The media has again begun its celebration. Another repressive dictator has been overthrown (or is about to be). The people are massed in the streets demanding freedom. Talk turns to a successor who will restore order and create a new and better order. We hear these familiar words as the thirty-year-old Mubarak regime totters on the brink.
The hard reality is that this optimistic scenario rarely works out. A worse (or equally bad) dictator rises to the top, not a democracy or even a more benevolent dictator. Throughout history, it is the Lenins, Stalins, Ayatolla Khomeneis, Saddams, and Aristides who replace the Czars, the Shahs, the al-Bakrs, and the Papa Docs. Successful transitions from dictatorship to democracy of the Philippines and South Korea are the exception and require special circumstances.
Machiavelli advised that “a man, who wishes to profess goodness at all times, must fall to ruin among so many who are not good.” Even a well-intentioned “Prince” must learn “how not to be good.” F. A. Hayek expressed the same sentiment when he explained why “the worst will rise to the top” in a power struggle played without rules. In Russia, the “good” Kerensky fell to Lenin. In Iran, the good “Bakhtiar” could not contend against Khomenei. In Egypt a “good” El Baradei will fall to a yet unidentified leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Lenin-Stalin-Khomenei-Saddam has substantial advantages in a power struggle, and there is little the outside world can do. He is unconstrained by a moral compass; he is willing to do whatever is necessary to gain power. These advantages are multiplied when the dictator-to-be does abhorrent things in the name of a powerful ideology. Lenin and Stalin had socialism and its intellectual admirers in the West. Saddam had Arab nationalism, and Khomenei had his vision of a fundamental Islamic revival.
Dictators are loathe to designate a successor (unless it is their son or daughter, but even then they hesitate). Hence, the power struggle will take place in a vacuum without established rules. In such a free-for-all, the most brutal contender is advantaged, particularly if he has organizational skills. Nor does it particularly matter what the people want. In the absence of established democratic institutions, their voices can be scarcely heard.
Lenin’s playbook of 1917 is still the classic. His Bolshevik party was organized as a tiny party of professional revolutionaries. The Bolsheviks were part of the February-revolution coalition that dispensed with the Czar. The victors agreed to elect a constituent assembly to create a new multi-party parliament. Lenin had carefully wooed supporters within army and navy units, and he had enough of them to drive Kerensky’s timid provisional government from the Winter Palace in November 1917 without a shot.
After the Bolsheviks received only twenty percent of the popular vote for the constituent assembly, Lenin sent in armed sailors to its first meeting and bolted the doors forever. Lenin then ordered his bloody Red Terror against rival parties and independent thinkers. Notably, he suppressed those parties most brutally that were the closest to the Bolsheviks in ideology. He could not afford to have any rival in the wings. The Czar and his young son and teen age daughters were slaughtered in Siberia.
It was left to Lenin’s successor, Stalin, to move against his own party. By 1938, he had executed any and all party leaders, whom he regarded as a threat.
Lenin’s formula for power fits the Egyptian situation to a T: A popular revolution overthrows a despised dictator. There is no planned succession. Any figure associated with the old regime is tainted. There will be some popular figures among the “revolutionaries,” but they are disorganized and have no ideology to sell. The dictator-to-be’s party may be small, and it may not be particularly popular, but it is well organized and can bring force to bear when necessary. It employs its organizational superiority, brutality, and raw power to outmaneuver or liquidate rivals. Once the dictator-to-be’s party is in power, he can turn his attention within to eliminate his rivals.
The Egyptian army is the one wild card, just as the Czarist army was Lenin’s wild card. Indeed, remnants of the white army fought Trotsky’s Red Army to a standstill, until they were split apart by internal disputes. The advantage to Lenin and the next Egyptian dictator is that both armies were conscripted rather than professional. Conscripted armies are less likely to fill a power vacuum than professional armies.