Gaddafi's son has been linked to arms smuggling. Saddam's kids were rapists and torturers. The children of despots often hasten their fathers' downfall. Just ask Mubarak.
Hosni Mubarak is falling from power in Egypt partly because he refused to heed one of history’s hidden lessons: Dictators shouldn’t have sons.
Most do. That often hastens their downfall or that of their nations.
Egyptians might have been willing to accept their lot for a while longer if the ailing Mubarak had not made it clear he intended his son, Gamal, to succeed him in power. Of all his arrogant acts, none insulted his people more than his insistence that of the 80 million Egyptians, Gamal Mubarak was best qualified to lead the country. The plan was for him to rise to power not by popular vote, but only because his father wished it that way.
Barely a week after protests exploded in Egypt, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen publicly promised that he would stop maneuvering to place his son, Ahmed, in the presidency after he departs. At the same time, King Abdullah of Jordan, who succeeded his father on the throne, sacked his government in an effort to shore up his regime. His monarchy seems secure for the moment, like that of his namesake in Saudi Arabia, but the idea that sons have the right to succeed their fathers in positions of near absolute power has ever fewer supporters.
A few sons of dictators have managed to hold on to the family business, notably Bashar al-Assad of Syria and Kim Jong Il of North Korea. Most, however, fail abjectly. Africa is especially rich with examples. The sons of Idi Amin, Daniel Arap Moi, and Jomo Kenyatta could not manage the power their fathers tried to give them. Closer to home, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier ascended to the Haitian presidency after his father’s death but could not keep it; his effort to return to power is severely handicapped by people’s memories not only of his corruption and brutality, but that of his father.
In some countries, even the prospect of dynastic succession is now enough to ignite popular outrage. This might give pause to dictators like Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, two of whose sons are said to be leading candidates to succeed him after he is gone. Even if they do not manage to take and hold power, they are examples of the dissolute lives that sons of dictators often lead.
One of Gaddafi’s sons, Saif, was investigated for arms smuggling in Germany. Another, Hannibal, set off a diplomatic row with Switzerland when he was arrested in Geneva on charges of abusing his housekeeper. His résumé also includes charges of attacking policemen in Italy, driving his Porsche against traffic and at high speed on the Champs-Élysées while intoxicated, and causing police to be summoned to Claridges Hotel in London when his wife was heard screaming in their room (she later said a fall had caused her cuts and bruises).
Saddam Hussein’s sons, Uday and Qusai, were renowned torturers and rapists. Rape was also a favorite pastime of Nicu Ceauşescu, son of the late Romanian dictator; he was said to enjoy assaulting women while his security guards beat the husbands. Nicu was also a compulsive gambler and heavy drinker, as other sons have been. Others have become infamous for drug use, and some, like Chucky Taylor of Liberia and Marko Milosevic of Serbia, are said to have gone into the drug business themselves.
It does not take great psychological insight to conclude that the exaggerated sense of privilege these young men assimilate leads them to think there is no limit to the reckless depravity that is allowed them.
In addition to excesses of sex, alcohol, drugs, and gambling, many share another favorite young man’s pastime: sports. Marko Milosevic loved racing fast cars, Baby Doc rode equally fast motorcycles, and sons of both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi took charge of their country’s athletic programs. Saadi Gaddafi even named himself to a spot on Libya’s national soccer team.
Impulsive violence is also part of this equation. How else to explain reports that Chucky Taylor once beat his driver to death after finding a scratch on one of his cars, or that Uday Hussein ordered the torture of soccer players whose performance displeased him?
The accession of sons often sets off bursts of protest. In 2005, police in Togo killed more than 400 protesters after the ruling clique arranged for Faure Gnassingbe to succeed his late father as president.
Four years later, riots broke out in Gabon when election officials announced that Ali Ben Bongo had been chosen as president to replace his late father. Joseph Kabila managed to rise to power in the Congo without much protest after succeeding his assassinated father in 2001, but he is an exception. In Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni may be among those reconsidering plans to place sons in power.
How can strongmen avoid this curse? There are three options. One is the “silken cord” solution favored by Ottoman sultans. They often had their sons killed—strangled with a cord because their blood was considered too sacred to spill—to avoid future trouble. It seems brutal, but defenders of the practice like to point out that the death toll was infinitesimal compared to the vast numbers who died in European wars of succession.
The exaggerated sense of privilege these young men assimilate leads them to think there is no limit to the reckless depravity that is allowed them.
The second solution is to have no children. That was George Washington’s path—some historians believe an early bout with smallpox left him sterile—and it may have had a profound effect on history. The monarchical idea was still powerful in Washington’s era, and he was so widely revered that if he had produced a son, there might have been intense pressure to make him president. That could have set the United States off on a profoundly different course.
When people wonder why Turkey has emerged as the most successful country in the Muslim Middle East, they should not overlook the fact that the nation’s founder, Kemal Ataturk, had no children. Like Washington, he was wildly admired and could easily have named a son to succeed him. Instead, like Washington, he gently faded from power and allowed his country to evolve toward democracy.
There is a third option: Have daughters instead of sons. History suggests that daughters of strongmen tend to be good leaders, even highly capable. Among them have been Megawati Sukarnoputri of Indonesia, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan, Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, and Indira Gandhi of India. They seem to have inherited a sense of power and leadership, and though they have not been above corruption, they tend to be more open-minded, more willing to compromise, and less drawn to testosterone-driven pursuits like speedy racing, substance abuse, and torture.
Alas for Mubarak, it’s too late for the silken cord, and he has no daughter.
Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent. His new book is Reset: Iran, Turkey and America's Future.