I will never forget when I visited Syria in the 1990s and saw a huge portrait of Hafez al-Assad. Under the portrait there was a phrase that read, as my memory serves: “Say: He is Allah, the One and Only; Allah, the Eternal, Absolute. He created a great nation and chose al-Assad for them”. Perhaps, at the time, Hafez al-Assad was intoxicated by this brazen manipulation of a Koranic verse, and perhaps he rewarded the “genius” individual who came up with this propaganda. Yet the reality on the ground and the status quo in Syria these days proves that he who produced such shameless propaganda in fact contributed to the erosion of power, if not during Hafez al-Assad’s reign, then definitely during his son’s.
When angry crowds were first gathering in Tahrir Square, the minister who told the ousted president Hosni Mubarak “they’re just a bunch of kids” was a devastating component in the foundations of Mubarak’s rule. Those who pushed the Libyans into forced gatherings to applaud Gaddafi and adore him were in fact pushing their leader towards the abyss. Likewise those who draft lyrics glorifying the Yemeni President, portray patriotism as love for the leader, and use this to fill the airtime of state television; they are deceiving the President and deceiving the nation. Writers, intellectuals, journalists and media professionals, in these countries and others, who brand as traitors whoever dares to warn of corruption, tyranny and injustice against the people, they are in fact dragging their countries into civil strife and instability.
I was going to quote as an example the civilized manner that links rulers with citizens in the Western world, where no leader is glorified, nor are their accomplishments overstated, and where critics or dissidents can by no means be branded as traitors. Yet I fear someone may say that this comparison is unfair, because the difference is so dramatic due to the light-years separating our underdeveloped world from theirs. Hence, it is suffice for the Third World to consider two individuals who voluntarily relinquished power after they had won the hearts of their nations. They did so without having to mobilize the masses, without poems or songs sung in praise of them, without huge portraits hung on the walls, and without being lauded with glory in newspaper headlines. These two leaders are President Nelson Mandela and President Mahathir Mohamad, both of whom have gained the immortal love of their people, and eternal appreciation. These two leaders did so by focusing on what they could achieve, and being upstanding and truthful with their people. Thus they went down in history as two of the greatest and most wonderful men. They concluded their political career by resigning voluntarily, whilst still at the peak of their popularity. Now they live in modest houses without high security or servants. They simply did justice to their people, and thus they feel safe and sleep soundly.
I remember when I requested a meeting with President Mahathir Mohamad following his resignation in 2006. I received an almost instant reply, and I met him in an office that was small in size, but grand in terms of the man within it. From his truthful rhetoric and deep discourse, I realized that the greatness of leaders lies in their accomplishments and honesty with their people. With Nelson Mandela and Mahathir Mohamad, we never heard of public demands to prosecute them under charges of corruption, abuse of authority, tyranny, or bloodshed, as is happening these days to the ousted leaders in the Middle East, or those who are close to collapse. Mahathir Mohamad and Mandela are not angels, they also made mistakes, and their opponents could have engaged in a dirty war with these historic leaders to prosecute them, distort their image, and defame them by any means possible. Yet their opponents were too smart to engage in such a hopeless battle. It is sad that some ousted Arab leaders, or those vulnerable to being overthrown these days, did not follow the example of these two honorable men. Instead, the Arab leaders followed in the footsteps of the Soviet leaderships and totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, in terms of their repression and iron fist rule, branding whoever dared to be critical as a traitor, and even executing or imprisoning them. They resorted to self-glorification, and launched huge propaganda campaigns to praise their leaders, but failed to realize that this method is a recipe for downfall, for any regime.