Overthrown in Thy Name
By A.D. Freudenheim

5 January 2003

In his book The Emperor,[1] the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski eloquently described the disintegration of Haile Selassie's forty-year reign in Ethiopia. Selassie was ultimately undone by a military coup organized by a cabal of junior officers known as the Derg, having survived palace intrigues (much of them likely of his own creation) for more than forty years, and having consistently reasserted his position not merely as the emperor but as the living manifestation of Ethiopia itself.

What is most fascinating about Kapuscinski's book is his description of the actual collapse of Selassie's reign, the final months in which the military asserted that it was acting by order of the emperor himself as it arrested government ministers, rounded up notables and members of the aristocracy, created a commission to investigate corruption, and slowly secured its hold over the nation. Each step proclaimed the emperor's name, inoculating the military against the wrath of the people, causing confusion among Selassie's inner circle, and isolating the aging ruler - who, Kapuscinski notes, must have seen the writing on the wall quite clearly. The collapse of Selassie's harsh, quasi-empire happened in 1974. Now, looking at the world - and particularly at President Bush's "axis of evil" nations - the apparent ease of Selassie's overthrow makes for an appealing political story. In each of these three nations, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, it is not difficult to imagine similar events playing themselves out.

In fact, in Iran it is arguably happening already. It was in the name of Islam that the Shah was overthrown in 1979, and it is in the name of Islam that the deeply conservative mullahs maintain their hold on Iranian society; they claim to know what is best for Iranians in all areas of life. Now, more than twenty years after the revolution, the Iranian reformists (both those in government and those protesting in the streets), are calling for changes in Iranian rule: in the name of Islam. Iran's current, developing level of democracy does not meet the needs of the people, they claim - and does not live up to the ideals for Iranian society put forward during the revolution. In the long-term, the ultimate victory of the reformers seems guaranteed (if nothing else, they have youth on their side), but what will likely make the difference between a peaceful and a combative transition will be how the reformists' use of Islam as their guiding light.

The military overthrow of Saddam Hussein is, of course, a hoped-for scenario in neighboring Iraq, a change in power that could slow or prevent an American invasion, and allow both the American belligerents and the Iraqis themselves to save face. At this point, with Hussein essentially cornered (American troops are flooding into the region, with more than 200,000 expected over the next few weeks in addition to the many thousands already based there) and news reports that the Iraqi people would almost welcome an invasion to topple their dictator, the next steps for Iraq's generals should be clear. Unlike the Stauffenberg-style assassination attempt against Hitler, Iraq's generals could likely pull off their coup in Hussein's own name, and without killing their commander. By all accounts Hussein is already living in constrained style, afraid for his life; could putting him under a quiet house-arrest really be a challenge? And who, aside from Hussein's own sons, would truly try to stop such efforts?

Likewise in North Korea, where the cult-of-personality surrounding Kim Jong-il may be similar to that once enjoyed by Haile Selassie - and where the nation's poverty is nearly as intense. The North Korean military is huge - at roughly one million soldiers, it is more than twice the size of Iraq's army - and eats up some 33% of the nation's annual budget, while the country relies heavily on foreign food aid to feed its people.[2] Realistically, the army may be the only internal force holding the nation together and preventing a reunification with its wealthier, more democratic southern neighbor. (Well, the military and the People's Republic of China. But in the long-run, a wealthier North Korea that can serve as a market for Chinese goods should be a more useful ally than a poor North Korea that requires Chinese financial support. The cold war is over, people!) A coup by the North's military could bring an end to the regime, and do so with the aim of fulfilling the nation's stated mission: to provide for its people.

The essence of what Kapuscinski records as the history in Ethiopia is not difficult to understand. Ultimately, it hinges on the idea of the "loyal opposition," a long-standing approach to politics deployed effectively by many movements over hundreds of years. Of course, not every group is adept at using this tool; look at the Democratic Party here in the U.S., for example, where they have failed miserably in recent months. However, in times of national crisis, like those faced in Ethiopia in the 1970s - when the government was utterly corrupt, famine was rampant, and the nation decaying rapidly - it is perhaps very effective in galvanizing people or movements in the name of large-scale governmental change. It would be unfair to suggest that such radical changes are easy to make, but it does seem clear that what awaits the people of Iraq, North Korea, and Iran is only the right moment, when they can seize the day and change their futures.

[1] The Emperor, by Ryszard Kapuscinski,
translated from the Polish by William R. Brand
and Katarzyna Mroczkowska-Brand, published
in 1989 by Vintage International. Also see my
article The Shadow of Human Relations.
[2] Facts and figures are from the Central
Intelligence Agency's World Factbook 2002. The
section on North Korea is available online at:
Copyright 2003, by A.D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired! Contact A. D. Freudenheim for further information.
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