Former Arab leaders who can peacefully walk the streets of the country they once ruled are something of a rarity. In fact, there are very few former Arab leaders around today. Everyone highlights the example of [Abdel Rahman] Swar al-Dahab, who ruled Sudan for less than one year [1985-86], before voluntarily handing power over to his successor, and returning to his normal life. It is true that al-Dahab is an exception to my earlier statement, but we should not also forget that he came to power via a military coup.
The crisis for an Arab president in power is that he knows the only way he can leave power peacefully is to the grave. Historically speaking, a leader would know after his election, or coup, that he would not leave the presidential palace on the red carpet which he used to enter it. The story of Tunisia’s ousted leader Ben Ali is none other than the traditional outcome for all those who have left the presidency alive. Without doubt, it is these leaders that are responsible for their tragic ends, which they willingly drove themselves towards, whilst bringing chaos to their people. They were preoccupied with cementing their rule, rather than establishing a regime in which power could be transferred peacefully.
In the Arab sphere, the position of ‘ruler’ is the most dangerous of all professions, even if the ruler conducts himself within a legal framework. For instance, even after Rafik Hariri resigned, whilst in his second term as Prime Minister, the then President of the Republic, Emil Lahud, who disagreed with Hariri, was not content with this forced resignation. Lahud tightened the constraints on Hariri’s daily life, arrested three of his ministers, and prevented the former Prime Minister’s car from accessing the airport. Of course, in the end, Rafik Hariri was murdered. It seems that Lebanon is a country at war, regardless of what is said about peace agreements being signed, and the daily manifestations of civil peace. For another example, let us consider Sadiq al-Mahdi, Sudan’s former Prime Minister, who was elected by a majority, and ruled his country for three years. His rivals, whom al-Mahdi defeated in the election, turned against him with the assistance of the army. He was arrested and held in Kober Prison, despite the fact that he was a man of peace. This is the nature of our cruel regimes that do not allow even the smallest margin of freedom for their opponents, nor do they respect [their leaders] when they leave power.
Since 1949, when the Syrian Husni al-Zaim initiated an era of successful Arab coups, the typical Arab presidency has resembled a race for wild horses; dangerous to ride, difficult to stay on board, and extremely risky to depart safely. Contrary to this, let us consider institutional systems. For example, regarding the 300 year-old Westminster regime in Britain, Tony Blair was defeated in an electoral vote, and returned home to his children. Jimmy Carter, who relinquished the U.S. Presidency 30 years ago, now lives an extremely active life, both politically and socially, and is saluted by whoever he meets, not out of protocol or obligation, but out of true admiration.
Such a scenario is unknown in our region… for an Arab President to leave his palace and return home peacefully and unharmed, to live a dignified life amongst his children and friends is a distant dream in light of our Arab regimes. Such regimes do not respect legitimacy; neither do they respect the ruler when he assumes power nor when he relinquishes it. In fact, legitimacy is ‘created’ by fraudulent elections, and thus the security apparatus is strengthened in order to protect this false legitimacy. It is for this reason that [once in power] the opposition seeks revenge blindly, and fails to respect the same system which it originally called for. Subsequently, they are succeeded by others who then seek to oppress their predecessors, and so on. Because the ruler himself does not respect the system, neither does his populace. The ruler’s closest associates, who had long praised him, ultimately go on to desert him, and he is arrested by the same officers who one day saluted him. This is the price of the individual regime, rather than the institutional system, which is based upon legal principles respected by both sides.