|Volume 6 | Issue 05 | May 2012|
The Fall of Dictators
SYED BADRUL AHSAN traces the toppling of dictatorships around the world.
Wathiq Khuzaie /Getty
The swift fall and horrible end of Libya's Muammar Gaddafi in October last year may not have been a happy sight for those driven by deep sensitivities about the human condition. Yet Gaddafi's collapse, after more than 42 years in power, was welcome for the good reason that it put paid to an era that ought in itself to have been an opening to good governance. Gaddafi's overthrow of King Idris in 1969 was looked upon as one more naturally positive step toward an assertion of human dignity, much in the mould of the 1952 Free Officers' movement which brought about an end to the monarchy in Egypt.
Gaddafi's tragedy was, however, in the truth that while he stormed to power as an admirer of Gamal Abdel Nasser, he did not in the end measure up to the power and influence of the Egyptian leader. His eccentricities, his hideous role in the shooting down of a Pan Am aircraft over Lockerbie, his interference in Chad and his support for such elements as the murderers of Bangladesh's founding father Sheikh Mujibur Rahman took the shine out of him. What was certainly unforgivable was for Gaddafi, right at the end when Libyans rose up in revolt against him, to insult them in every possible way. He spent days and weeks describing them as rats. It remains an irony of fate that he was pulled from a sewage pipe (like a rat, said his captors) and pushed to his death.
The fall of dictators is invariably a reason for celebration. When an autocrat falls or when through some means legitimate or perhaps even foul the end of his dark regime comes to pass, we cheer the arrival of what we believe are days of hope and resurgence. Years down the road, we remember, in silence and heart-warming nostalgia, where we happened to be when news came of a dictator being toppled, of the heavy weight of oppression finally being lifted off our souls. That, you might say, is human nature. When Cassius dies, there is not much of grief over his end. When Moshtaque dies, not one among us is ready to pray for his soul.
The first dictator whose fall I recall was Iraq's Abdel Karim Kassem. It was a macabre image of him that the newspapers carried in 1963. In Pakistan's Dawn newspaper, which my father read avidly in Quetta, there was the sight of a murdered Kassem, eyes horrifically open, seeming to promise retribution on all. For weeks after seeing that picture, I did not sleep well. But, all these decades later, it is ironically Iraq which remains in focus. Not many of us were admirers of Saddam Hussein, especially after the brutal manner in which his forces occupied Kuwait in 1990. His gassing of men, women and children in Halabja did not endear him to us. His murder of his own sons-in-law drove a sense of horror in many of us.
And yet there is the tragedy of what the Americans and the British did to him through occupying his country on the basis of a lie in 2003. Saddam was still a dictator, but he certainly did not have the weapons of mass destruction the neocons in Washington, together with the likes of Tony Blair, said he had. The lie was to be exposed subsequently. But by then the damage had been done. Through American motivation (there is no way Washington can deny it), Saddam Hussein was put through a sham trial in a kangaroo court by a puppet regime and hanged on a day when his fellow Muslims around the world celebrated Eid. Yes, we do celebrate the fall of dictators. But when dictators are pushed to their end by men as bad as they (read George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld here), any urge to celebrate simply comes to a sudden end. And that is only natural.
Ah, but let us turn again to this question of when a fall cheers the soul in us. Six years after the coup that toppled Karim Kassem in 1963 came the moment when a dictator was sent packing in Pakistan. On the evening of March 25, 1969, Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan told us that he was finally calling it quits after more than a decade in power. We who were young at the time savoured that speech on the radio.
It did not matter much that another military man had replaced him. Ayub was gone. That is what mattered. And it thrilled us to no end that one of the powerful forces behind his ouster was rising Bengali nationalism in Pakistan's eastern province. Ayub had vowed to destroy Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. In the end, it was Mujib who scaled the heights and Ayub found himself out in the cold.
We were in school. On March 26, 1969 we kept our ears glued to the door of the teachers' room. All our teachers were gravely listening to General Yahya Khan deliver his first speech to the nation as chief martial law administrator. His remarks gave little hint of his innate villainy. He left us quite charmed. But then came 1971. The monster in him came alive. One of the first thoughts that came to me, moments after his army had surrendered in Dhaka on 16 December, related to the idea of what would now happen to him and his murderous junta in Rawalpindi. The answer came four days later. In shame, he handed over the presidency of a truncated Pakistan to the wily Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He and his cohorts had desperately tried clinging on to power, even after that humiliation in Bangladesh. They had been shouted down by junior army officers. Pakistanis, for one of those rare times in their history, went burning down the homes of the brave military officers who had presided over the ignominy of genocide and surrender in Dhaka.
It is strange, and in quite a beautiful way too, how certain momentous decisions can take you back to the past. The annulment of the Fifth and Seventh Amendments to the Bangladesh Constitution reminds you of the darkness that once overwhelmed us all in independent Bangladesh. It also is a joyous reminder of the times when we saw our home-grown dictators finally bite the dust. The news of General Ziaur Rahman's assassination in Chittagong came to me as I was meeting my teachers at the English department of Dhaka University. My Masters final exams had just ended. I went up to Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury to ask him if indeed Zia had been murdered. He nodded and advised me to go home. I collected my brother Sadrul, who was a couple of years junior to me in the department, got on a bus and went home to Rankin Street.
I did not feel happy about Zia's end. But I did remember all the damage he had done to politics in the five years he had ruled as dictator. We did not need any more autocrats like him. But then came Hussein Muhammad Ershad. In the endless struggle against his regime, I was a participant, in my own way. I have walked through tear gas shells lobbed by his policemen, tears streaming down my face. I have attended rallies of the fifteen-party alliance calling for his fall. On the day he succumbed to popular pressure, I wrote an editorial for the Morning Sun hailing the dawn of a new era for the country. And I remembered, as Justice Shahabuddin Ahmed took charge of the country, how my friends and I had cheered the ouster of Khondokar Moshtaque in November 1975 and his replacement by Justice ASM Sayem.
The fall of Pakistan's Ziaul Haque, literally through a plane crash in Bahawalpur in August 1988, was for me a moment of renewal, for decent men everywhere. It was in the evening of 17 August that the news came to us on Bangladesh Television. My father and I sat through it, indeed through a goodly part of the night waiting for details of the dictator's end. Less than three years earlier, I had interviewed General Zia for the New Nation. With us in that room in the Pakistan high commissioner's residence in Dhaka were Sahibzada Yaqub Khan and Siddiq Salik, men who did not appear to have discarded the old hubris which destroyed their country in 1971.
Thoughts of the gods and poetic justice came to me as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu fell in December 1989, but his murder made that fall a revolting affair. I was cheered when the British authorities placed General Augusto Pinochet Ugarte under arrest in London more than a decade ago. It was with a sense of relief that I watched images of the Shah of Iran leave his country. And then, in horror, I watched the ayatollahs put good men like Amir Abbas Hoveyda to death in Tehran in 1979.
Many moons have gone by. The monsoons have energised the planet. Famine has stalked the earth. The astral skies have caused incessant poetry to emerge from the souls of men.
And I have waited, with millions of others, for Hosni Mobarak and Muammar Gaddafi and Than Shwe, for the entrenched dynasties of the Middle East, for others like them, to go with the wind. They have all gone.
Improbably and yet remarkably, Aung San Suu Kyi is a free individual in Myanmar today, a soul whose light goes out to every dark region around the globe with its message of hope.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Executive Editor, The Daily Star.
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