By Nael M. Shama
First Published: August 13, 2008
During his recent visit to South Africa, President Hosni Mubarak was asked about Egypt’s stance toward the International Criminal Court’s indictment against Sudanese President Omar Al-Beshir for war crimes. Mubarak affirmed his country’s support of Sudan and solemnly added that “it is not appropriate to take a President to court.”
What can one, in the sincerest quest for fairness and objectivity, learn from the statement other than Mubarak’s belief that, unlike ordinary people, presidents are above the law, even if they are charged with atrocious war crimes?
Power corrupts souls, and minds too. To justify imperialism and enjoy complete impunity for its wrongdoings, the imperialist discourse has gone to great lengths to paint a distorted portrait of the indigenous populations of colonized lands. It alleges that the “subject races” belong to inferior species, are less sophisticated, incapable of functioning independently, and innately inimical to reason and knowledge, hence entitled to less rights and privileges.
Whether used consciously or not, many tyrants — loosely defined as unjust or oppressive rules — resort to the same justification to perpetuate their rules and abort means of accountability. To them, people are irrational, ignorant, prone to emotional fluctuations, and they beseech domination.
Mubarak’s statement, therefore, stems less out of casual sympathy for a fellow member of the “Club of Despot” than out of a powerful belief that presidents are indeed elevated in status and should remain unassailable.
The psychological impact of the practice of absolute power for a long period of time is mostly overwhelming. Noam Chomsky argues that it is easy for most people to construct patterns of justifications for almost anything they choose to do; even murderers and rapists instinctively believe that they are doing the right thing. If this is generally true, then it is surely a much easier job for leaders of undemocratic societies, who are usually surrounded with, and influenced by, scores of hypocrite and fake sycophants. As a result, most tyrants become partially enclosed in a bubble of self-delusion, where they ardently engage in a process of self-promotion and adamantly obstruct the access of unfavorable information.
The longevity of authoritarian regimes and their feverish attempts to survive often lead to their exclusion as well. The exclusive reliance on trusted individuals, the corrupt networks that grow in the regime’s secluded womb and the fortifications erected to protect the regime pave the way for a hazy sense of reality and addiction to illusions. Over time, thus, narcissistic dictators fall prey to a single-minded mode of thinking, which substantially depends on futile optimism, an exaggerated self-confidence and suicidal wishful thinking. As one scholar pointed out, the “narcissistic leader prefers the sparkle and glamour of well-orchestrated illusions to the tedium and method of real accomplishments.”
One particular symptom of that self-centered mental process is the deep-seated belief of many tyrants that they embody the state. According to this view, the discussion of the private interests of the leader is, in essence, relevant to the national interest. When, in 1944, the 24-year-old King Farouk heard the phrase “the will of the people” from the Wafdist politician Abdel-Salam Fahmy Gomaa, he retorted: “My good Pasha, the will of the people emanates from my will,” a naïve conviction he dearly paid for eight years later.
The personification of the nation endured the demise of royalty. Sadat’s delusions of grandeur were behind his repeated usage of the possessive pronoun “my” in reference to the Egyptian people, army, constitution, etc.
This personalization reveals an inner-conviction of being the king who is God’s shadow on earth, the feudalist who owns the land and people, the Pharaoh who is equated with God. The structure of Egyptian politics did not change much after Sadat; hence there is good reason to believe that Mubarak, after 27 years at the helm of the state, follows the same calculation.
A typical consequence of such a distorted mindset is the equation between personal criticism and disloyalty. The exalted self-perception leads tyrants to believe that their actions merit praise and appreciation only; critique reflects either ignorance or treachery. Saddam Hussein was notorious for liquidating aides who had criticized his policies or suggested alternative approaches; other less-paranoid leaders find imprisonment or exile a reasonable punishment.
There are certainly exceptions among tyrants, the type of exceptions however that consolidate the rule, not refute it. A quick look at the psychological profiles of Third World leaders — Egypt included — provides sufficient evidence.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo.