from Pressure Points

Mugabe and Mubarak

November 18, 2017

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Robert Mugabe is finally falling from power, after 37 years of vicious dictatorship that ruined his country.

Why now? Was it the destruction of the economy? Jailing too many opponents? Too much international isolation or criticism?

No, none of those. It was instead trying to make his wife his successor, a move the army would not in the end tolerate.

This inglorious end for the old dictator put me in mind of Hosni Mubarak, who after 30 years in power was felled in no small part for a similar reason: in his case, trying to make his son his successor. Steven Kinzer explained the story back when it was happening, in 2011:

Hosni Mubarak is falling from power in Egypt partly because he refused to heed one of history’s hidden lessons: Dictators shouldn’t have sons.

Most do. That often hastens their downfall or that of their nations.

Egyptians might have been willing to accept their lot for a while longer if the ailing Mubarak had not made it clear he intended his son, Gamal, to succeed him in power. Of all his arrogant acts, none insulted his people more than his insistence that of the 80 million Egyptians, Gamal Mubarak was best qualified to lead the country. The plan was for him to rise to power not by popular vote, but only because his father wished it that way.

Zimbabwe is a similar story. Consider this paragraph from the November 15 Washington Post story on events there:

Mugabe recently purged some key officials from the ruling party, ZANU-PF, paving the way for his 52-year old spouse, Grace, to succeed him. Many see that move as a major miscalculation, alienating Mugabe from the civilians and military leaders on whom he had long depended.

In fact, the two stories are even more similar than they may appear because it was apparently Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, who constantly pushed Gamal’s candidacy forward. Mugabe’s wife is 41 years his junior; Suzanne Mubarak is only 13 years younger than her husband. But in both cases, they may have feared what would happen to them after their husbands left power or died. Grace Mugabe’s solution was to succeed her husband; Suzanne Mubarak’s was to have her son do that.

Succession in dictatorships is always a moment of danger, especially for the family the dictator will leave behind. That’s precisely why so many families try to stay in power, which may seem like a smart move when they have committed crimes and stolen money. I am reminded of the comment made to me by the Russian dissident Mikhail Khodorkovsky about Gorbachev. Do you know what Gorbachev did when he lost power? Khodorkovsky asked me. He answered his own question: Gorbachev simply went home. He was able to do that because, said Khodorkovsky, he was not a thief. That alternative was not available to the families of Mubarak or Mugabe.

Steven Kinzer’s proposal that dictators not have sons is unrealistic, as is its translation to the Zimbabwean case—not having a wife. Perhaps more practical advice is, send them off to live in London or Paris or someplace else, out of the country, out of politics, and perhaps (if you can find one) a place without an extradition treaty. But the other extreme, of lining them up to take power when you’re gone, may not only ruin them but ruin you too.

That’s what Mubarak and Mugabe learned the hard way.

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