Controlled Chaos

by Patrick Appel

The Browser interviews Bernard Haykel, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, about Yemen and autocrats:

There’s a story doing the rounds in Yemen about the nature of its government. The current president of Yemen is Ali Abdullah Saleh. The story goes that he teaches his son how to rule the country. He gives him a bagful of mice and says: ‘I’ll release the mice. You collect them and put them back in the bag.’ His son spends the entire night chasing mice and putting them back; he’s utterly exhausted. Saleh says: ‘Now I’ll show you how I rule Yemen and how you should rule Yemen.’ He twirls the bag around his head and lets the mice out. They’re dizzy and can’t run away.

That’s essentially how he runs the country: by keeping everyone off-kilter. He doesn’t build institutions or run the place in an organised or transparent way. And because he’s made himself indispensable to stability in the country – others call it controlled chaos – there’s no solution or alternative. All good autocrats do this. They don’t allow you to think someone else could replace them.