[Viewpoint] How dictators fall

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[Viewpoint] How dictators fall

When helicopters fly over rioting demonstrators, it often means the defeat and departure of a dictator. As if reflecting the intense panic of the passengers within, a helicopter in a demonstration shoots up to the safety of the skies, fleeing the hostility of the people below on the streets.

The flight signifies the fleeing of one era and the arrival of a new one. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak made such an exit. As his helicopter took off from his palace in Cairo over bellowing crowds, the curtain shuddered down on his iron rule of three decades.

Just hours after Mubarak’s relinquishment of power, U.S. President Barack Obama made a somber address from the Oval Office: “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. This is one of those times. The people of Egypt have spoken and their voices have been heard.” He declared: “Egypt will never be the same.”

Romanians experienced very similar moments in their capital city on a wintry day 22 years ago. I received an e-mail recently from a Romanian high school teacher who was my guide during a visit to his country last summer. He had been a college student when the country’s communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, was overthrown by a popular revolt. At the height of the mass anti-communist and anti-government protests in front of University Square in Bucharest, the dictator and his wife, who together ruled the country for 24 years, fled by helicopter on Dec. 22, 1989.

My Romanian friend recalled the scene: “It was about noon. We saw a helicopter fly over the Community Party building. Protestors dispersed in fear that shots would be fired from above. But the helicopter just flew by. News spread that the dictator had left. The helicopter set the stage for our dramatic change in destiny. We cheered. We were proud that we accomplished what had seemed impossible. We made history. We understand the rapture and pride the Egyptians must be feeling now.”

Ceausescu and his wife were executed a few days later.

When in Cairo, anyone feels like a historian. It is one of the birthplaces of civilization. We brood on history’s turns, its ups and downs, ruminating on the country’s rise and fall. The mass revolt and democratic revolution came in surges, tipping a supposed dogma - that democracy is not compatible with Islam - on its ear.

The non-violent, youth-led Egyptian revolution differed from the revolt against the Iranian monarchy in 1979. That revolution replaced monarchy with theocracy in which religion and clerics control the people. The freedom Egypt’s people fought for and earned raises political sensitivity in the Middle East and far beyond.

We have been particularly touched by the Arab revolutionary fervor because it resembles the turmoil in our own modern history. There are similarities and differences between the protests in Egypt and those in Korea in June 1987. The cries demanding the end of dictatorship were the same.

But the circumstances differed. The Korean economy at the time was booming. College graduates went straight to well-paid jobs. The country was progressing toward social democratization after industrialization.

Egypt’s economy is in a critical state. Unemployment among young people hovers above 30 percent. Poverty is deepening. Democratization on a feeble economic foundation can be risky. That is why President Obama and others say Mubarak’s departure is just the beginning of a long and potentially perilous journey for the people of Egypt.

Thoughts naturally jump to the tenacious dictatorship across our border. North Korean founder Kim Il Sung was close to both Mubarak and Ceausescu, particularly the latter. Ceausescu visited Pyongyang five times and Kim returned visits four times. The trip between East Europe and East Asia could not have been easy. The North Korean Rodong Sinmun in October 1988 said the two leaders shared a comradeship based on revolutionary solidarity.

Ceausescu imitated Pyongyang when he redesigned his capital. He built a presidential palace that was almost as large as the U.S. Pentagon. He imported Kim Il Sung’s juche (self-reliance) ideology as well as his personality cult. His dictatorship turned erratic and draconian.

Mubarak visited Pyongyang four times. When Egypt was at war with Israel in October 1973, North Korea supplied pilots and fighter jets. When Mubarak visited Pyongyang 10 years later, Kim recalled that soldiers of the two countries fought beside one another in a battle. Egypt had overpowered Israel at the beginning of the war. Mubarak had been chief of the air forces. Mubarak was also inspired by North Korea’s father-to-son power succession.

In the museum in Abdeen Palace in Cairo stands a large painting of Kim and Mubarak hand-in-hand. It was a gift to Mubarak from Kim on the Egyptian president’s 60th birthday. Egyptians are ripping down photos of their ousted leader. That painting may be next.

The Egyptian revolution was a surprise to many. Experts and scholars had been skeptical of its success, as they were with the Romanian revolt. Few can predict where history is headed. That is God’s realm. Historical change can take place as in a flash of lightening. It happened with the Communist bloc and can happen with North Korea. Against such unpredictability, we can only try to be prepared and wait.

*The writer is the executive editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.


By Park Bo-gyoon

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