I’m Outta Here!
Hosni Mubarak's exit is only the latest entry in the annals of awkward official departures. A look at the best, from the Shah's permanent vacation to King Farouk's abandoned porn collection.
Leader: Richard Nixon
Country: The United States
Political downfall: The Watergate scandal was more than a botched break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters — it soon became a tale of corruption and conspiracy that reached all the way to the Oval Office. President Richard Nixon denied his involvement throughout, most notably in November 1973, when he told reporters “I am not a crook.”
The facts told a different story. The revelation that the White House had taped sensitive discussions in the Oval Office led to a political struggle over control of the tapes. When the Supreme Court ordered that the tapes, which would show Nixon and his aides conspiring to cover up the Watergate scandal, be turned over to the special prosecutor, the president’s days were numbered.
Nixon resigned the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974. “I would say only that if some of my judgments were wrong, and some were wrong, they were made in what I believed at the time to be the best interest of the nation,” he said in his farewell address.
As he departed the White House for a final time, Nixon paused at the doorway of the helicopter that would take him into ignominious retirement, spreading his arms wide to flash the famous “V” sign that had become his trademark.
Leader: Mohammed Reza Pahlavi
Political downfall: Facing months of prolonged protests and general strikes in 1978, the Shah of Iran tried responding with a harsh military crackdown and then attempted to pacify the public with gestures at liberalization. Finally, on Jan. 16, 1979, he settled on self-imposed exile. According to official reports, the shah and his wife were only departing for Egypt on “vacation.” But the fact that he took with him a jar of Iranian soil suggested otherwise.
His exit was greeted with mass celebrations around the country. Two weeks later, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who encouraged and inspired the revolution and had himself been exiled by the shah, arrived in Iran. Two months after that, Iran had officially been declared, by referendum, an Islamic Republic.
The remainder of the shah’s life was brief and spent in itinerant fashion, as he moved from Egypt to Morocco to Europe to South America and elsewhere in search of a permanent home. The shah had secretly been suffering from cancer for years and was in dire need of medical treatment. The political equilibrium in the nascent Islamic Republic decisively radicalized after the shah arrived in the United States for medical attention in late 1979: a group of young Iranians, under the (unfounded) suspicion that the shah was working with the U.S. government to organize a return to power, responded by seizing the U.S. embassy in Iran. The shah died in 1980 in Egypt and is buried in Cairo’s al-Rafai Mosque.
Leader: P.W. Botha
Country: South Africa
Political Downfall: Elected prime minister in 1978, Botha changed the South African Constitution six years later to create the position of state president, which was given sole jurisdiction over matters of “national” importance, including military and security affairs. After serving less than one term, he was forced to resign from that office.
Botha used his authority to resist pressure from the international community to repeal South Africa’s apartheid laws, which discriminated against the country’s majority black population. Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution imposing an arms embargo and international disinvestment laws that began taking a toll on the country’s economy, Botha continued to dispatch security and military forces to enforce his country’s system of segregation. Disturbed by Botha’s deepening militarization of government policy, his National Party (NP) took steps to oust him from power.
After Botha suffered a stroke in January 1989, the NP selected F.W. de Klerk — a reformer not considered a Botha ally — to replace him as party chairman. One month later, the party pushed to have de Klerk immediately become head of state, but Botha initially refused to resign. Several months later, however, Botha had become so marginalized that he had no choice but to step down.
Resigning in a televised address on Aug. 14, 1989, Botha refused to mince words or seek excuses for the nature of his downfall. “They replied I could use my health as an excuse,” he said. “To this I replied that I am not prepared to leave on a lie. It is evident to me that after all these years of my best efforts for the National Party and for the government of this country, as well as the security of our country, I am being ignored by ministers serving in my cabinet.”
As de Klerk immediately moved to recognize the country’s black opposition, Botha withdrew to his estate in the aptly named town of Wilderness. He died there in 2006.
Name: Nuri al-Said
Political downfall: The charismatic and often brutal seven-term prime minister of Iraq’s monarchical system, Nuri al-Said ruled during and after the British Mandate. His influence expanded dramatically following the death of King Faisal I in 1933, so much so that the remaining years of Iraq’s monarchy are typically known as Ahd Nuri, or Nuri’s era.
But Nuri’s hold on power began to unravel with the rise of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arab nationalism in the late 1950s and increasing domestic anger regarding Britain’s pseudo-colonial control over the Iraqi state. Nuri eventually met his end when the soldiers that he had depended on to sustain his rule turned their guns on him. A military contingent ordered to stabilize the monarchy in Jordan instead turned its sights on Baghdad. The 23-year-old King Faisal II and his entourage were executed by firing squad in the palace courtyard on July 14, 1958, and the monarch’s body was wrapped in a carpet and smuggled out of the palace for a secret burial.
Nuri’s grisly end is a case study on the danger for autocrats who cling to power too long. The day after the military coup d’état, he fled to the home of the sister of future Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi, according to a profile of Chalabi written by Dexter Filkins. Nuri, veiled and dressed as a woman, was caught one day later trying to escape Baghdad. “Nuri was stripped of his disguise, impaled alive, and left on public view in the rotting sunlight,” read a Time magazine article from the time.
Name: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali
Political downfall: Previously thought to be one of the Arab world’s most secure autocrats, Ben Ali’s grip on power began to falter following the December 2010 self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit vendor tormented by authorities and driven to hopelessness by his inability to make ends meet. His act of desperation became a rallying cry for thousands of Tunisians frustrated by the lack of economic opportunity in the country. They took to the streets en masse in early January, winning the country’s military over to their side. Sensing that the tide had moved decisively against him, Ben Ali fled the country on Jan. 14, eventually landing in the Saudi city of Jeddah.
In the days leading up to his ouster, Ben Ali tried to appease the protesters with a laundry list of concessions. On Jan. 10, he proclaimed that he would create 300,000 new jobs to curb rampant unemployment. When that failed to assuage public anger, he gave a public address in which he promised that he would not run for another term in office and would grant Tunisians complete political and media freedoms. It was too little, too late.
Still, the outgoing autocrat couldn’t help but remind Tunisians one last time of how much he’d done for them: “I have felt deep pain for what happened. My pain and suffering are terrible, because I have spent more than 50 years of my life serving Tunisia,” he said.
Name: King Farouk
Political downfall: Farouk came to power in 1936 at age 18. The inexperienced leader quickly alienated his main advisors by refusing their advice, often avoiding them altogether during a crucial period when the British military occupation was just ending. Seen as a partyboy and political lightweight, the king was widely criticized for a failing economy and continued British political influence in Cairo. Farouk’s popularity was further damaged by an unsuccessful war against the newly established Israel in 1948.
Following the defeat by Israel, a group of Egyptian Army commanders led by Col. Gamel Abdel Nasser formed the Free Officers movement, a clandestine cell dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian monarchy. The Free Officers received financial and logistical support from the CIA through a covert program known as “Project FF” (which reportedly stood for “fat fucker,” in reference to Farouk). The officers overthrew Farouk and his government in July 1952, forcing the king and his family to flee into exile in Monaco. The system of military autocratic rule established by Nasser would last for the next five decades.
Even more interesting than Farouk’s departure may be the things he left behind. Journalists who entered his palace shortly after the overthrow described a collection of oddities and junk that would have put Charles Foster Kane to shame, including hundreds of magic tricks, stamps, rare coins, and a massive collection of pornography.
Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi
More from Foreign Policy
Lessons for the Next War
Twelve experts weigh in on how to prevent, deter, and—if necessary—fight the next conflict.
It’s High Time to Prepare for Russia’s Collapse
Not planning for the possibility of disintegration betrays a dangerous lack of imagination.
Turkey Is Sending Cold War-Era Cluster Bombs to Ukraine
The artillery-fired cluster munitions could be lethal to Russian troops—and Ukrainian civilians.
Congrats, You’re a Member of Congress. Now Listen Up.
Some brief foreign-policy advice for the newest members of the U.S. legislature.