Even the most brutal dictators and tyrants are comical, and every dictator is comical in his own way. It’s not the kind of humour that really makes you laugh or go home with a warm glowing feeling. The comedy is generally low, often cruel, and invariably grotesque.
For example there is a story – which may or may not be apocryphal – that Saddam Hussein’s car was once driving through an Iraqi village, and one member of the crowd didn’t wave. So one of the cars stopped and some of his security men stopped and cut the man’s hand off, and then continued driving.
Stalin also had a similar sense of humour, even if his jokes were more subtle and private. Like the time he sentenced the poet Osip Mandelstam to hard labour because Mandelstam wrote a satirical poem about him, and then released him, and then punished him with internal exile, and then released him again so that he believed his punishment was over – and then finally sent him to a camp again, where he died. Boom-boom!
Dictators do things like that, partly because they or their henchmen feel like it, and partly because they are able to, because the limitless and unchallengeable power at their disposal makes it possible for them to perpetrate the cruelest, most vindictive, stupid, ridiculous, grotesque, brutal and immoral acts, knowing that most of the people under their control are too terrified to ever describe them as such.
To some extent such power drives them to keep on perpetrating such acts, because even the most powerful dictators and regimes know that they are never really loved, no matter how many choreographed spectacles they are able to generate. They know that fear, not love, is what keeps them where they are, and they need to continually terrify and overawe their populations into a state of absolute worship and submission, and prove to themselves that their control is absolute and unassailable.
It’s this discrepancy between the appearance and the substance that makes dictatorships comical; between the public outpourings of love and devotion to Comrade Stalin and the Black Marias quietly escorting his enemies to imprisonment, torture and death; between the gormless reverential expressions of attendees at North Korean party conferences who hang on Kim Jong Un’s every word, and the vengeful Joffrey-like despot who ordered the execution of his unle and his entire family; between the ludicrous televised fifteen-minute songs glorifying Saddam Hussein that were regularly broadcast on his birthday, and the merciless thuggery that kept him in power.
Ryszard Kapusinksi captured the tragi-comic aspects of autocracy in his account of the last days of the Haile Salaisse regime The Emperor. And so did Graham Greene in his sweaty, terrifying depiction of ‘Papa Doc’ Duvalier’s Haiti The Comedians. Duvalier didn’t get the joke, and was so outraged that he got the Haitian Foreign Ministry to produce a pamphlet called Graham Greene Demasquée, (Graham Green Finally Unmasked) which denounced him as ‘ A liar, a cretin, a stool-pigeon… unbalanced, sadistic, perverted… a perfect ignoramus… lying to his heart’s content… the shame of proud and noble England… a spy… a drug addict… a torturer.’
But Duvalier’s reaction is also crucial to dictator comedy, which tends to be an inadvertent and unintential consequence of their actions. Dictators like people to laugh when they laugh, and cry when they cry. They do not like criticism, whether it comes from insiders or outsiders, and they certainly don’t want to be mocked for actions that they take very seriously.
Take Egypt’s General Mohammed al-Sisi. This is a man who has barely had a chance to establish himself in power, but already his regime is setting bold new standards in cutting-edge dictator comedy.
First an Egyptian judge in March sentenced 529 members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for an attack on a local police station last year. In April the same judge sentenced 688 more Muslim Brotherhood activists to death after a trial lasting less than ten minutes. Three days ago, an Egyptian court upheld 183 of these sentences.
And now, the regime has come up with another side-splitting classic, by sentencing three al Jazeera journalists to prison for seven years for ‘disseminating false information and consorting with the Muslim Brotherhood.’ Evidence produced against them in court includes video clips of a flock of sheep, tourist riding horses in the pyramids, a demonstration in Kenya, one of the defendant’s holiday snaps and a pop song with no connection to anything at all.
Now don’t tell me that isn’t comical. Which isn’t the same thing as saying that it’s funny, or that anyone should laugh at this grotesque mockery of justice and due process. But one of the things that makes dictatorships comical is their ability to normalise and institutionalize actions that should be worthy of the most unreserved mockery and condemnation, and to do it with an entirely straight face.
Through these flagrant show trials, General Mohammed al-Sisi has achieved this normalisation in record time, and transformed his country into a terrifying bad joke. And if this is how he intends to begin, then Egypt is in for some very bad times indeed, and it is now incumbent upon Egyptians – and the rest of the world – to bring the comedy to an end, and overturn these atrocious and shameful verdicts.