Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Ceauşescu Syndrome

Random Barking: Hosni's Last Stand

On December 22, 1989, the corrupt dictator of Romania, Nicolae Ceauşescu, walked out to a podium and microphones on a balcony of the Central Committee building in Romania's capital, Bucharest, overlooking its main square.

Ceauşescu had run the country's Communist party since the mid 1960's, but the last ten years of his regime was (per Wikipedia) "characterized by an increasingly erratic personality cult, nationalism and a deterioration in foreign relations with the Western powers as well as the Soviet Union."

He infamously enriched himself and various party cronies, constructed gigantic public buildings and statues (to himself) on a Stalinesque scale, while the Romanian people became increasingly impoverished. Like many other Eastern Bloc countries, the Romanian secret police operated at will -- as in Mubarak's Egypt (at least, until January 26th), to criticize or denigrate The corrupt Party, The Leader, or the Leader's wife, Elena (apparently every bit as twisted, avaricious and imperious as her dictator husband), would result in arrest and dispatch to a labor camp.

Nikki And Elena's Simple Home In Bucharest, Capital Of Romania

In April of 1989, the 'Solidarity' party gained a majority in the Polish Parliament, and effectively broke 40-plus years of Communist rule. In August, a crowd of several thousand Hungarians at a 'Pan-European Picnic' rushed across the border into Austria, and were not stopped by armed guards. And in November 1989, after mass protests in East Germany, and a relaxing of border controls between West Germany and Czechoslovakia, tens of thousands of East Berliners flooded into West Berlin. The Wall -- a fixture in the city for twenty-eight years, effectively 'came down': Berlin Bleibt Berlin.

The Wall At The Brandenburger Tor: November 11, 1989

At about the same time, a popular revolt against Ceauşescu's regime had begun in Timisoara, one of Romania's larger cities, and quickly spread throughout the country in a matter of days. Ceauşescu's response was to take personal control of the Romanian government and command of its army.

He ordered it to open fire on unarmed demonstrators in various cities, including Bucharest, in an attempt to control the rebellion -- but all it succeeded in doing was the enrage the opposition, and alienate the army, which had never been given orders to fire on civilians before.

So, when Ceauşescu stepped out on the balcony of the Communist headquarters on that morning in December, there were tens of thousands of people in the square below. It was supposed to have been a staged appearance -- a show of popular support for the old freak -- but the crowd wouldn't allow Ceauşescu to speak, chanting and booing him in huge waves. The army, which was supposed to control the crowd with deadly force if necessary, ignored its orders and stood with the protestors.

As Ceauşescu spoke, groups of protestors rushed the Central Committee building and forced their way inside. Romanian state television's broadcast of the moment (below) shows a panicked state security thug approach Ceauşescu and tell him quickly Boss; we gotta Book, right now:

The aging dictator was taken up to the building's roof -- where a helicopter waited, just in case, to allow a getaway. The crowd cheered, watching him leave Bucharest with his wife. Their intention was to find some place to organize a counterstrike to the revolutionaries (Ceauşescu was deluded enough to believe he still had any support), and they landed near the couple's large 'Summer Estate'. Taking off again, they were forced to land a short time later and taken into local custody in the city of Târgoviște, held prisoner in a local school.

As the video above shows, on December 25, 1989 (Merry Exmass, ya murderous scumbag!), Ceauşescu and his wife were tried by a military tribunal "on charges ranging from illegal gathering of wealth to genocide" (according to Wikipedia). The session was videotaped, and broadcast on Romanian state television later that same day.

Ceauşescu and his wife were found guilty and sentenced to death, taken outside the building where the trial took place and "shot almost as soon as they were placed against a wall" (It happened so quickly that the cameraman wasn't ready to videotape the actual shooting). Apparently, there had been hundreds of volunteers to join the firing squad, just from the local population.

Ironically, capital punishment in Romania was outlawed by its new government almost immediately after Nikki and Elena's execution. A number of western observers have indicated that, if Ceauşescu had simply scarpered off left the country, he might have lived.

In Egypt, Mubarak possibly believes he has done everything to appease the popular uprising calling for his exit. That it hasn't reduced the size of the public protests or their demands that Mubarak step down from power, doesn't appear to have fazed him. Today, he made the smallest of concessions in giving additional power to his newly-appointed Vice President, but he didn't get it: He's still there. And nearly everyone wants him gone.

Today, some ominous signs occurred for Mubarek -- doctors in white lab coats, attorneys in western business suits, joined the protestors in Cairo's Tahir Square who have been camped ther in shifts for two weeks. The head of the government's foreign press bureau was locked out of his own offices by his subordinates. The staff of Egypt's state-controlled main newspaper put out their own edition, siding with the public revolution and demanding Mubarek go.

In cities outside Cairo (principally, Luxor and Alexandra), the size of public demonstrations -- mini-Tahir Squares -- are apparently growing. It's clear this isn't a movement limited to a few square miles in the center of Cairo; it's in the minds and hearts of millions of Egyptians. Freedom's contagious that way.

After Mubarek spoke this evening, the protestors watching a projection of the broadcast on an improvised screen in Tahir Square were stunned, then enraged, by the man's arrogance and hubris; What part of get the hell out don't you understand? There have been calls for a 'Sixteen-million-person march' for tomorrow morning, to center on the Presidential Palace, and the state television headquarters.

This is a turning point in the events that began in late January. The Egyptian army has been a neutral force -- supporting the demonstrators simply by doing nothing, generally keeping the peace. However, they can't permit civil disorder on the scale of a mass of protestors seizing control of the Palace or the State Teevee.

If the army uses force, and protestors are killed or injured, the army is Done. They will be identified in the mind of the Protestors In The Street as supporting the Mubarek regime. And since Hosni is showing no intention to relinquish power, the longer this standoff continues, the greater the possibility of more radical action. And the only people who would truly benefit from that are Islamic extremists.

And, where is our government's position in all this? We've taken a cautious (some feel, too cautious) stand viz. Mubarak's grim clinging to power. At the same time, we can't tell him, or any Egyptian, what to do. Still, it isn't an impossibility that Obama could call Hosni and say, Mr. President, we urge you to fully step down.

I'd say that if the Egyptian army's assessment is that massive public demonstrations tomorrow may turn into a faceoff between them and a popular uprising -- then, between now and tomorrow morning, they may confront Mubarak and force him to step down.

Egypt's army is generally well-regarded; it's been the source of stability and government for fifty years. While it represents dictatorship, emergency decrees and strong-man rule, people also remember that it was their army in the 1950's which removed a corrupt, foreign-dominated playboy king, making a leader of the coup, Colonel Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt's first President. The Egyptians acquitted themselves well against the vaunted Israeli army during the 1973 war (where Mubarak was an air force commander and fighter pilot).

When Nasser died, another army general, Anwar Sadat, ascended to the Presidency -- and was later assassinated by Islamic radicals because he had signed a peace treaty with Israel. Sadat was succeeded by Mubarak, becoming Egypt's dictator in fact and using the circumstances of Sadat's death as an excuse for a State of Emergency that has lasted 30 years.

The army still has has credibility to act as a unifying force, an 'honest broker' in a transition from dictatorship to real democracy, only so long as it is perceived as neutral. If, by refusing to step down, Mubarak forces them to prevent public buildings from being seized and shoot unarmed demonstrators in the process, then it stands to lose a great deal.

We'll see what happens. I hope, for everyone's sake, that Mubarak simply understands he's Done, and leaves. But I doubt it. I see too much of Ceauşescu in this situation, and no matter what I hope for, it may not end well.

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