Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 3-The Rise of Third World Modern Dictators
The Rise of Third World Modern Dictators
All Third World regimes, parties, and politicians must answer an essential question: Why
are we behind? Each conclusion suggests a different response. Originally, Third World thinkers
attributed Europe’s advancement to constitutionalism or technology. Those stressing Western
democracy’s importance favored political reform at home; those emphasizing Western products
and techniques favored a more materialistic form of adaptation. A Japanese intellectual wrote,
“Why are they … strong? Why are we … weak? We have one thing to learn from the barbarians:
solid ships and heavy guns.”
Japan’s modernized militarism met with great success. Tokyo’s defeat of Czarist Russia
in 1905 the first major Third World victory over Western armies, made a tremendous impression
throughout the colonial world. Only after a devastating defeat in World War II and U.S.
occupation did Japan add political to technical imitation. Today observers explain Japan’s
economic success by stressing indigenous cultural factors-the Japanese style of teamwork,
loyalty, decision by consensus, and so on-over borrowings from the West.
Technology cannot be merely grafted onto a backward society. Buying weapons, for
example, does not guarantee the political unity, professional competence, maintenance skills, and
discipline needed for a successful military elite. There are other necessary factors involved in
narrowing the relative gap in wealth and power between the developed and underdeveloped
states. Neotraditionalists-Islamic fundamentalists, Latin American conservatives, African
socialists-blame relative backwardness on abandonment of historic values.
This posture poses, however, another contradiction between reality and theory, between
ideology and practice. Officially the Third World wants Western living standards but not
Western life-styles. At the same time the popularity of Western television programs, movies,
music, clothes, and other artifacts makes political leaders nervous about the impact and cost of
these goods. Of course, the rulers, who get stereos, Mercedeses, and other fine imports, are quick
to point out the threat of Michael Jackson T-shirts. They feel even more threatened by the
thought of importing freedom of speech, freedom of the press, political pluralism, or economic
Blaming underdevelopment on the West is a central part of contemporary Third World
ideology, especially but not exclusively in modern dictatorships. As colonialism once looted the
Third World, they say, so neocolonialism now exploits it by unequal terms of trade, political
intervention, and cultural imperialism. It is thus necessary to break with the West and its style of
thought and government, through some form of Marxism, so-called scientific socialism, or
nationalism. Isolation from foreign influence may he seen as a step forward; criticism from
Western governments and media are to he expected as their complaints over having lost another
In Latin America and Africa high hopes for a new era of elected civilian leadership have
in the past been repeatedly disappointed; in the Arab world the possibility of genuine
parliamentary-based systems is generally absent. The problem is not only the ambitions of
would-be dictators but the political and military elite’s profound rejection of structures deemed
inevitably linked with underdevelopment and dependency.
Despite their common objectives, strategies, and ambitions, modern dictators fill a whole
spectrum of types. The self-styled Communists have the most consistent tight and top-down
political organization and nationalized economics, but even they include much variety: China,
previously the most doctrinaire, now the most flexible; Cuba, a typical strong man regime with a
Marxist overlay and heavy Soviet subsidies; Vietnam, where the Communists have forcibly
preempted nationalism; North Korea and Romania, with egomaniacal leaders trying to found
hereditary dynasties; and the regimes of Eastern Europe and Afghanistan, the “popular” bases of
which consist of the Soviet army. The story is told that Poland’s Communist dictator, Wojciech
Jaruzelski, goes to Lenin’s tomb in Moscow to ask for advice from the Soviet leader. “Comrade
Lenin, the situation in Poland is terrible,” he says. “The reactionaries are rising up and trying to
restore capitalism. What should we do?” Lenin replies, “Arm the workers!”
While most Westerners think the USSR and Marxist ideology obvious failures, many
African and Middle East leaders have a different attitude and find in them some useful analysis
for understanding of and suggestions for dealing with their own condition. Equally there is a
belief in socialism, however it is defined, as the way out of their dilemmas. When such regimes
are said to be turning away from statism, this usually means they are more willing to deal with
foreign multinational companies or to permit small-scale family farming or commercial
enterprise among their citizens.
The national particularities and the common characteristics of modern dictatorship are
demonstrated by three of the system’s earliest practitioners, each of whom made a revolution that
forever changed his country: Kemal Atatürk of Turkey, Juan Perón of Argentina, and Gamal
Abdel Nasser of Egypt. All career military officers, they stood outside the old alignments of
political factions and ideologies. The first two were particularly influenced by fighting (Atatürk
in World War I; Nasser in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War) in wars lost partly as the result of the
incompetence and corruption of their political leaders.
In some ways Atatürk was the first of the modern Third World dictators; in others this
student of Voltaire and Rousseau was the last in a line of European democratic revolutionaries.
When he came to power in 1922, many ideas that would he shredded in later decades were still
intact; parliamentary democracy was a symbol of development, and Westernization seemed the
route to modernization. “As the cultural level of a nation is raised,” he predicted, “the fields of
application of individual liberty too shall increase.” The Communist and Fascist experiments that
so fascinated Nasser and Perón had not yet shaped the political rhetoric and behavior of the age.
The Ottoman Empire, including the Balkans and much of the Arab world as well as
modern Turkey, was for more than 600 years ruled by hereditary sultans. Personal and group
identity was defined by language and religion rather than by loyalty to a nation-state. The rise of
ethnic nationalism and the nibblings of European powers had reduced the once-powerful empire
to being the backward “Sick Man of Europe.”
Disgusted by the empire’s decay, officers formed a secret group best known as the Young
Turks. Their 1908 coup, the first Third World military takeover, was greeted with dancing in the
streets of the capital, celebrating the new era. But the Young Turks’ attempts at centralization
and Turkification alienated the subject peoples and provoked new revolts and defeats,
culminating in ruinous involvement in World War I. Four years later, by 1918, the empire lay
destroyed, 20 percent of its people had perished from hunger or disease, and the nation was
occupied by foreign armies.
A prostrate country was willing to accept radical change. Atatürk, who had proved
himself the most competent and heroic of generals in the war, withdrew to the interior, raised an
army, and formed a new government. From 1919 to 1922 he won a series of victories, expelling
the occupying Greek Army and forcing diplomatic concessions from the European powers. At
the end Turkey preserved its independence and home territory.
Describing Atatürk in the midst of his campaigns, in July 1921, U.S. Navy officer Robert
Dunn reported, “His youthfulness struck you: the high cheek bones, somewhat hollow cheeks,
small reddish and very trim mustache, steel blue eyes.” His face was “not intellectual but subtle
and mercuric…. You got a sense of concentration in the brain behind, with immense possibilities
of inexorability, cruelty even, yet of complete realization of all points at issue and a broad
A grateful, desperate populace acceded him total authority. “If I wanted,” he said shortly
before his death in 1938, “I would have forthwith set up a military dictatorship…. But what I had
in mind was to help set up a modern state for my nation.” His experience with the horror of war
made him eschew imperialism with the motto “Peace at home, peace abroad.” It was better to let
the empire go and avoid foreign adventures. National pride did not necessitate international
He stood so far above his contemporaries that no serious rivals could emerge; his
popularity minimized any need for repression. At the same time his strong powers of leadership
made his countrymen see Atatürk in the superhuman image of the charismatic leader. There are
two Atatürks, he said in one famous speech. “One is sitting before you, the (man) of flesh and
blood, who will pass away. There is another whom 1 cannot call Me. It is not I that this …
personifies, it is You–all you present here, who go into the farthestmost parts of the country to
inculcate and defend a new ideal, a new mode of thought. I stand for these dreams of yours. My
life’s work is to make them come true.”
Atatürk almost single-handedly preached and propagated the doctrine of development
and modernization. He ordered the Turkish language simplified and converted to European
script, eliminated the Muslim clergy’s power, revised the legal code, and mandated unveiling and
legal equality for women. The state founded and ran new industries and built a national network
of educational institutes, the village hearths.
Symbolic measures were important as well. The Oriental fez, which Atatürk called “a
sign of ignorance, of fanaticism, of hatred against progress and civilization,” was replaced by the
hat, “the customary headdress of the whole civilized world.” In the same spirit he decreed that
Turks take family names for the first time; parliament voted him the name Atatürk, “father of the
“We now belong to the West. We cannot attempt to attain and surpass the level of
contemporary civilization merely by boasting about our old Civilization,” explained Atatürk.
Progress necessitated social change, science, knowledge, and cultural advancement. But to
achieve this, the people had to be roused and united as they had been for the war of liberation.
“Our people does not (consist) of castes or classes whose interests differ,” Atatürk said. “Quite to
the contrary, it is made of classes whose existence and efforts are mutually needed…. The farmer
needs the artisan, the artisan needs the farmer and the farmer needs the merchants, and … all of
these need not only each other, but the worker as well.”
Even though the country was in ruins, he said in 1920, vigorous life would spring up only
if the people abandoned their historic passivity and became willing to shape their own lives. Five
years later he noted, “The real author of the political and social reforms realized by the Turkish
nation in recent years is that nation itself. It’s you! If the nation did not possess this capacity, no
power would have sufficed.”
His ideology’s basic principles were symbols of these objectives: Republicanism meant
the elimination of monarchy and the institution of representative rule. Statism embodied the
government’s leading role in promoting economic development. Reformism called for a
willingness to change society. Nationalism brought a sense of identity as Turks put loyalty to the
country above sectarian or factional interests. Secularism sought the separation of religion from
politics, a difficult task in an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Populism taught that leaders must
he responsive to the people’s will.
Sometimes, but surprisingly rarely during his years as president between 1922 and 1938,
Atatürk misused his power. More important, however, he laid the foundation for a different kind
of system. “The nation must he vigilant towards its government,” he had warned. “Sovereignty
cannot be founded upon fear. And sovereignty which is supported by guns shall not last.”
In short, Atatürk understood that democracy enhances national life and corrects the errors
of a leader’s egotism, miscalculation, or selfish interest that, if unchecked, could lead to disaster
or oppression. “The press,” he lectured in 1930, “helps prevent abuses and forces the government
agencies to perform their duties correctly,” although, he added, “it should also be remembered
that it is easier to criticize than to create.” But the catastrophe of the Young Turks, in their own
way an embryo modern dictatorship, was a lasting lesson for him. “It is painful for a country and
its people to be ravaged by the enemy,” he warned. “But it is even more painful for the people to
be exposed (to misfortune) by those who are of their. very own race and whom they regard as
great and keep at their head.”
Despite periodic instability in later years, Turkey remained a nonaggressive and
persistent democracy, the tradition was deeply implanted. The army saw itself as the repository
of Atatürk’s ideology, and Atatürk himself remains his country’s incomparable hero and positive
example. So popular does he remain that many Turks reject the idea that Atatürk was a dictator
at all. They believe he was a national leader whose universal popular support meant his regime
was democratic and whose inspired leadership was worthy of being followed without
compulsion. Many-but probably a smaller proportion of-Egyptians, Chinese, Tanzanians, and
Iranians would speak of their charismatic dictators in similar terms. In fact, this very type of
identification is a prime characteristic of modern dictatorship.
Despite Atatürk’s success, however, his example had little direct effect in the Middle
East because his revolution’s secularism and conscious Europeanizing policy made it
unacceptable to other Muslim countries. Still, many of Atatürk’s ideas on class, unity, patriotism,
and populism would be independently reinvested by Third World leaders in later years. “Our
government … has no resemblance to governments described in books,” he said, defining it as
“belonging to the people as a whole in contrast to an old regime that belonged to an individual or
group of individuals.” This was a precise statement on the modern dictatorship’s self-image and
view of its traditionalist predecessors.
There are parallels between the systems established by the Atatürk and Mexico’s
revolution during the 1920s. The Mexican Revolution, also intent on modernization, land reform,
and secularism, found continuity through the appropriately named Party of the Institutionalized
Revolution (PRI), whose political machine took over much of the economy and a wide range of
peasant, worker, cultural, and other organizations. The two main threats to PRI dominance were
defused: The army was depoliticized, and the president was limited to a single six-year term.
Despite a large degree of democracy, no opposition party was allowed to defeat the PRI in a
national election. Again, however, this system did not take root anywhere else in Latin America.
The idea of parliamentary democracy as an integral part of progress was overwhelmed by
the examples of Germany and the USSR. Although few Third World leaders became Fascists or
Communists, they were not persuaded that a dictator should educate his people toward
democracy, a free press, individual rights, peaceful foreign policy, and pluralism. Aside from
ideology, there were few men capable of seizing total power and then being willing to use it to
make their continued rule unnecessary.
Perón and Nasser rose to power in the wake of World War II. Observation of other
countries as well as their own experiences and political instincts taught them to use revolutionary
techniques for setting in motion socioeconomic revolutions. Despite their countries’ different
traditions, the two men had a remarkable amount in common.
Both were military officers who, coming of political age in the 1930s, found their
countries under incompetent leaders and patronizing foreign influence. Britain had tens of
thousands of troops stationed in the Suez Canal area, and its diplomats were able to make and
break Egyptian governments.
When the all-powerful British high commissioner was going home on leave in 1940, he
teased Egypt’s prime minister by saying, “Ali, don’t let anything bad happen while I’m gone.”
“Oh, Sir Miles,” replied the politician, “nothing had ever happens when you’re not here.”
In Argentina British companies owned virtually all the railroads; foreigners owned and
managed 45 percent of local industry. Neither country was a colony, but the intellectuals and
politicians of each were obsessed by the lack of full national independence.
In addition to frustrated nationalism, the ruling establishment’s isolation from the people
and inability to cope with their needs provoked discontent. As a slim, handsome young man
King Farouk was crowned king of Egypt in 1936 amid great hopes for his rule. A decade later
Farouk was obese, corrupt, preoccupied with womanizing, and incapable of standing up to
British pressure. The adoration had turned to ridicule. Yet the main alternative to the palace, the
populist Wafd party, was also discredited by scandals, splits, and a willingness to accept British
Argentina, like most Latin American countries, was governed by alternating civilian and
military regimes. Despite its productivity in grain and meat, Argentina did not live up to its
economic potential. Landowners ran the country for their own benefit, showing little interest in
industrialization. The European-oriented elite looked down on the poorly paid rural and urban
workers and bitterly fought their unions. Since Argentina was one of the region’s most
urbanized, developed countries-as was Cuba at the time of Fidel Castro’s revolution-the social
and economic gap was all the more conducive to discontent.
While mainly shaped by their own cultural and national traditions, Perón and Nasser were
also inspired by fascism, in large part because it corresponded to their nationalistic, anti-British
interests. Perón was sent on a military mission to Italy in early 1939-his first visit to Europe-and
stayed until the end of 1940. He was convinced that the Nazi and Fascist regimes were great
successes, being particularly impressed by charismatic leaders’ manipulation of trade unions and
their show business techniques in handling crowds. But Perón was too generous toward the
workers, less violently repressive, too opportunistic, and never consistent enough to embrace this
ideology, despite his pro-Axis sympathies during World War II.
Nasser cooperated closely with German spies during the war and would have been a
likely collaborator if General Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had captured Cairo in 1942. Like
Perón, however, Nasser was essentially a pragmatic nationalist looking for a workable
philosophy of power and willing to move from “left” to “right” as the occasion required. Both
dictators were determined to become architects of revolutions irreversibly changing their
countries’ course, not just military officers taking their turns in power.
Perón put it best: “I returned (from Europe) at a moment when the (political) battles, as
usual, were being rigged. 1 asked myself, ‘What would happen if someone began to fight for real
and announced I’m going to play to win?’” Soon after he had come back, Perón joined a secret
military society that successfully staged a coup in 1943, and he became top aide to the new
junta’s nominal leader.
His most brilliant move was to take the seemingly unimportant position as secretary of
labor and public welfare. Perón energetically spoke in radical rhetoric to the unions-while
reassuring employers in corporate-state terms-and supported demands for better pay and
conditions. As biographer Joseph Page wrote, “For the first time a government was treating
workers with respect instead of repression. They were beginning to feel like citizens who
mattered, and they owed this psychic gratification to the colonel.” Perón so successfully
manipulated military assignments, courted civilian politicians and unions, and built popular
support that he was elected president by a landslide within two years.
When the junta arrested the increasingly powerful Perón and abandoned his pro-labor
policies in October 1945, hundreds of thousands of workers poured into Buenos Aires to
demonstrate. They walked for miles and waited for hours to acclaim their hero. Argentina had
never seen anything like it. The police were overwhelmed, and the flustered junta practically had
to beg Perón to rescue it. They freed him and called elections.
When the rich and their newspapers ridiculed Perón’s supporters for their poverty and
lack of manners, he proudly called his followers descamisados (the shirtless ones). When the
Communist and Socialist parties lined up against him, Perón lambasted the “oligarchy-
Communist alliance.” After U.S. Ambassador Spruille Braden attacked him, Perón told the
Argentines that they had to choose between “Braden or Perón.” The effect was electric: Perón
was elected president, and his supporters captured parliament with two-thirds of the vote.
Perón’s popularity was not based on speeches alone. Wages of skilled industrial workers
went up 27 percent and those of unskilled by 37 percent, during Perón’s first five years in power.
He raised fringe benefits, instituted social security, and appointed working-class men and women
to high government positions. While supporters enjoyed material benefits, Perónists harassed
opposition meetings, beat up critics, filled judgeships with supporters, and bought up
newspapers. To ridicule the snobbish upper class, Perón set up a fish market on the steps of the
elite’s most exclusive club.
Perón was able to stigmatize the opposition as greedy and unpatriotic while convincing
the common people he was on their side. He justified controlling the press to prevent it from
being “weapons of economic disturbance and social divisiveness, [or] vehicles of foreign ideas
or political ambitions.” Perón’s equally charismatic wife., Eva, made fiery speeches attacking the
oligarchy and set up her own foundation to distribute money to the needy. Critics charged that
Evita Perón’s funds were lining the pockets of the Peróns, but these complaints did not deter the
Perónists’ fanatical devotion to the former movie star.
The dictator’s real problem was that he did not dare touch the officer corps and failed to
break the oligarchy’s power. Perón could not carry through a full revolution. As the economy
went into decline, conservative officers rose and forced him to flee in 1955.
Three years earlier, with Perón still at the peak of his power, Egypt’s Free Officers, a
secret military group under Nasser’s leadership, staged a bloodless coup against King Farouk.
Nasser saw this event as the culmination of a century of gallant nationalist struggles. For the first
time since the pharaohs Egypt had a truly indigenous ruler.
Nasser, like Perón, stood behind a higher-ranking figurehead before emerging as
champion of the masses. First, however, Nasser consolidated the officer corps’ support,
decisively defeated the powerful Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists, and stole their
constituencies. Perón’s support came from workers and unions, but Egypt had little industry.
Nasser courted the peasants and urban lower middle class. Land reform and rural development
efforts pleased the former; nationalization of foreign assets favored the latter. Nationalistic
foreign policy appeased all of them.
Instead of acting like desperate natives, humbly asking for justice, Egyptians wanted their
country to stand tall, taking what was rightfully theirs, becoming a factor of consequence in the
world, and claiming leadership of the Arabs. Nasser first secured British military withdrawal
from the Suez Canal, bought Soviet bloc arms, and then seized the Canal. Militarily defeated by
an Anglo-French-Israeli invasion in 1956, Nasser turned it into a diplomatic victory. Overnight
he became the Arab world’s hero. Nasserist movements, Radio Cairo’s appeals, and Egyptian
intelligence machinations stirred rebellion in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq in the 1950s and
Nasser’s Egypt was also an influential model for black Africa, then on the verge of
independence. A writer visiting Cairo from Cameroon in 1960 thought an Egyptian military
parade “not just a show to boast prestige, but the real ‘march of liberation’ by a whole people,
which only yesterday was under foreign domination.” A factory “owned and run by Africans”
was no routine thing but “a revolutionary experience … and makes even a steel bar a symbol of
emancipation.” He concluded: “That this daring experiment has resulted in a dictatorship is in
itself unimportant. What counts is that it has not resulted in anarchy.” Such reactions show how
possessing a strong military, a nationalized industry, and a stable government able to perform
these miracles was the highest, even revered priority for the newly independent states.
Foreign policy had been relatively unimportant for Perón, whose country lay deep within
the U.S. sphere of influence at a time when Washington was at the height of its international
power. Nasser was more favorably situated in time and place. He became a founding member of
the nonalignment movement and played off U.S. and Soviet power, tilting toward the latter.
Perón’s insults to Washington were popular at home; Nasser said tauntingly that if the
Americans did not like his policy, they could go drink the Nile.
The fact that Nasser was dependent on U.S. food aid and Soviet weapons did not prevent
him from being universally seen as a progressive, independent, anti-imperialist leader. The
important thing was that no one thought the need for aid was determining his policies. On the
contrary, Nasser’s ability to obtain Washington’s assistance while flouting its interests and to
play both sides of the Cold War street seemed to demonstrate the value of nonalignment and
Third World leverage in using superpower rivalry to its own advantage.
Equally paradoxical for Americans was the Third World’s apparent willingness to ignore
Moscow’s imperial arrogance in establishing its own bases, providing substandard equipment,
meddling in internal politics, and forcing Egypt deep into debt. Such practices eventually stirred
Egyptian resentment and reaction. But in the 1950s and 1960s other peoples saw the “success” of
Egypt’s pro-Moscow brand of nonalignment as showing the Soviets as a reliable ally, generous
in development efforts and helpful in removing the Western yoke.
Like Perón, Nasser was more successful at redistributing wealth than at creating it. Yet
his land reform,.establishment of cooperatives, improvement in health care and educational
opportunities, and subsidies or price controls on many goods did improve the living standards of
many Egyptians. When, as so often happened, his programs fell short of his promises, Nasser’s
ability to give the people a cause to believe in inspired a willingness to make sacrifices.
To demonstrate that Nasser did not solve Egypt’s economic and social problems only
makes more impressive the psychological factors that guaranteed his popularity. Rationing was
accepted as promoting equality while subsidies helped the peasant and urban masses. The Aswan
Dam fulfilled a national dream, though it did not live up to its predicted economic potential.
State enterprises made Egyptians feel they had a stake in the ownership of the national wealth.
Even if production was less efficient and goods were of lower quality, they were more widely
distributed than before.
Western experts who went to Egypt repeatedly pointed out the weaknesses of that
country’s policies. Too much money was being spent on the army, the huge, stifling state
bureaucracy, and subsidies on food so high that peasants fed their livestock on bread. The
population was growing at a frightening rate.
This critique might be logical, Egyptians replied, but was politically unacceptable
because changes would threaten the basis of the regime. Cutting the military budget might make
angry officers lead a coup. Reducing the bureaucracy would throw out on the street the kind of
young, educated men who would he the natural leaders of a revolution. Slicing subsidies, as
Anwar al-Sadat discovered in 1977, could set off massive riots. In short, Egypt’s policy might he
economically irrational but made very good political sense, a paradox typical of modern
dictatorships and a factor promoting mounting debts and disappointing economic growth rates in
the Third World.
While solving few of Egypt’s development problems, Nasser’s policies led to outright
catastrophes abroad. Cairo’s military intervention during the 1960s in the Yemen civil war was a
costly, unwinnable enterprise similar to the U.S. experience in Vietnam. Far worse, in attempting
to show his militancy and Arab leadership, Nasser threatened Israel with extinction and went to
the brink of war. In June 1967 Israel smashed the Egyptian Army in six days and captured the
Sinai peninsula. Nasser resigned, only, as happened earlier with Perón, to he recalled by a
massive, partly orchestrated demonstration. Three years later Nasser died in office with his
power and popularity intact despite Egypt’s tremendous material problems.
Nasser and Perón were well equipped to he successful dictators. They were stirring
speakers with a flair for the dramatic and intuitively able to judge a crowd. By background and
inclination, they were men of the people, educated enough to deal with the wider world but
equally able to understand the concerns and emotions of workers and peasants.
“Projecting vigor, good looks, meticulous grooming and charm, Juan Perón cut a dashing
figure” in his uniform, one observer recorded. The tall, athletic Perón, flashing his famous smile,
stood out in any crowd. Nasser was cut from a similar mold. Egyptian public figures traditionally
spoke in classical Arabic. By using Egyptian dialect, Nasser made an immediate populist
sensation with his speeches. Perón had an earthy, unpretentious style and an equally charismatic
wife, Evita, with a passionate, rousing one.
Yet their public personas and genuine concern for the public’s welfare hid cold, detached,
and manipulative personalities, eager to accumulate and unwilling to share power. They placed
themselves above colleagues by setting themselves away from them. Ambition, determination,
ruthlessness when necessary, a deep-seated mistrust of others, and a sense of mission that often
excluded compromise were qualities required by their calling.
When it came to any theoretical or philosophical ideology, neither man, like most modern
dictators, had much to offer. But their speeches and writings are full of clear explanations on
their tactics and objectives. They preached national unity against an internal oligarchy and
foreign foes. The party would organize the people; the leader would comprehend the masses’
needs and desires. Political cooperation under the leader’s baton and state-planned economic
harmony would replace the strife of democracy and capitalism. Liberation from outside control
and selfish domestic interests would allow the nation to develop without losing its own soul.
Perón’s philosophy, justicialismo, was vague even by the standards of modern dictators
and was redefined at will by Perón. He could combine Fascist ideas (a paranoid anti-Semitism
and an advocacy of syndicalism along Mussolini’s lines) alongside Marxist ones, including,
during the 1960s and 1970s, praise for Castro and Mao. Perón’s principle of verticality-a chain
of command in which he, as “conductor” stood at the top-meant that Perónists either accepted his
orders or left the movement.
Nasser’s ideology, built on a foundation of Pan-Arab nationalism, was equally
inconsistent in left-right terms. As a patriotic officer and an ambitious power seeker, Nasser was
quite willing to tailor his ideology as circumstances demanded. In his book The Philosophy of the
Revolution, Nasser wrote that success for the revolution and regime required “Unity, solidarity
and cooperation of all elements of the nation, and self-denial and self-sacrifice from the
individual.” Yet all this had to be achieved during a necessary period of change and upheaval
that threatened the “disintegration of values … dissension and discord among both class and
individuals, and the domination of corruption, suspicion … egoism.”
Nasser originally hoped “that the whole nation … only awaited the leaders to storm the
strongholds of oppression, to follow them in close orderly ranks on the Holy March to the Great
Goal” and that civilian politicians would work together rather than bicker over the spoils.
Instead, soon after the coup he realized “that the vanguard’s mission did not end at that hour, but
it had just begun.” Nasser’s discovery is reminiscent of Lenin’s: A leader was needed to
overcome the masses’ cynicism and passivity; discipline was needed to unite the activists.
The cult of the dictator’s personality helped bridge this gap, thrilling and directing the
people and a party that was a conduit for the leader’s orders rather than a ruling body in its own
right. Nasser’s parties-the best known being the Arab Socialist Union-all were virtual shadows;
the Perónist hierarchy was peopled with sycophants. The Perónist marching song proclaimed,
“Perón, Perón, how great you are!” A first grade reader during the Perónist regime taught:
“Perón is the leader. Everybody loves Perón. Everybody sings ‘Viva Perón.’ “ Nasser was
similarly idolized. People supported the dictator because he brought them a vision of the future, a
sense of dignity, and real material benefits.
Where for centuries people had feared the government as tax collector and ally of the
oligarchy, the dictator created a new identification with the regime. Where no sense of
nationhood had existed, identification with the leader proved a simple and powerful way of
promoting loyalty to a new identity. But when dictators forget the structures, guns, and
subordinates who keep them in power and succumb to megalomania-believing their almost
magical link with the people was the only thing necessary to maintain their rule–it is often a sign
that the end is near. Perón made this mistake, but Nasser never did.
Most leftists and intellectuals forgave Nasser and, to a lesser extent, Perón for repressing
and imprisoning them. The moderate writer Tawfiq al-Hakim spoke for most Egyptian
intellectuals describing how, despite the forced conformity, censorship, hypocrisy, and
repression of the Nasser era, the regime “bewitched us with the glitter of hopes that had
fascinated us for a long time, and they intoxicated us with the wine of ‘attainment’ and ‘glory,’
and we got so drunk that we lost consciousness.” The intellectuals “had no means and no
strength except to stick with [Nasser] because he had stripped us throughout the years of every
independent thought and of every strong personality other than his own.” After all, how could
these “progressive” groups oppose patriotism, anti-imperialism, and reform? Why should they
fight against a popular mass movement? How could they miss the opportunity to try hitching a
ride on the dictator’s popularity, hoping to channel it in their own direction? In addition, anti-
Americanism or friendly policies toward the Soviet Union helped a dictator appeal to the left
regardless of the content of his domestic policy. The Communists were devoted to Moscow’s
interests, and Moscow never hesitated to sacrifice local surrogates to consolidate a relationship
with a nonaligned or an anti-American dictatorship.
Those who tried to buck the tide were condemned to sterile opposition. During Perón’s
long years of exile in Spain young revolutionaries preferred to join the Perónist left. When
conservative Perónists chanted, “Perón, Evita, la patria Perónista!” radical Perónists responded,
“Perón, Evita, la patria socialista!” Both groups saw in Perón exactly what they wanted and
helped return him to power in 1973. He died the following year, and his incompetent heirs could
not hold the regime together. Another coup deposed the Perónists without tarnishing their
founder’s continuing mystique.
The Egyptian Communists even dissolved their party to join Nasserist ranks. By
providing a form of nationalist radicalism far more comprehensible and appealing to the masses
than Marxism,, Nasser restricted the Communists’ already limited appeal. While the Communists
had a special burden in proving they were more loyal to Egypt than to the USSR, intellectuals
and artists tried to break down their isolation from the common people and deny subordination to
cosmopolitan influences by throwing themselves into the dictatorship’s service and the national
In later years Nasser’s successor, Anwar al-Sadat, opened the stagnant economy to
private enterprise and foreign investment. Western observers were impressed to see shops full of
goods and Sadat’s moderate foreign policy initiatives. Egyptians were disturbed by open
inequality, corruption, and conspicuous consumption. These problems had existed under Nasser
but in a more “acceptable,” hidden form and alongside a sense of enthusiasm and national
mission which Sadat could not rekindle.
While the fruits of Sadat’s rapprochement with the United States and Israel were
welcome, Nasser’s intransigence was much more appealing than the unromantic necessity of
compromise. If one had spent years believing, as most Egyptians and Arabs did, that the Arabs
should he united, Israel destroyed, and Western influence minimized, then Sadat’s moderation
was a betrayal of principle and an abandonment of just struggles and potential victories. Sadat
saved Egypt from the precipice where Nasser left it, but his assassination in 1981 did not plunge
the country into mourning, nor did he leave a legacy of lasting adulation.
Leaders cannot be judged, then, by their objective material achievements alone. Lasting
popularity, even love, can come from a reputation, partly made by one’s own propaganda
machine, for honesty, patriotism, and faithfulness to the people. It was the local, not the
international, image that mattered. The shrewd Secretary of State Dean Acheson commented in
the 1940s that Perón was “detested by all good men-except Argentinians.”
Nasser, however, staged an irreversible change because he destroyed the old ruling elite,
redistributed economic power, and remolded the army. The fact that he succeeded politically
promoted a series of revolutions and modern dictatorships throughout the Arab world. Perón’s
failure had equally profound effects on Latin America, a region that remains the stronghold of