No, I am not an authoritarian-sympathizer; I supported the drive to dump him as much as anyone. But the comparison of the Mubarak’s response to Arab Spring and Gadhafi’s is worth pondering. When push came to shove, Mubarak choose a vastly more civilized exit than most of his dictatorial ilk, and while he was clearly a nasty autocrat, he falls on the ‘gentle’ end of that spectrum. For a good article on how Mubarak ‘failed’ to learn the real Machiavellian prowess of staying in power from genuine sociopaths like Robert Mugabe, try here. For a list of the worst of the worst, against whom Mubarak scarcely compares, try here.
Consider the following points for why – within the awful world of dictators and psychotics ruling today – Mubarak was comparatively benign:
1. He didn’t shoot his own people. This strikes me as the most important distinction between the bad, and the truly worst. It is not clear yet if Mubarak did not order the Egyptian military to shoot the demonstrators, or if the army was so ordered, but didn’t do it. We will learn later. But even if he did, he clearly didn’t have his heart in it. The Egyptian military was on the streets for awhile, but didn’t do much. Regime thugs were also out there for a few days, but killed ‘only’ a few people by Gadhafi standards. The comparison with the many other dictators willing to butcher their own people en masse is striking. Consider China’s response to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, Gadhafi’s recent brutality, Syria’s 1982 Hama massacre, Zimbabwe’s Matabeleland repression in the early 1980s, Burma’s 1988 opposition massacre, North Korea’s disdain for the the 1990s famines that killed a million people, Iran’s 2008 repression, Saddam Hussein’s 1990s repression of the Kurds and Shiites, etc. Without excusing Mubarak’s police state, it appears that butchering huge numbers of his own people was a redline he would not cross. The strikes me as a fundamental moral distinction we should ‘credit’ him for.
2. He didn’t start a civil war. Again Mubarak had the sense, perhaps even ‘morality,’ to avoid plunging his country into a devastatingly destructive civil conflict. Gadhafi is the obvious comparison, but Idi Amin and Hussein went this route too, and Ceausescu and the Soviet 1991 coup plotters risked the same. Today Yemen and Bahrain seem to be sliding in this direction. By contrast, Mubarak did his national duty and resigned. For all his nastiness, he doesn’t seem like a total megalomaniac who believed the state exists solely to serve him. By contrast look at the ‘sun-king’ egomania of Gadhafi, Kim Jong Il, or J-B Bokassa, with their ridiculous titles and cults of personality. Mubarak at least knew that Egypt was larger than him and left; does anyone expect that from Bashar al-Assad? It could have been so much worse…
3. He didn’t trash the economy for (too much) personal enrichment and to keep power. Zakaria makes the point that Egypt has actually been growing for awhile. This too is opposite the usual line of the worst of the worst, like Mugabe, Mobutu, or Kim Jong Il. The genuinely extreme leaders with world historic pretentions of their own role – think Amin, Chavez, or Bokassa – almost always ended looting their own economies for extreme personal gain to justify their claims to be emperors, sun-kings, etc. Yes, Mubarak and his cronies lived it up; these guys usually do. But one need only look at North Korea or Burma to see how much worse it could have been. And in tolerating this growth, Mubarak also put into the Egyptian opposition’s hands the resources the fueled this year’s revolts. Credit him at least for not impoverishing the whole country simply as a strategy to retain power. Would you rather live in Zimbabwe or Egypt?
4. He didn’t eject the foreign media. Was anyone else struck by how western media figures like Anderson Cooper suddenly recast themselves as Danton or Robespierre after a few days in Egypt? I can’t say that Cooper ever expressed much interest in or knowledge about Egypt before, but a punch in the face by Mubarak thugs turned him into Lenin or the Tank-Man. Well none of that would have been possible without Mubarak’s tolerance for foreign media in country. He could have pulled a Latin American dictator trick and simply shot them. Or Mubarak might have tried to seal off the media permanently like NK. But again, this seems to have been a redline he would not cross, and it badly weakened his hand, especially overseas. The whole world could watch as Muburak’s writ crumbled; by contrast, CNN reporters in Libya are far fewer and wearing flak jackets.
5. He left when it was clear he could not stay. In line with points made above, Mubarak gave up when the options became intolerable. Gadhafi didn’t, and his historical reputation, already tarnished enough by autocracy and the sheer lunacy of his rule, is now forever ruined by his shedding of his own citizen’s blood. Whatever reputation Gadhafi might have claimed – first as an Arab-bloc leader, then later as an African leader, and recently by the rapprochement with the West after he surrendered his nuclear program – is now gone. Gadhafi is now just one more psychopath history will forget. If this sounds surreal, consider that Stalin still enjoys a reasonable reputation in Russia, and the South Koreans will still praise Park Chung-Hee, even though both are reviled globally as nasty dictators. But now, even this option is foreclosed to Gadhafi, where Mubarak might have a Park Chung-Hee-like chance of resuscitation later in Egyptian history books. At the end of Mubarak’s tenure and within the albeit awful moral framework of governance he created, he still did the right thing within that frame. Instead of a Goetterdaemmerung, he gave up. Give him credit for that at least…