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This may make the dictators seem almost absurdly clueless, but in this sense, Mubarak is no worse than the rest of us. As a rule, Haidt explains, we all have a more accurate impression of other people their skills, temperaments and talents than we do of ourselves. There's a reason for the much-cited findings that while American kids rank in the middle of the pack on global measures of academic skills, they rank at the top in self-confidence. We're just not good self-evaluators. "Now," says Haidt, "scale that up to an aging dictator who's been in office for decades."
Defiance plays a role too. David Ottoway, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, was once a journalist for the Washington Post reporting from Egypt and was in fact on the reviewing stand in 1981 when Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated. In the preceding months, he says, Sadat had been consolidating his power in much the way Mubarak did, with harassment and arrests of his political opponents. When the West condemned these moves, Ottaway says that Sadat, quite literally, underwent a mental breakdown.
"He had been a global hero for a long time, but then the western press turned against him," Ottoway says. "He responded by kicking out the reporter for Le Monde. He kicked out NBC. At a press conference, someone asked him if he had consulted with Washington before he began his domestic crackdown and he went nuts, saying he would not respond to Western diktats. He couldn't believe he was being questioned. In Mubarak's case, I'm once again thinking of the last weeks of Sadat."
Mubarak's decision, at last, to throw in the towel may have played out in his mind in the same incremental way the demonstrations played out across the country. Lustick believes that in both cases, there is a slow building of momentum, with different voices arguing different options, until, again, a cascade begins.
"There's always a voice in the dictator's brain that says you should get out now," Lustick says, "but the voices in the middle, the ones that are unsure, are the loudest, and that keeps him where he is. After a while, however, the dictator stops worrying about the longer-term future and instead worries about the near-term danger of being wrong. You saw the same thing from the Shah and Nicolae Ceausecu. They made all these speeches saying I'm never going to leave and then boom, suddenly they're gone."
It is perhaps the ultimate indignity for vainglorious types like dictators that their final acts in office so often involve nothing more heroic than saving their own skins as well as their own fortunes and Mubarak appears to have salvaged both. But scientists see an even greater humiliation at work than that. Mubarak's sudden, Thursday-to-Friday transition from rigidity to capitulation is what Lustick describes as a "cusp catastrophe. Think of a dog that's snarling at you and looks like it's ready to snap," he says. "The fact is, at the same time, he's right at the point of running away with his tail between his legs."
Let that then capture the long-in-coming departure of Hosni Mubarak dictator, oppressor, very bad dog.