Dictators and Heart Attacks: Sometimes, Reality Bites

A month or so ago, former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was questioned by the Illicit Gains Authority, Egypt’s very busy anti-graft organization, and was told that he was to be transferred from his luxury villa in the Red Sea resort of Sharm al-Sheik to join his sons and other former henchmen in Torah Prison in Cairo. There, Mubarak would be questioned further about the nature of the wealth he amassed during his thirty years in power. Mubarak promptly suffered a heart attack.

When the Illicit Gains Authority recently turned its attentions to Mubarak’s wife, Suzanne, concerning her own role in the Mubarak family enterprise, and she was told that she, too, would be moved from Sharm to a women’s prison in Cairo, she followed her husband’s example and suffered a heart attack of her own.

Many people no doubt regard these heart attacks as being awfully convenient. If Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak are too unwell to be questioned, then they will be spared the humiliation of being thrown into the very prisons in which they – not to mention Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat – for decades confined and tortured people who opposed their regime. But are they shamming? It is possible, at any rate, that they are not, and a bit of political psychology may tell us why.

A psychologist who is well-known for his character profiles of dictators such as Joseph Stalin and Saddam Hussein, Jerrold Post, suggests that there are different sorts of dictators, but that the worst of them are those whom Post characterizes as suffering from “malignant narcissism” who “share grandiose dreams of glory, little empathy for others, paranoia and the willingness to use whatever aggression is necessary to meet their goals.”

Joseph Stalin is a prototype of this sort of dictator. As the economist Paul Gregory suggested, Stalin’s malignant narcissism underlies the logic behind his regime’s repeated purges and massacres which resulted in the deaths of many millions of Russians: “Stalin killed more innocent citizens when information about true political enemies was foggy. In other words, when he knew his enemies, he took them out. When he didn’t, he cast a wider net. If your true enemies are concealing themselves, it makes sense to overkill . . . The cost of killing an innocent person is low or zero as far as the dictator is concerned.” Thus, Stalin’s deep-seated paranoia, his complete lack of empathy, and his willingness to kill as many people as was required to maintain himself in power, were classic symptoms of the malignant narcissist.

What Jerrold Post suggests concerning Mubarak, however, is that he is not a malignant narcissist in the class of Stalin, but rather an “authoritarian personality.” Mubarak and his cronies allowed widespread torture and killed hundreds of people during the revolution, but they would have had to kill half of Egypt’s population to approach Stalin’s level of paranoia and brutality. Post says that Mubarak had become old and out of touch with the people of Egypt, and that one characteristic of aged dictators is that they no longer have the ability to respond creatively to changing times – they harken back to what worked in the past to respond to the present, and when their old methods don’t work the dictator becomes confused and doesn’t know what else to do.

Certainly, Mubarak’s infamous speech to the nation on February 10th, 2011, in which, counter to expectations, he refused to leave office, told the people to go home and to stop protesting, and said that his was “A speech from a father to his sons and daughters,” would suggest a man suffering from delusions of grandeur who was almost completely cut off from reality.

As the sociologist Georgi Derlugian says, Mubarak seemed to view his own well-being and interests as being identical with the interests of the nation, itself. “Dictators that have been in power for a long time identify themselves more and more with their own country . . . Mubarak, like many dictators, likely viewed repression and torture of his people as a way to protect himself and, by extension, Egypt . . . There’s no contradiction in their mind.” Mubarak remained in power decade after decade, watching Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Bill Clinton, the other George Bush, and then Barack Obama cycle in and out of power as he remained the sole and unique source of Egypt’s “stability,” the father and protector of his vulnerable sons and daughters, and “his personal identity has completely merged with this historical role.”

And it was not only Hosni who suffered delusions of grandeur and a sense that his own interests were identical with those of the nation. One journalist reported that in the week before her husband’s fall, as the protests grew and more and more Egyptians were slaughtered to maintain the Mubarak family in power, Suzanne Mubarak told one of her confidants, “We’re gone. We’re leaving . . . We’ve done our best” – as if the nation was being impossibly ungrateful to herself and her husband.

Mubarak’s delusional association of himself with the people of “his” nation also brings with it a concomitant  inability to conceive of the nation without him as its leader. Having been removed from power against his will, Mubarak was undoubtedly profoundly disoriented and, says Derlugian, will “spend a lot of time in shock and puzzlement . . . A lot of dictators who pass from power in this way develop severe coronary or other illness . . . It’s like this shocking divorce, or the loss of a loved one.”

Thus, though Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak might well be shamming illness so as to avoid having to face time in the very prisons to which they consigned their political opponents for all these decades, it is also not impossible that their heart attacks are the result of a genuine shock to the system. The pathological fusion of their identities with that of the nation and the deep-seated delusion that the nation was – or should be — grateful to them for their wise and selfless guidance, didn’t prepare them for the spectacle of millions of people dancing in the streets when Hosni finally resigned.

And now, faced with the undeniable fact that they are widely hated by Egyptians for their decades of brutality and corruption, Hosni and Suzanne Mubarak are being treated by the Illicit Gains Authority as little more than a glorified gangster and his moll.

Sometimes, reality bites.

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