With Hosni Mubarak stepping down in Egypt, tyrants around the world may be anxiously wondering who will be the next to fall. Here are some gentle suggestions.
Kim Jong Il, North Korea
Sometimes called the Hermit Kingdom, North Korea has been ruled since 1994 by the ruthless and retrograde Kim Jong Il, who took over after his father’s 46 years at the helm. Kim Jong Il holds numerous titles, but rules as the chairman of the National Defense Commission, the “highest office of state,” since the presidency itself was permanently dedicated to Kim Il Sung in a 1998 constitutional revision.
The Kim family’s combined 63 years of leadership has not been kind to the people of North Korea, creating the world’s most fearsome state, where surveillance and famine are equally prevalent. To prevent its citizens from receiving news from abroad, the North Korean authorities forbid Internet use, jam foreign radio broadcasts, and monitor international calls. Meanwhile, the beleaguered population is deluged with Cold War-like propaganda through the Korean Central News Agency. A grim system of labor camps and detention facilities is used to forcefully control any dissent. Given the closed and secretive nature of the regime and the society it lords over, it is impossible to know precisely how many North Koreans are in the modern-day gulags. Some estimates suggest as many as 150,000 people are currently being held in detention.
Now ailing, Kim Jong Il is reported to have plans to install his son, Kim Jong Un, as the country’s leader, likely prolonging the misery of the long-suffering North Korean people.
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Muammar al-Qaddafi, Libya
Forty-one years ago, a young army captain named Muammar al-Qaddafi led a military coup against King Idris of Libya. Now 68 years old, Qaddafi has been in office since the first term of U.S. President Richard Nixon, who called him the “mad dog” of the Middle East. In Libya’s long history of ruthless, ossified dictators, Qaddafi is in a league of his own.
Better known abroad for his long-winded antics than his governing style, at home Qaddafi is less amusing than fearsome. Although power theoretically lies with a system of people’s committees and the indirectly elected General People’s Congress, in practice those structures are manipulated to ensure the continued dominance of Qaddafi, who holds no official title. It is illegal for any political group to oppose the principles of Qaddafi’s 1969 revolution, which are laid out in the Green Book, a multivolume treatise published by Qaddafi in the early years of his rule. (A flip through its pages will yield a bizarre mix of Arab nationalism, socialism, and Islam.)
After decades of Qaddafi’s bizarre and repressive rule, key institutions — to the extent that they operate at all — are largely incapable of meeting ordinary people’s needs. An estimated 500 people are currently being held for political crimes. Rife with corruption and without even the rudiments of a functioning modern state, Libya today is ill-equipped to succeed in the contemporary world.
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Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe
There was once a time when Robert Mugabe was the darling of the West among fellow African leaders. Having defeated the white-majority rule of Rhodesia to create his black-majority state, Mugabe looked at first like another Mandela. But even in those early days, he distinguished himself for his use of violence as a means to govern. His early targets in the 1980s were tribes that had favored other resistance leaders; his forces slaughtered as many as 30,000 members of the Ndebele minority.
In recent years, Mugabe has grown even more ruthless. His target of choice these days is the principal opposition group, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). His thugs have harassed and even attempted to assassinate high-level opposition figures, as well as regular voters (or presumed opposition voters). Others have felt his wrath too; a 2005 campaign labeled “Operation Drive Out the Trash” bulldozed the homes of 700,000 slum-dwellers. Equally devastating, Mugabe has overseen the complete destruction and impoverishment of what had been one of Africa’s economic success stories. GDP growth was negative off and on between 2001 and 2008, and by the end of that period, inflation had hit a rate of tens of thousands of percent.
The past several months have brought another uptick in political killings — perhaps because Mugabe has much to worry over: The MDC was the leading party in the most recent elections, and public discontent is growing toward Mugabe’s murderous rule. If Zimbabweans take a hint from Egypt, the Mugabe dictatorship’s days may be numbered.
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The Castros, Cuba
In 1959, the revolutionary Fidel Castro overthrew Cuba’s former strongman, Fulgencio Batista, beginning a 50-year transformation of Cuba into a dismal communist state. Although medical issues prompted Fidel to formally hand over the presidency to his brother, Raúl, in 2008, Cuba remains a one-party state in which nearly all political rights and civil liberties are severely curtailed.
Start with political organizing, which is strictly banned outside the auspices of the state’s Communist Party. Dissent can result in harassment and long prison terms. Freedom of movement, including the right to leave the island and the right to choose one’s residence, are severely restricted. The government maintains strict control over all media outlets, these days also tightly controlling Internet access and content. Academic freedom is nonexistent, and any unauthorized gathering of more than three people may result in fines or imprisonment.
Today, years of economic stagnation have weakened the state services that once provided the regime its sole legitimacy. Under Raúl Castro, very limited reforms have taken place, including modest economic openings and the release of several dozen political prisoners in 2010. Nonetheless, the future of Cuba remains in the hands of an aging set of leaders for whom a true political opening remains anathema.
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Aleksandr Lukashenko, Belarus:
Aleksandr Lukashenko has aptly been dubbed Europe’s last dictator. And indeed, his 16 years of rule have left Belarus a political and economic wasteland. At heart, Lukashenko remains a man of Russia’s Brezhnev era: His secret police even still use the acronym KGB. Lukashenko has used every trick in the authoritarian book to marginalize the opposition. His regime’s vise-like grip on broadcast media ensures that the people of Belarus see only the parallel reality painted for them in the state-controlled media.
However ferocious, this political dinosaur’s position is far from secure. Lukashenko “officially” received a ludicrous 80 percent majority in last December’s presidential election, but the results were widely condemned as fraudulent. And when thousands of demonstrators flooded the streets of Minsk, the security forces made liberal use of their truncheons and arrested hundreds of protesters. Those detained include a number of opposition candidates, several of whom have been threatened with prison terms exceeding 10 years. Lukashenko sneered: “There will be no more mindless democracy in this country.”
Dictatorships often falter when people recognize that freedom and prosperity prevail among their neighbors, while they enjoy neither. Belarus borders Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia — all former communist states that are now members of the European Union, enjoying wide freedoms and vastly superior economies. Surrounded by success stories and unable to eliminate the opposition, Lukashenko may be in for some sleepless nights.
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