Affairs

Politics

Maghreb focus: A dyeing breed of despots— Egypt

Preface

The recent rebellions against various unpleasant Arab tyrants have prompted a number of responses.

Rebellion

3 March 2011

The recent rebellions against various unpleasant Arab tyrants have prompted a number of responses. Hope, that the people of the Middle East might at last grasp the liberty they deserve. Fear, that whoever follows the unhorsed autocrats into power might be worse. Confusion, as to how or whether the West should involve itself.

However, one sentiment has surely united a riveted world, and it is this: “Uh. . . what’s with the rug?” It cannot have escaped anybody’s notice that the exiled Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia (aged 74), the toppled Hosni Mubarak of Egypt (aged 82), the tottering-at-time-of-writing Muammar Gaddafi of Libya (aged 68), and all of their variously beset colleagues across the Middle East, sport luxuriant dark locks, which are – to put it charitably – remarkable for men of their advancing years. The effects of the current upheavals upon the world’s oil markets have been much discussed, but the repercussions for the global hair colourant trade could be catastrophic.

All politicians are vain. Even in the most affable, civilised democracy, it still requires an engorged ego to presume to lead, boneheaded self-belief to reach the pinnacles of power, and vigilant consciousness of one’s image to stay there. None of which is a problem when one is held accountable by electorate and media, and when one has taken office on the understanding that it won’t last forever. However, when power is unconstrained, unchallenged and unending, it is extraordinary how quickly the potentate in question can become, at least to the outside observer, preposterous. Colonel Gaddafi in particular now resembles his own Spitting Image puppet, as voiced by a drunk.

Italian journalist Riccardo Orizio has met more fallen chieftains than most – he wrote of his meetings with deposed strongmen in his gently funny book Talk Of The Devil, “It’s not that they want to remain young, exactly,” he says of their concern with physical appearance. “It’s that they want to stop the clock of history. They see themselves as men of destiny. Gaddafi has been in power for 41 years, which is a long time, but compared to history, it’s nothing. They want to freeze themselves where they are now, so they feel immortal, eternal.”

Maybe, then, it’s unfair to suggest that age-denying, reality-defying cosmetic regimes are peculiar to the sharifs: let he who has never plucked a grey eyebrow follicle cast the first stone. It should also be conceded, lest we in the democratic West succumb to the temptations of superiority, that Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi – and every other desperate despot combing in the Grecian 2000 as his palace walls shake – would be correct in observing that none of them look nearly as ridiculous as the duly elected Silvio Berlusconi.

Monocle 24

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