“If it lasted with others it would never have reached you.”
The first time I read this Arabic saying about authority was when I visited Kuwait several years ago; it can be found atop the magnificent gate of Al-Seef Palace by the shore of the Gulf and dates back about 1337 Hijri, or 1918 AD, to remind the country’s emir of his finite mandate.
In contradiction of this statement, there is a worrying addiction displayed by leaders of Arab republics who seem to continue pursuing perpetual tenures in their presidencies.
Coincidentally, in the same year that the Arabic saying was scripted in monarchical Kuwait, a baby was born to a poor family in Alexandria, Egypt, who would set a precedent for clinging to authority that would change the Arab world for ever. That baby’s name was, of course, Jamal Abdul Nasser.
One must first appreciate that Abdul Nasser was the first Egyptian since the Pharaohs to rule the land of the Pyramids after about two millennia of Romans, Kurds, Mamluks, Brits and Albanians among others having a go. He may have felt that history owed him, an Egyptian, an extended mandate. And so in the 1950s, he held a series of referendums that effectively proclaimed him president of Egypt for life, an undisputed fact even after his defeat by the Israeli army in 1967.
Abdul Naser passed away in 1970, but he left a legacy that is still felt in the 21st century – as recently as last week, in fact, when the Algerian parliament followed the precedent he set and “in an historic vote” amended the constitution to allow President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to run for a third term.
It wasn’t a coincidence that one Algerian newspaper editorial commented that “by adding itself to the handful of states in the world, the Arab world in particular, which have written lifetime presidencies into their constitutions and consolidated personal or hereditary powers, Algeria is jumping backwards” – 52 years to be exact. To borrow from the words of the Arizona Senator John McCain: “My friends, we’ve seen this movie before”, namely in Yemen, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Tunis and Mauritania.
The most controversial term extension of them all must be the one enacted by Syria, not on itself, but imposed on its fragile neighbour Lebanon. In 2004, Syria decided that their ally, the Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, would do well to stay in power for another three years (and why not?) after the expiration of his constitutionally-capped six-year mandate, because “the situation in the region is unstable and change at this time is not beneficial”, as one Lebanese parliamentarian put it. Sound familiar?
The most imaginative of Arab republic presidents who perpetually extend their tenure must be the Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Mr Saleh has effectively been in power in Yemen in one shape or another since 1978. What is interesting about his repeated extensions is that even though he promised not to run for re-election in 2006 – “because we have to train ourselves in the practice of peaceful succession” – he decided he could not keep his promise (for the second time) after hearing “the chants, statements, messages, poems and calls” urging him to run for re-election again and again. Power to the people indeed.
The first person to call and congratulate Mr Saleh on “the confidence of the Yemeni people in him” was none other than the “Brother Leader and the Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya”, Muammer Qadafi, another of Abdul Nasser’s inspirations who has been in power since 1969.
The Brother Leader Qadafi devised an ingenious plan to stay in power for four decades: he proclaimed that he does not hold an official title and is merely a guide working on behalf of his people, so no elections are necessary. In another coincidence, the first and last free elections in Libya were held under King Idris I in 1952, the very year Abdul Nasser came to power.
Egypt, the most populous Arab nation, has only had three presidents over the past half a century. The country’s current head, Hosni Mubarak – whose achievements include having his country’s foreign debts forgiven – is a frail man in his ninth decade who has been in power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Egypt’s presidential system gives new meaning to the vows “in sickness and in health, till death do us part”, since no leader has left office voluntarily.
There are countless other stories of leaders of Arab republics, all of whom criticised the excesses in the monarchies they toppled before assuming power and effectively becoming monarchs in all but name themselves.
Having assumed the helm of power and absolute authority that comes with the presidency, it seems to be difficult for Arab republic leaders to go back to a civilian life and they instead opt to perpetually extend their tenure. Indeed, it would be wise to remind such presidents that power is elusive and impermanent for “if it lasted with others it would never have reached you”.
This article was originally published in The National on November 16, 2008.