Massive protests have rocked Algeria as thousands of people have taken to streets against the president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s decision to stand for a fifth term. Bouteflika is 82 years old and has used a wheelchair since a stroke in 2013, but his craving for power seems insatiable. The demonstrations are reminiscent of the 2011 Arab spring. It’s worth drawing the eternal lessons from these revolts for the contemporary power-hungry rulers.
Series of revolutions swept the Arab World in 2011, toppling the long-time rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. Bahrain, Yemen and Libya also witnessed unprecedented public rage. Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt for 30 years (from 1981 to 2011). Muammar Gaddafi ruled Libya for over 40 years, making him one of the longest-serving rulers in history. Ben Ali of Tunisia remained in power for 24 years before he was forced to step down and flee the country in January 2011. Ali Abdullah Saleh ruled Yemen for 34 years. King Hamad of Bahrain has been holding power since 1999.
Besides the political and other factors, human nature has also a part to play in the public anger against the likes of Bouteflika, Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali. These rulers may have different personalities but they all committed one blunder- they outlived their stay, serving as a sub-conscious reason for their subjects to stage a rebellion.
When the rulers tend to extend their stay, people grow tired of them. People lose respect for them. They appear no different from the rest of mankind. Rather they appear worse since we compare their current status in our eyes to their former one. People in power who realize this aspect of human nature know the art of when to retire. If it is done right, they regain the respect they had lost, and retain a part of their power.
Charles V. King of Spain is a good example in this respect. At one point, his empire included much of Europe. Yet at the height of his power, in 1557, he retired to a monastery. His sudden withdrawal captivated Europe. People who hated and feared him suddenly felt respect for him. He came to be seen as a saint.
This art of withdrawal also holds good for celebrities. Amitabh Bachchan is undoubtedly the biggest superstar of Bollywood. However, while many people still adore him, there are many more who have simply grown tired of watching him on TV and in films for the last 50 years. On the contrary, famous Hollywood actress Greta Garbo did not wait for her audience to grow tired of her. She was never more admired than when she retired, in 1941. For some her absence came too soon she was in her mid-thirties but she preferred to leave on her own terms, rather than waiting for her fans to get bored of her.
There is nothing new about the resentment of people against the people in power as seen in Algeria and elsewhere. It has been happening throughout the history of mankind. Even when the democratically elected rulers undermine their subjects, they are bound to face public wrath.
Robert Greene cites a strange ritual in the sixth century B.C Athens, which overthrew series of petty tyrants, who had dominated its politics for decades, to establish a democracy that became the source of its power and its proudest achievement. Athenians faced a dilemma: How to deal with those who did not care about their small city surrounded by enemies, but thought of only themselves and their own ambitions. The Athenians understood that these people, if left alone, would sow dissension, divide the city into factions, and stir up anxieties, which could ruin their democracy. Violent punishment no longer suited the new, civilized order that Athens had created. The citizens found another, less brutal way to deal with the chronically selfish: Every year they would gather in the marketplace and write on a piece of earthenware, an ‘ostrakon’, the name of an individual they wanted to see banished from the city for ten years. If a particular name appeared on six thousand ballots, that person would instantly be exiled. If no one received six thousand votes, the person with the most ‘ostraka’ recording his name would suffer the ten-year “ostracism.” This ritual expulsion became a kind of festival as people were able to banish those individuals who wanted to rise above the group they should have served.
As renowned author Robert Greene sums it up, “Like all ephemeral things in this world, the aura power also wears away with time. People who become used to power find it hard to make way for other people often leading to a gradual fall in their popularity and in some cases even culminating with their disgraceful exit.”