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Tyrants and their self-delusion

The common personality trait among all these leaders is their pathological self-delusion, which results in eerily similar endgames

Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi

Published: Updated:

The sight of Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing his country on a helicopter after the popular uprising in his country is a stark reminder of how tyrants never believe they will lose power despite all evidence to the contrary. Until it is too late, of course.

Tunisia’s former strongman once proclaimed: “I understand you now,” as if it took him 23 years in power to finally empathize with his people. As he fled seeking refuge, he was still probably trying to grasp what had happened and whether he had truly understood the situation.

The common personality trait among all these leaders is their pathological self-delusion, which results in eerily similar endgames.

Pathological narcissism

The late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, having ruled for four decades, arrogantly asked his people during the revolution: “Who are you?”

He lived in a fantasy world where everyone loved and admired him and wanted him to be their only leader. The problem with tyrants is that they start believing their own propaganda, which fetes and glorifies them. They cling with a death grip to the illusion of their special talents even as angry people pound on their doors and their countries go up in flames.

If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny. When a long-serving dictator is asked when he plans to retire, the answer is inevitably that he wants to step down and rest, but his conscience and love for his people simply does not allow him to do so. The delusion of grandeur overwhelms all rational thought.

Part of the problem is that these despots ignore history. They have witnessed the end of other leaders but do not believe it can happen to them. They think their people are different and will fight to keep them in power.

In 1989, when the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was asked if he was worried about his government falling like other regimes in Eastern Europe, he said: “But you don’t know the Romanian people and their wise leadership.” Four days later, after a show trial in Bucharest, opposition soldiers executed him and his wife.

The problem with tyrants is that they start believing their own propaganda, which fetes and glorifies them. They cling with a death grip to the illusion of their special talents even as angry people pound on their doors and their countries go up in flames. If it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny.

Mohammed Fahad Al-Harthi

Similar events took place in Egypt, with leaders there refusing to believe that the revolution in Tunisia could spill over into their country. Ahmed Aboul Gheit, the foreign minister of Egypt at the time, in response to a question, famously rejected it as illogical. A few weeks later, the Egyptian president announced that he was stepping down during a revolution that amazed the world with its organization and non-violent approach.

The ousted Ukrainian president made similar errors. He had been lulled into a false sense of security because of Russia’s support and his supposed control over opposition parties and the media.

A ticking time bomb

A year ago a conference was organized in Kiev by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) where a thousand journalists and media leaders from around the world were invited. During Yanukovych’s opening remarks, several Ukrainian journalists wanted to discuss the restrictions on the media and the jailing of journalists.

The secret police officers, scattered around the hall, wanted to confiscate their notebooks, but stopped because of the presence of a huge number of foreign journalists in the room. Yanukovych was then forced to conclude his speech and leave the hall, resulting in the story making headlines in the media.

One might wonder why leaders risk their lives by insisting on challenging people’s right to have just and democratic systems. The simple answer is that absolute power has blindsided them. In their belief that they are legitimate and important, they strike out at any opposition, labeling them foreign agents and collaborators. In the end, they are ousted, making the world a happier and safer place.

In Syria, the autocrat Bashar al-Assad continues to hold onto power in Damascus, having killed more than 100,000 people, displaced millions from their homes and destroyed the country’s economy and infrastructure. Can this really be justified in the name of power? How can he be in good conscience and claim the regime is doing the right thing by turning Syria into a battleground for extremists and militant groups?

The real tragedy of having leaders like this is that thousands of innocent people will lose their lives or their opportunity to live with dignity. These oppressors simply cannot, or will not, learn from the past. They are destined to end up on the scrap heap of history, where they belong.

This article was first published in Arab News on March 5, 2014.

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Mohammed Fahad al-Harthi is currently the editor-in-chief of Arab News and Sayidaty. A prominent journalist who worked with Asharq al-Awsat in London and Arab News in KSA, Al-Harthi later moved on to establish Al-Eqtisadiah newspaper in KSA, in which he rose to the position of Editorial Manager. He was appointed editor-in-chief for Arajol magazine in 1997. He won the Gulf Excellence award in 1992.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.