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Expiring Autocrats: The Final Decade of Khamenei, Mugabe, et al

February 23, 2011

Small Wars Journal, 22 Feb 2011: Cross-Posted with permission from Bellum: a project of The Stanford Review.

The collapse of the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes has left many observers wondering which domino is the next to fall. Whether the revolution itself should have been foreseen is a matter for extended analysis, but one thing should have been clear long ago: Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak would not outlive the 2010s.

I mean that literally. Ben Ali was born in 1936 and Mubarak in 1928. By 2020, they would have been 84 and 92 years old, respectively. Even Leonid Brezhnev didn’t make it to 76. Fidel Castro, who is two years older than Mubarak, caved in to biological demands and handed the presidency over to his younger brother three years ago. Egypt and Tunisia should have been on the watch list for geriatric reasons alone.

But no matter: we can make a new list starting today. Muammar al-Qaddafi turns 69 this year and has held the office of Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution in Libya for over four decades. Robert Mugabe was born in 1924 and has ruled Zimbabwe as president since 1987, before Barack Obama entered Harvard Law. Ayatollah Khamenei was born in 1939 during the reign of Reza Shah, whose reign predates that of his more famous son.

Other presidents-for-life nearing their expiration date include Abdelaziz Bouteflika (b. 1937), president of Algeria since 1999 ; Teodoro Obiang Nguema (b. 1942), president of Equatorial Guinea since 1979; José Eduardo dos Santos (b. 1942), president of Angola since 1979; Raul Castro (b. 1931), president of Cuba since 2008; Islam Karimov (b. 1938), president of Uzbekistan since 1990; and Nursultan Nazarbayev (b. 1940), president of Kazakhstan since 1990. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, who has already promised to step down this year, and Omar al-Bashir of Sudan are no spring chickens either.

“Pale death, impartial, he walks his round,” the ancient Roman poet Horace reminds us; “he knocks at cottage-gate and palace-portal.” This isn’t a prediction that all these leaders will die of natural causes in the coming decade. Coups, assassinations, far-sighted abdication, revolution, and even democratic transition may also come into play. It is a forecast that, all things being equal, most, if not all, will grow too old to rule by 2020 and many will, indeed, pass from the scene entirely.

Historically, we have undervalued the role of pure biological factors in regime stability. Only after the Iranian Revolution in 1979 did we come to know that the Shah suffered from lymphoma. (He died in 1980.) Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines, a strongman the US backed until 1986, succumbed to a variety of medical conditions just three years after his flight from Manila.

The lesson is that the US foreign and defense policy communities need to prepare for instability in countries with aging rulers. Those listed above will almost certainly experience a great deal of turbulence in the coming decade. A bread riot that gets out of hand, a faulty airplane engine, or any number of other things may intervene to bring about the demise of those regimes sooner, but that their demise will come this decade should not be a surprise.

In the end, “pale death” comes for us all, and strongmen are not immune.

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