By EMEDIONG BONIFACE
FINDING similarities in approach between a Twentieth Century corporatist authoritarian leader in Western Europe and a Twenty-First Century Arab authoritarian leader is a tricky undertaking at best. The opinions in this article are explicitly about the similarities in the fortunes, characters and mannerisms of Antonio de Oliveira Salazar and Bashar Al-Assad, understanding fully the difference between the histories, traditions, cultures, realities and challenges of two separate eras and geographical locations.
The Syrian war has stayed with us longer than we ever envisaged, more so that it is possible to forget that it was part of the 2011 Arab spring that has delivered mixed results in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. Caught up in it were the vastly experienced Muammar Al-Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Zine Abidine Bin Ali, who between them had stayed in power for a combined 96 years and Bashar Al-Assad, who looked the weakest and most vulnerable of the quartet.
But that narrative was wrong. Bashar is the last man standing on the list, the youngest and perhaps relatively less experienced. Previously living under the shadows of the more famous trio, Bashar is now the mystery man of the Arab world prompting this unusual comparison with the former Portuguese Prime Minister, Antonio Salazar.
Few out of Europe and the former Portuguese colonies remember a lot about the man. A cold, uninteresting and reserved personality but critically aided by an affection for men of weaker character whom he could manipulate to implement his strategies. Salazar was overshadowed by his more colourful contemporaries such as Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini and Francisco Franco but like Bashar, his regime outlived most of theirs with the exception of Franco.
Bashar’s father, the late Hafez Al-Assad, had ruled Syria since 1970 but Bashar the second son was famously never interested in politics and government, concentrating fully on his medical career in the United Kingdom. Salazar, although from a more modest background, was also averse to politics and governance and dedicated his life to his job as a young economics professor at the University of Coimbra, Portugal. Both men only consented to governance under enormous persuasions and tragedies. In Bashar’s case, the death of his brother, Bassel, who was heir apparent turned his father’s attention to grooming Bashar to take over and sit on his perch while Salazar was gifted power on a plate by the military who after seizing power through a coup d’état later found the arts of government beyond them and Portugal needed an economic miracle.
Bashar has shown an inhumane doggedness to remain in power even at the expense of thousands of Syrian lives, and a barely existent economy, a rare strength that could only be equated with how Salazar could wage a war in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea Bissau, losing countless young soldiers lives to violence and tropical diseases and operated a war economy for years but never conceded to the the French and British approach of granting independence to their colonies. It is especially striking because unlike France and Britain, Portugal was for decades the poorest and most underdeveloped country in Western Europe. How he could wage wars on three fronts for years remains a mystery that perhaps only Bashar might have a clue about.
Salazar was kept in power chiefly by the economic interests of a narrow elite while Bashar has succeeded in exploiting a very deep sectarian base in Syria and has been kept on his throne by the power of the Alawites minority who consider Tehran closer than Riyadh in their religious and political understandings. Bashar’s status as persona-non-grata around the world means his plane can only land in Moscow or Tehran outside his sphere of influence in Syria, and he has been forced to remain in Damascus indefinitely by fate. A fact Salazar had chosen for himself personally, it sounds unbelievable but Salazar was Prime Minister for 36 years but had never left Portugal before, he never visited any of the Portuguese colonies which is bizarre for a man who was twice Minister of the colonies. To be frank, he hardly ever left his study at home. He only got on an aircraft once in his lifetime when he was already in his seventies and was never married, Bashar is married though. His wars in Africa were completely overshadowed by the Vietnam War which occurred simultaneously, a fortune Bashar has enjoyed to a certain degree with Russia’s annexation of Crimea briefly dominating the headlines and keeping the US, EU and NATO preoccupied and monitoring an active conflict situation closer to home and their economic interests.
Both men came into power as reformists. Salazar was brought in first as Finance Minister and later became Prime Minister to rescue Portugal from the economic disorder the First Republic and the Military Regime had created but few years later, the financial dictator became dictator pure and simple. Prior to Bashar’s ascent to power, the world had viewed the western trained ophthalmologist as a moderate and a far departure from his father. Bashar duly obliged by initially promising and making certain attempts at key reforms only to abandon them in pursuit of power with a penchant that defined Salazar’s reign.
Only time will tell how far Bashar’s fortunes will intertwine with that of Europe’s most mysterious leader. One thing is certain: though, Bashar will most likely leave on his own terms.
n Emediong writes from Abuja.