27 November - 3 December 2008
Issue No. 924
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875


The curse of neo-totalitarianism
As dangerous as terrorism, the rise of autocratic dictatorship is a grave 
threat to world peace, writes Ayman El-Amir* 


The post-11 September global scene is undergoing a transformation to a new 
phase of confrontation marked by the rise of autocracy in countries that were 
believed to be on the path to democracy. The new trend appears as an innocuous 
series of constitutional amendments designed to adapt these countries to modern 
standards of political life. In effect, it is a consecration of the 20th 
century "president-for-life" syndrome, complimented by camouflaged hereditary 
succession under a pseudo-democratic republican regime. Coupled with the global 
war on terror, the trend is bound to create not only more intense domestic 
conflict but also to fuel a new and more lethal transnational brand of 

It may be a fact of life that the world is already smarting from implacable 
acts of domestic and international terrorism. However, the Bush 
administration's short-sighted strategy of separating terrorism from its root 
causes lent legitimacy to the suppression of fundamental human rights by 
indigenous dictators as much as it sanctioned Israeli murderous campaigns 
against the Palestinian resistance. Autocratic Arab regimes assumed the guise 
of fighting terror to enact or prolong draconian emergency laws that they have 
used to rule unopposed. In addition, they also contrived constitutional 
amendments that would ensure their uninterrupted hold on power. These 
amendments, proposed governments under the thumb of presidents, are usually 
rubber-stamped by an automatic parliamentary majority whose ascendancy to 
representative office is usually the result of cooked elections engineered by 
government manipulation. Constitutional legitimacy becomes the respectable 
codename for dictatorial rule that leaves no space for the rotation of power.

The practice has become rampant. Most recently the Algerian parliament voted to 
remove statutory limitations that restricted the presidency to two five-year 
terms in office. The sitting president, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who was first 
elected in 1999, was at the end of his second and final term. He is now free to 
run and be re-elected for any number of terms. 

In neighbouring Tunisia, where the former president Habib Bourguiba was 
proclaimed president-for-life in 1975, the constitution was amended in 2002 to 
lift the legal restriction, introduced by an earlier amendment in 1988, that 
limited the number of presidential terms to three five-year terms and to raise 
the cut off age for eligibility of presidential candidates from 70 to 75 years. 
The 72-year-old current President Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali came to power by 
ousting Bourguiba in a 1987 palace coup and has ruled ever since. 

In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who has shunned the designation of 
"president" for the obscure term "leader" is scheduled to celebrate the 40th 
anniversary of his ascendancy to power in September next year. Yemeni President 
Ali Abdallah Saleh has marked his 30th year in office, while constitutions and 
political practice in both Egypt and Syria prescribe no limitation for the 
number of terms a president can serve. After the death of Syrian president 
Hafez Al-Assad in 2000, his son, now President Bashar Al-Assad, only became 
eligible to be elected president by referendum when a constitutional amendment 
was passed, lowering the minimum eligibility age from 40 to 34 years. The 
precedent prompted stirrings and much speculation in both Egypt and Libya that 
hereditary succession is a real possibility.

What appears to be a drive for lifetime presidencies is not exclusively endemic 
to the Arab Middle East. The Russian parliament has recently approved an 
amendment proposed by President Dmitri Medvedev to increase the term of the 
presidency from four to six years. An additional provision that the change 
would apply only to future presidents gave credence to speculation that the 
amendment was particularly designed to return former president, now prime 
minister, Vladimir Putin to two six-year terms starting as early as next year 
and lasting until 2021. Following his two terms as president, Putin was 
constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term -- a condition 
that has now been broken by Medvedev's presidential interlude.

As the phenomenon gains momentum, with varying degrees of resistance in most 
parts of the world, countries where the transition to democracy has been 
stymied may begin to experience violent instability. Dictators who come to 
power under unusual circumstances tend to experience the delusion of being "men 
of destiny" and assume the mantra of "the father of the nation". A dictator's 
coterie, whose fortunes are linked to the ruler's continuity in power, feed him 
with the megalomaniac sense that his perpetuity in power is the salvation of 
the nation. They also fabricate a multitude of enemies that he has to ward off 
in order to protect the nation. Problems abound, fuelling the sense that a 
sitting president has to continue in power until all problems are resolved, or 
until he passes from life. 

The hidden truth could be more mundane. Behind a dictator's delusion of 
grandeur, the frenzy of self-adulation, cult of personality and exaggerated 
self- confidence lies a deep-seated fear that some day, someone will unseat him 
and open up a Pandora's box of vile crimes that should remain sealed for as 
long as he is alive. This may explain why some presidents are trying to 
engineer hereditary succession, so that the box may remain in family hands. It 
is also why that, as much and they flaunt democratic reform, dictators regard 
the introduction of true democracy as an act of suicide that they will never 

Decades of repression and human rights violations in a fast- developing and 
open world pose challenges to dictators to which their only response is more 
repression. For one thing, it is the only way they can govern; for another, it 
is because the hoax of democratic reform has been oversold. As both resistance 
and repression escalate, violence becomes the only option left for desperate 
people. Under such tense and unstable circumstances indigenous militants who 
have gone all over the world to perpetrate international acts of terrorism may 
start coming home to roost.

In 2003, special rapporteurs, representatives, experts and chairpersons of 
working groups set up by the then UN Commission on Human Rights expressed 
profound concern at the multiplication of policies, legislation and practices 
increasingly being adopted by many countries in the name of fighting terrorism. 
They expressed the view that these measures negatively affect the enjoyment of 
virtually every human right and drew attention to the dangers inherent in the 
indiscriminate use of the term "terrorism". Predictably, fears that 
governments, the police and special security courts would be able to act beyond 
the limits of accountability are now a fact of life in most countries under 
autocratic rule, Myanmar a prime example.

Repressive regimes that borrow their legitimacy from the fake sacred mission of 
improving the lot of their population, even if it comes at the temporary cost 
of suspending human rights and fundamental freedoms, are doomed. The preamble 
of the UN Charter called, 62 years ago, for "Better standards of life in larger 
freedom". If autocratic rulers believe that China provided an example of better 
standards of life under repression, they are misled. While China has its own 
unique circumstances that could not be emulated elsewhere, the fact is that 
economic liberalisation is leading the way to larger political freedom in the 
country. The Chinese "miracle" was not achieved under circumstances of 
corruption, fraudulent elections, monopoly of power, cronyism, 
misrepresentation of reality by paid government propagandists posing as free 
journalists, and plunder of the wealth of the nation by a privileged few. 

No one is predicting that the problem of terrorism will come to an end anytime 
soon. More likely, terrorism and totalitarianism will become a revolving door 
phenomenon, with each one chasing the other and blindly fuelling it. The time 
has come for the UN Security Council to declare totalitarianism as much as 
terrorism a threat to international peace and security and provide a credible 
mechanism to fighting both.

* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served 
as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York. 

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