Hosni K. Mubarak, Will You Please Go Now?

There's one question too few people are asking: why doesn't Mubarak want to leave?  The guy's in his eighties, and it's now clear that his son will not succeed him.  His people hate him; the best he can hope for is an awkward year or two trying to explain why his thugs started shooting people.  Why not take off for a sunny island somewhere?


At Foreign Policy, Scott Horton explains: it's no fun to be an ex-dictator any more.


So why is Mubarak trying to squeeze a few more months out of his three-decade career in office and avowing his intentions to stay in Egypt rather than packing for the Riviera? It may be because exile isn't what it used to be; over the last 30 years, things have gotten increasingly difficult for dictators in flight. Successor regimes launch criminal probes; major efforts are mounted to identify assets that may have been stripped or looted by the autocrat, or more commonly, members of his immediate family. I witnessed this process myself, twice being asked by newly installed governments in Central Eurasia to advise them on asset recovery measures focusing on the deposed former leader and his family.

More menacingly, human rights lawyers and international prosecutors may take a close look at the tools the deposed dictator used to stay in power: Did he torture? Did he authorize the shooting of adversaries? Did he cause his enemies to "disappear"? Was there a mass crackdown that resulted in dozens or hundreds of deaths? A trip to The Hague or another tribunal might be in his future. Slobodan Milosevic, who died while on trial there, and Charles Taylor, whose prosecution there is expected to wind up later this month, furnish examples that any decamping dictator would need to keep in mind.

The dictator may well proclaim his altruistic, patriotic motives, tout his service to the country, and insist on his intention to die on his native soil, as Mubarak did in his rambling non-concession speech on Feb. 1. But more likely than not, a frantic effort is under way behind the scenes to ensure that, if he leaves, he will not face the nightmare of criminal probes and battles over assets. A friendly government offering sanctuary may quickly conclude in the face of such a barrage that its old friend just isn't worth the effort and the damage to reputation associated with sheltering him.

There's no doubt that the endgame for Mubarak involves many of these concerns and backroom machinations. So, how can Mubarak protect himself if he eventually makes an escape from Cairo? He's taking the usual steps now. Start with his decision to install foreign intelligence chief and CIA confidant Omar Suleiman as vice president and constitutional successor. (Mubarak himself came to the presidency through this route; he had been Anwar Sadat's vice president.) This comes close to matching what in the Russian-speaking world is known as the "Putin option," a reference to the exit strategy adopted by a teetering Boris Yeltsin: Fearing possible retribution from opposition figures, Yeltsin opted to surrender power through a transitional period to a wily senior player in the intelligence community. In exchange, Yeltsin is said to have extracted a firm commitment from Putin that the full machinery of the Russian state would be mustered to protect him. There would be no criminal probes or inquiries, and no cooperation with foreigners who undertook the same. Yeltsin would be free to live his final days shuttling between Moscow and the French Riviera. Putin scrupulously kept his end of the bargain.

This suggests the possibility that our quest for justice against former dictators and strongmen may ultimately be very costly, even counterproductive.  We satisfy the requirements of justice--but we make it more likely that dictators will cling to power, inflicting bloody purges on their people rather than share Pinochet's fate.

Of course, that's far from certain, because presumably hounding and/or prosecuting former dictators must have some deterrent effect.  Along with satisfying the requirements of justice, one hopes that it makes a would-be strongman think hard, and maybe take a gulp or two, before he orders that first mass execution.

But it's by no means obvious that the deterrent effect outweighs the costs of latter-day crackdowns.  After all, these guys often come to power through bloody conflicts that put them at great risk of losing their lives, and the violence and repression usually start during those conflicts.  Are they going to worry more about The Hague than the guy with the rival army?  Or the radical guerillas operating in the hinterlands?  By the time they're worrying about, um, succession planning, it may be too late to assure a secure future by being on their best behavior--the nasty process that brought them to office and cemented their power in the face of threats has probably pretty much guaranteed prosecution.

At any rate, it's something we should think about.  Which do we want more: peaceful abdication? Or justice?
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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