Dictators do not usually die in bed. Successful retirement is always a problem for them, and few solve it. It is a problem for everybody else when they leave. What’s to be done afterward? The popular uprising that overturned the dictatorial Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in Tunisia last week sent a thrill of hope through Arab populations, or at least through Arab democrats.

Except for the complex case of Lebanon, since the demise of the Ottoman Empire and its successors (in Tunisia’s case, the Beys of Tunis who ruled from the end of the 17th century until Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1883), Arabs have mostly known European empire, exploitative military and party dictatorships, and recently, hereditary family dictatorships — a reversion to absolute monarchy in secular guise. Secular absolutism lacks the rationale, as well as the radiance, of absolute religion, as in Morocco — whose rulers have claimed descent from the Prophet Muhammad, a crucial recommendation.

The deposed president Ben Ali spent the first part of his career as a promising young army officer. His career led into intelligence and security, always a highway to success in the contemporary Arab world. He attended courses at Saint-Cyr in France and the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Holabird in Maryland. When the republic’s founder, President-for-life Habib Bourguiba, became too enfeebled to carry on, Ben Ali’s succession to the presidency was reportedly arranged collaboratively by Italian and Algerian intelligence. The former French colonial power and the CIA reportedly were not involved, although they took a proprietary interest in the regime that followed.

Ben Ali’s economic and educational reforms produced the best educated and most prosperous of the Maghreb states, with, as the result, an underemployed intellectual class and a frustrated middle class, both contributing to his downfall. His wife, a nouveau riche ex-hairdresser, and her immediate family were generally credited, during the Ben Ali presidency, with a rapacious personal enrichment that contributed massively to the ruling family’s popular repudiation. It is a familiar story, with parallels in the business and banking elites of Western countries, where enrichment is also prized, but political elites and their wives are usually more prudent.

At this writing, efforts to construct a transitional Tunisian government are going badly, since, having rid themselves of Ben Ali, the public seems unwilling to see him replaced either by former associates or figures from an opposition that mostly has existed in exile.

This, classically, is where a would-be Napoleon steps in, and the army in Tunisia has fairly successfully kept its hands clean during the regime’s rise and fall. However, next-door Algeria, when under military rule; the grotesque Col. Moammar Gadhafi in Libya; and Egypt’s thus-far immovable Hosni Mubarak (along with his ambitious son) provide deplorable precedents for Arab elites who want to believe that events in Tunisia mark the dawn of a new future.

And what about Laurent Gbagbo in the Ivory Coast? A former member of the Socialist International, helped into power by French Socialists during the Mitterrand presidency, Gbagbo contends (or at least his evangelical Protestant wife contends) that God sent him to rule the Ivory Coast, no matter what internationally supervised presidential elections, the United Nations, the African Union and various foreign countries have to say about the electoral victory of his longtime rival Alassane Ouattara. His French lawyers want a recount — just as in America in 2000.

He still controls the seat of government in Abidjan, and his supporters roam the city. The internationally recognized president Ouattara is besieged by Gbagbo’s army in the luxury Hotel Du Golf, living on provisions helicoptered in by the U.N., which, like the African Union troops to which it is officially allied, excuses itself and backs off when bands of young Gbagbo supporters block roads and tell it to go away. One of the French journalists there, who was also in the Balkans in the 1990s, calls the U.N. troops “expensively useless.”

But if the U.N. were to go about installing leaders by force in various countries, no matter how just the cause, there would be hell to pay elsewhere, including in the United States. Hasn’t the American right wing been explaining for years that the U.N., instigated by liberal elites and the left-wing New York Times, is waiting to send its “black helicopters” to arrest American patriots and install aliens and androids in high Washington office? They could be practicing in Africa. And Gbagbo has the support of a solid ethnic bloc of some 45 percent of the electorate, whereas Ouattara, a Muslim with a French wife, is supported by heterogeneous minorities and by foreigners. Gbagbo is playing the nationalist and anti-colonialist cards, and they look like the winning cards — the president-for-life cards.

Visit William Pfaff’s website for more on his latest book, “The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America’s Foreign Policy” (Walker & Co., $25), at williampfaff.com.

© 2011 Tribune Media Services Inc.

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