Tunisia and the myth of the ‘benevolent dictator’

The more a nation grows, the more the tyrants must pilfer from the public chest to remain dictator du jour.

Tunisia Freedom 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Tunisia Freedom 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Last year I published essays from Tunisia, Kuwait and Singapore, screaming about the human rights abuses in each, particularly their muzzling of free expression. After writing each of these commentaries, I received feedback along these lines: “Since these countries are, to varying degrees, economic success stories, does it really matter that political speech is roped off? Perhaps there is something ungovernable about these societies, and they need a ruler with a ceaseless grip.”
For years, Tunisia was perceived by many observers as a nation ruled by a truncheon, but which functioned just fine because it was somehow benevolent.
Rotting, putrid nonsense. Dictatorships are, by definition, self-serving and nonbenevolent; some dictatorships are just noisier than others. I spent 2005-2006 in Jordan – also a country that is an economic success story and deemed innocuous. Without significant natural resources, and with a massive refugee population, Jordan has nonetheless demonstrated impressive economic growth over the past 15 years, and boasts a large and growing middle class. Jordan, though, is a police state if ever there was one, and its secret security force is a dark, cold institution. There is no benevolence when the Jordanian mukhabarat whisks a political dissident away before dawn to extract information.
Anyone who argues that a would-be group of rowdy people cannot govern themselves need only look to India. It is one of the loudest, most bustling, frenetic places on the planet, and also the world’s most populous democracy. And anyone who claims Islam is incompatible with democracy should recall that India has hundreds of millions of Muslim democrats.
TUNISIA IS the most recent and vivid example of the myth of benevolent autocracy. Despotism is what’s untenable; self-governance is not. For decades, the world humored Tunisia’s overlords, and because the country is small, it’s been relatively quiet. It demonstrated impressive economic growth, and it’s a damn fine place to visit. My wife and I were in Tunisia in November for 10 days, and struggle to think of a country we find more delightful. Tunisia’s beauty took my breath away, and I grew up on the Gulf coast of Florida.
Among the millions of pictures of Tunisia’s now-hiding despot is the slogan of a government PR campaign: “Tunisia: A country that works.”
Tunisia is one of the most prosperous states among the non-oil-rich nations in North Africa and the Middle East. But even dictatorships that seem to work do not work forever. Not when a swelling middle class demands more influence over its own political future. Not in an age when webizens get a digital taste of the freedoms in countries that actually do work. As far as free speech and political rights are concerned, Tunisia has for years been one of the most rotten places on the planet.
Singapore, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and other economically functional dictatorships, be warned: You’re not benevolent and your people know it, even if the world ignores your quiet brutality.
Americans and Europeans, of all people, should recognize the canard of the benevolent dictator, as it was the debunking of this myth that formed modern democracies in the West. Britain’s King George III viewed himself as a benevolent dictator in the late 1700s. “There’s economic progress in the colonies,” George no doubt observed. “What more do these brigands want?”
The reality is that illegitimate tyrants are despised regardless of whether the economy is growing or not, because the more a nation grows, the more the tyrants must pilfer from the public chest to remain dictator du jour.
Like George, Tunisia’s fleeing hack is a creaking, unelected, unjustly enriched, out-of- touch sack of wrinkles. The world would be better off if the 74-year-old stays in Saudi Arabia and dies in obscurity. But whatever plays out, the uprising in Tunisia is helping lay bare the lie that autocrats can be cuddly.
The words “benevolent dictator” aren’t humorously oxymoronic yet occasionally true, like “honest politician” or “sober Irishman.” Benevolent dictators just don’t exist. Many words describe erstwhile Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, but “benevolent” isn’t among them.
The writer teaches journalism at The American University in Cairo, and is a columnist for Columbia Journalism Review. martin@aucegypt.edu