak before the revolution forced him from power, he insisted that the Kefaya movement (founded in 2004 and also known as the Egyptian Movement for Change) that instigated the protests against him was simply an organisation funded from abroad with the aim of holding Egypt down. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (1918–1989), who accused the revolutionaries who had forced him from office of being Soviet and American agents at one and the same time! In the case of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan dictator, he appeared on television in his last days in power and hurled invective at the revolutionaries, saying, ‘I am the person who has made Libya what it is today. Who are you? You are traitors and agents of America and Israel.’

A conspiracy theory, so well-suited to the psychological makeup of a dictator, has always been an essential tool in any system of absolute rule. A dictator’s pursuit of total control of the media reflects his deep disdain for his people and his belief that the people lack the ability to think for themselves. He believes that they need someone to help them think correctly, and this naturally increases the leader’s own credibility. Moreover, a dictator’s media machinery works tirelessly at cementing the notion of conspiracy in the minds of the masses.

A conspiracy theory shores up a dictator in a number of ways. First, a conspiracy theory ruins the image of the opposition and brings about its figurative assassination once and for all. The masses – bewitched by their leader’s charisma and believing in the conspiracy theory – will resent, despise or even kill members of the opposition if they can, since in their eyes the opposition is made up of traitors and operatives carrying out a conspiracy against the nation. Indeed on the street, supporters of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi (b. 1954), the present Egyptian dictator, find themselves compelled to beat up any of el-Sisi’s adversaries – many of whom are simply good young people and brave revolutionaries who have paid a crushing price to bring about democratic change. However, in the eyes of the dictator’s followers, these people are traitors who ought to be ‘finished off’. The same logic has been adopted by the supporters of the new ‘tsar’ of Russia, Vladimir Putin (b. 1952). His supporters organise well-attended demonstrations where they hold up photographs of members of the opposition, upon which the word ‘traitor’ is written in capital letters.

Second, a conspiracy theory spreads a climate of fear among the people as they really are afraid that the great conspiracy might succeed and that their country will descend into chaos and civil war. Consequently, they cling ever more tightly to their leader as their protector. Notwithstanding his shortcomings, he remains the only person capable of foiling the conspiracy and holding the country and state together. He is their paternalistic shepherd and they are his flock of children. He knows, better than anyone else, what is in their interest. He protects them; he alone can grasp the deep and precise meaning of events and he makes the right decisions on their behalf. The more the notion of a conspiracy spreads, the more people unthinkingly follow the leader in their belief that he is the only one capable of protecting them from evil.

Third, a conspiracy theory prevents a dictator being held accountable for his mistakes or even his crimes. He can always ascribe any failure to the great conspiracy and the masses will cling to him even more, as he is the only one capable of challenging the conspirators. In 1967, as we have seen, Gamal Abdel Nasser drove Egypt into a war against Israel that led to the worst defeat in Egyptian history. Within a few days, Israel managed to crush the Egyptian army and to seize East Jerusalem, Sinai, Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. But when Nasser announced that he was stepping down, millions of Egyptians went out onto the street to declare their attachment to the leader, based on the logic that the defeat had been brought about by a great American conspiracy. Nasser reassumed power in order to rebuild the army, and the media trumpeted the new Nasserite slogan, ‘No Voice Louder than the Sound of Battle’, meaning that any talk of democratic reform had to be postponed until the battle was won.

Fourth, a conspiracy theory enables the postponement of democracy. Dictators rarely say that they prefer autocratic rule over democracy. A strongman generally speaks in great detail about the circumstances his country is passing through as if it is the circumstances that prevent the present application of democracy. He then emphasises that as soon as he succeeds in foiling the conspiracy and putting an end to the conspirators, he will step down and open the arena for real democratic competition. However, he says, his duty as a leader does not allow him to do this while conspirators are still lying in wait to act against the homeland. A conspiracy theory is usually used successfully as an argument to delay the institution of any democratic reforms.

Fifth, a conspiracy theory provides justification for repression. As the nation is exposed to a great conspiracy, the strongman finds himself obliged to take extraordinary measures to protect the nation and its citizens. These extraordinary measures, which a dictator generally refers to in his speeches in a fleeting and arcane way, generally mean not only the arrest and torture of thousands of people in order to extract confessions from them, but also ‘disappearances’ and extrajudicial killings. A broad section of the general public will completely overlook these crimes or perhaps justify them out of fear of the great conspiracy being waged against their homeland.

Sixth, a conspiracy theory facilitates dehumanisation. In 1920, Hitler gave another impassioned speech in which he spoke about an unnamed group of people who he claimed were destroying Germany for their own interests. At that moment, a man in the audience stood up and started shouting with great emotion, ‘He means the Jews! The Jews!’ That man, like thousands of Nazis, jumped to his feet to blame the Jews without thinking for a moment that a Jew could be a person like him, with a spouse and children. He simply considered a Jew to be just one individual within the whole group of enemy conspirators. Those who participated actively in the persecution that led to the Holocaust, as well as those who did so passively, did not think of Jews as people like themselves but as a group of hostile evildoers who needed to be exterminated.

While I was writing my novel Chicago, I was reading about the Vietnam War and I remember coming across an instruction for soldiers from the US army top brass. It read along the lines of, ‘When shooting an adversary, do not look into his eyes.’ There is no clearer example of dehumanisation. If you think that the people you are killing are your enemies, it is much easier to shoot them dead. But if you looked into their eyes, you would see not an enemy but a human. You may see a young man, an ordinary person like yourself, and perhaps then you might imagine his mother’s grief if you killed him, or imagine him cuddling his children if he returned home. You would not then be able to open fire on him, because you would realise the enormity of the crime you would be committing. To dehumanise the enemy is the first step in any act of killing or terrorist atrocity.


About the book

The study of dictatorship in the West has acquired an almost exotic dimension. But authoritarian regimes remain a painful reality for billions of people worldwide. Those who live under them have their freedoms violated and their rights abused. They are subject to arbitrary arrest, torture, corruption, ignorance, and injustice. But what is the nature of dictatorship? How does it take hold? In what conditions and circumstances is it permitted to thrive? And how do dictators retain power, even when reviled and ridiculed by those they govern?

In this considered and at times provocative short book, Alaa Al Aswany tells us that—as with any disease—to understand the syndrome of dictatorship we must first consider the circumstances of its emergence, along with the symptoms and complications it causes in both the people and the dictator.

About the author

Alaa Al Aswany was born in 1957. A dentist by profession, he is the author of the bestselling novels The Yacoubian Building, Chicago, The Automobile Club of Egypt, the novella and short story collection Friendly Fire and the 2011 non-fiction work On the State of Egypt. His work has been translated into thirty-seven languages and published in over one hundred countries. Al Aswany was named by The Times as one of the best fifty authors to have been translated into English in the last fifty years.

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