How do dictators retain power, even when reviled and mocked by those they govern?

Modern-day despots wish to be blessed for their extravagant genius. But, Robert Fisk asks, what are we to make of this lunacy? And do they really believe their own hype?

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Clockwise from left to right: Hosni Mubarak; Adolf Hitler; Colonel Gaddafi; Benito Mussolini; Saddam Hussein; and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi ( Getty )

Alaa Al-Aswany is a good guy. Romantic – far too romantic – about revolutions. And almost facile in his willingness to believe that generals in sun-shades who depose elected presidents can at first be trusted. But I’m not surprised that Egypt’s master-writer has now decided that dictatorship is a syndrome, a medical condition that can even be diagnosed – but not, I fear, cured. Aswany, I should add, is also a member of that profession which I find most terrifying: he is a dentist. A good man, then, to work away on the decaying teeth of the Egyptian revolution.

His latest work, The Dictatorship Syndrome – albeit less powerful than his novels (read The Yacoubian Building, if no other), which froth with veracity – is thus going to further enrage President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, who toppled Mohamed Morsi, a Muslim Brotherhood official, in 2013. Sisi was pretty fed up with Aswany after his previous book, The Republic, As If came out. “It’s about how a dictatorship looks ‘as if’ it is true,” he told me back in 2014. “With fair elections, [government] departments, and so on – ‘as if’.”

Not long after we met then, Aswany was banned from publishing his weekly column in Egypt …

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