Arab political culture is yet to embrace the concept of a fixed presidential term, with a defined end date. The position of ‘head of state’, with all its temptations, influence, and impact upon those around it, prompts the bulk of Arab presidents to renege on what they had previously pledged, upon assuming office. They seek to amend national constitutions, in order to remain in power for life. Yet despite the gravity of such actions, matters do not end there. Some presidents even attempt to establish a system of hereditary rule. Thus in Arab republics, the presidency concept exists in name only. We cannot deny that the performance of some Arab presidents has been successful, but this is not enough to justify them extending their term in power, and manipulating the main principle upon which the republican system is based.
This democratic deficit bears the primary responsibility for clashes which break out between the presidential forces and the public. For example, had ousted Tunisian President Ben Ali not been intoxicated by power, and had he left office after ten years at the helm, he might have transformed into a national idol in Tunisia, and across the Arab World. He might have been dubbed as ‘Tunisia’s saviour from extremism’ and the ‘founder of economic renaissance’. But sometimes the lust for power leaves us blind.
We cannot rule out the possibility that what happened in Tunisia could reoccur in other parts of the Arab World. The economic and political environment is ripe for a continuing series of suicide protests, in response to the prevailing conditions, just as Mohammed Bouazizi did in the Tunisian town of Sidi Bou Said. I am aware that many Arab countries will rush to bring about reforms in terms of the economy and personal freedoms, and seek to expand their foundations for development, as a result of what we might call “Ben Ali Phobia.” Yet in most cases, these reforms shall be a temporary measure, and the matter will soon be consigned to a distant memory.
In the developed world, presidents come and go. Success over there is not measured by how long you stay in power, but rather by how much you have achieved. This explains why Churchill is still very much alive in the British memory; just as the French still hold De Gaulle in high regard, as do the Americans with Kennedy. There are two famous examples of presidents in the Arab World who voluntarily stepped down from power. The first was the late Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli, who handed over Syria’s presidency to Gamal Abdel Nasser, for the sake of Arab unity. As a result, Nasser bestowed upon him the title of “First Citizen”. The second example is that of Abdel Rahman Swar al-Dahab, the former President of Sudan. When he relinquished power over to the Sudanese political parties, he was dubbed “Mu’awiyah ibn Yazid”. Unfortunately, the sacrifices made by both men were futile. The unity project between Egypt and Syria failed, and the system of political party rule in Sudan was overthrown by the military. However, both al-Quwatli and Swar al-Dahab shall continue to be held in high esteem by the Arab public, and hold a commendable place in history.