Exploring the Archetype of an Arab Dictator’s Mind
What is the point of conducting an election, like the one run in Tunisia today, when the results are known in advance? And why Ben Ali, like all other Arab despots, cling to their position so shamelessly and ferociously, when the world knows exactly how ruthless and rogue their regimes are? I wondered: If I put myself in an Arab dictator’s shoes for a moment (as disgusting as the exercise may sound), like say, Ben Ali’s, what would I think?
In an exclusive interview, and a rare moment of openness, President Ben Ali accepted to answer my questions, and believe it or not, the man was sincere:
Question: Mr. President, why are you so adamant to stay in office?
Zine El Abidine Ben Ali (ZABA): I’ve been running this country for some time now. I conducted a successful and peaceful coup in 1987. A coup is always dangerous you know: it could have failed and I could have been hanged. This gives you the feeling that you own the office considering the risks you’ve taken to get into it in the first place. This is a pattern you’ll encounter throughout the Middle East. I mean, if you take Morocco for example, it is true that the king doesn’t reach leadership through a coup, but by mere virtue of birth, but the whole dynasty at one moment in time, had to overthrow another one, and has since instilled the culture of ownership of land and people throughout generations: the idea that a throne grabbed violently, must at least provide to its owner the right to have the privileges of reign and governance. I put my life at risk in order to get this job. And a job you put your life at risk for, must reward you with at least a long term mandate. And while you’re in your position, you’re not only thinking of keeping the position for the sake of keeping it, you sincerely want to build something good for your country. You want to make history. So you sincerely think you need to have total control in order to fulfill the ideas you’ve been planning, and projects you’ve been secretly contemplating for so long. And then you sincerely have to muzzle opponents who don’t know a damn about how sincere you are. The problem is, ideas and projects need money, and money brings accountability, and accountability means questioning everything, including my sincere actions and legitimacy, and this I cannot take, since, as I say, staying in power is paramount for people like me. When you’re in that state of mind, notions like democracy and separation of powers become dangerous. As a matter of course, they cannot be tolerated, although it is necessary to keep a façade-opposition which would provide a showcase for the regime’s Western constituency. We have developed techniques in order to get to that result that it would take hours to explain.
Q: This is maybe the psychological aspect of the devotion you’ve developed, Mr. President, for your office, but are there any more worldly considerations?
ZABA: Power as you may know, comes with privileges. And during the 22 years I’ve been in power, I, and my collaborators, inexorably, gained profit from this position. You might accuse me of power abuse. I’d say, I’m a human being: power corrupts. I know what my regime is: a dictatorship. I know it isn’t sustainable and that sooner or later, I might have to face a challenger who might be in the same state of mind as me, when I first came to power. So a man in my position needs an insurance. What’s more, a regime like this is encircled by opponents, and the only way to preserve it, is to be surrounded by unprincipled but disciplined lieutenants. Throughout history, the only way to seal the loyalty of such praetorian guards, was by making them share the benefits and crave for getting closer to power. This, again, needs money, and the people are the ones who must pay for it. Progress (economic that is) also guaranties peace and stability, and that comes through business. You may think then that liberalizing the economy might bring wealth, that in turn would trickle down to the whole population, hence insuring the stability of the regime itself. But allowing for such a free market to prosper and spontaneously produce ultra-rich and powerful people, is in itself a threat to my position. I can’t afford to lose leadership, political, economical or intellectual… So I also must take position, a dominant one, in the market. Greed also plays a role, but as I say, loyalty is paramount for me, so when I learn that a Trabelsi [Ar], a high ranking military or security officer has embezzled to his own use, public money, or fraudulently acquired a property, I just look the other way. This is the price I know I have to pay to insure devoted and loyal associates.
Q: A final question Mr. President. Do you understand the concern of your people and their calls for democracy, and do you at least empathize with those who suffer from your regime?
ZABA: I understand that somebody in a socially subordinate position, would call for democracy, the only way for him to better his share in life. But you’ll understand that this is not an option for people like me. There is too much money, power and privileges at stake for me and my surroundings. I’ve created a regime where, keeping me in power for the longest time possible, has become a vital necessity for all those who have stolen and accumulated under my watch. To the point that if tomorrow I decided I wanted to quit power and establish genuine democracy, those same privileged might attempt to overthrow or just eliminate the threat that I would have become. Yes, it is sometimes a question of life and death. As for the people, the disenfranchised, there ain’t much ways about it: If they want power, they must get it. By all means, this won’t happen with people like me staying in power. We’re not the kind of rulers to reform or evolve. We are ourselves trapped in this hideous system we created.