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In Praise of Dictators Featured

A good word for dictators – how perverse! And from a priest, a servant of Christ! Impermissible, surely? Forgive me. Just a little meditation caused by the hideous Egyptian slaughter and mayhem. Not quite Mubarak nostalgia – nobody liked that guy – and yet...

‘Dictator’ was the Latin word for an official appointed in emergencies. In ancient Rome not an arbitrary, despotic figure but a perfectly legal one. His purpose was military, as well as preserving the state from grave dangers. Thus the Senate gave noble Cincinnatus absolute dictatorial powers to fight Rome’s enemies but he stepped down and went back to his farm as soon as the job was done. Indeed, no dictator could serve for more than six months. Only later men like Caesar became dictators in perpetuity.

‘Oh, but that was long ago. Today a dictator is by definition a bad egg!’ Not always so. A statue stands before the Westminster Parliament. A truculent figure holding a sword in his right hand and a book – the Bible – in his left. Oliver Cromwell – him. He won the civil war, executed King Charles I and disbanded a few parliaments. As Lord Protector Cromwell ruled England dictatorially till his death in 1658. Erected in 1899, only Irish MPs objected to the monument – dig why!

Garibaldi, the revered Italian revolutionary hero, conquered the kingdom of Naples with a band of red-shirted volunteers and British support in 1860. On King Victor Emmanuel’s behalf, he proclaimed himself ‘dictator of Sicily’. In Palermo the enthusiastic crowds worshipped the handsome, blond saviour as the Archangel Michael. Fittingly, Lucy Riall calls Garibaldi ‘the first celebrity’. When visiting London in 1864, radical crowds gave him a triumph seldom seen in England’s sober capital. (It must have helped Garibaldi was a great “ladies’ man”...)

‘But...Hitler and aren’t gonna defend them, are you?’ Heaven forbid! Joe Stalin, however, was Britain’s wartime chum. He resisted the invading Germans, combated them ferociously and won. A most ruthless bastard and mega-mass murderer yet...Without him Russia today would be part of a millenarian Nazi Reich and Russians slaves would be on the way to extinction. Fancy that?

‘Huh! What about morality? Aren’t dictators immoral?’ I answer that one way to establish morality is from the consequences of human actions. In the examples given only Kantian absolutists or virtue-ethicists would claim that consequences do not suffice to justify the rulers concerned. Cincinnatus, Cromwell, Garibaldi and Stalin may arouse different emotions in you but I submit that it is rational to affirm that their actions could be on balance vindicated by their results. Hence dictators may have their uses, and are not necessarily always evil.

Under dictator Mubarak Egyptians enjoyed very limited political freedom but, after a fashion, security. Yes, Hosni was corrupt, nepotistic and unpopular (the problem with a tyrant, Aristotle argued, is that he does not care for the well-being of the community but for his own) yet...look at Egypt now. The chaos, the massacres, the economic ruin, the hatred, the insecurity. Better or worse?

I spent a month in Cairo before the ‘Arab Spring’. My language teacher took me to visit several mosques. He got brusquely checked out by the cops while I was immediately waived through. Easy to be a tourist, not so much to be an ordinary Egyptian. It was a police state, no doubt, but at no stage I felt threatened or saw people murdered or rounded up. Ordinary Egyptians are a mild, friendly people, they do not deserve what is now befalling them.

My Egyptian friend Kamal Bayoumi has sent me a long list of Christian churches attacked or looted or burned. In Alexandria, Assiut, Arish, Beni Suef, Cairo, Fayoum, Giza, Gharbiya, Minya, Suez...churches and Christians are targeted. Islamists deliberately take it out on the minority, the defenceless, the people of the Cross. Old hatreds resurface and flare up. Mubarak gave minorities a kind of protection. The fanatical rabble – Muslim Brotherhood, Salafis or whatever – take advantage of the chaos to pick on the innocent. Is that good?

Of course, Islamists have been slaughtered by the military regime in large numbers. Morsi was incompetent and brought it upon himself but that cannot excuse the horrific butchery. He should have concentrated on improving the daily lives of the people, better healthcare, food, jobs and housing. Then he would have won praise. His doctrinaire Islamist agenda only brought him, his party and his country ruin.

Consequentialism as an ethical position has many difficulties but perhaps the chiefest is how to calculate the respective weights of good and bad results. In some cases, relatively easy: Stalin, the brutal Georgian tyrant, still saved Russians from obliteration and foreign bondage. Later Russian rulers denounced his methods but, had it not for Uncle Joe, they would not have been alive to tell the tale. Other cases are more difficult. Was Ghaddafi’s lunatic domination better than the tribal mess Libya has fallen into now? Is Bashar Assad’s one-party rule a bulwark against the bloody jihadist scenario Syria is succumbing to? Discuss.

Freedom will always be the battle cry of the human spirit. Thus Cato the Younger committed suicide in Utica rather than seeing the destruction of Rome’s ancient freedoms and living under Caesar’s dictatorship. A choice not available to a Christian. Freedom has to be fought for but beware! As St Augustine says, ‘the service of the Lord is perfect freedom’.

Last modified on Tuesday, 20 August 2013 22:43

Frank Gelli I am an Anglican priest and cultural critic and commentator. I have BA in Philosophy, MA in Christian Ethics, MA in Islamic Studies, PGCE in Religious Education and Oxford Certificate in Theology. I have been a journalist & drama critic in Italy and England.
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