Protests in Syria continue to escalate despite promises of reform. What really happens is that some Arab leaders only realize the need for reform when under pressure. A leader who needs as much as a popular revolt, street battles and bloodshed to open his eyes to his people’s suffering, or to his country’s wretched conditions, is not fit to rule. A leader who admits that his country needed reform but was not done in time, no matter what the justification is, is in fact admitting his own incompetence.
Of course, the standard excuse is a “foreign conspiracy” targeting the country and its security, and combating it should take priority. But that does not seem to work anymore. Neither does the claim “after me the flood”, or, “only chaos will prevail after me, and terror will spread widely.”
In a proper democracy, such a leader should instantly step aside, leaving the place for more competent ones to take over. But that does not happen as often these days as it used to in previous years, unfortunately. In our part of the world, the situation seems to be even worse.
What has been unfolding in the Arab region defies comprehension. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria has just promised to end 48 years of emergency law. Of course, we all forgot that Syria was under emergency law, let alone for that long. Was there any need to keep the country under emergency law for that long, and is there any parallel in history for that situation?
The promise to lift the emergency law in Syria, which has been a pressing demand of the protestors, comes as a second reform installment from the president. The decision was expected earlier, in the president’s first keynote address, which the official media had prepared the people for over a period of few days, raising their hope that major decisions were bound to be taken “to please the Syrian people”, as Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa announced late March. But there were only promises and no decisions, including the promise of lifting the emergency law. Even this time, the emergency law is not lifted yet. Its lifting has been extended for another week.
But neither in Syria nor in Yemen, Libya, Bahrain, nor in Tunisia and Egypt before, does this seem to be the only problem. Wherever they existed, emergency laws were only the legal cover for freeing the hands of the authorities to rule outside the law, without checks and balances, without properly elected parliaments to monitor the performance of the executive, without an independent judiciary to protect people’s rights and, of course, without free press to expose the problems. The state and the state alone decides what is good for the country and for the people. The state press and the official media decide what the people are entitled to know and what should be kept away from them. Like minors, citizens are not entitled to decide for themselves.
Free press would, under such conditions, be dangerous, as it might reveal what could cause harm to national interest in times of “emergency”. That is reminiscent of the Soviet era, the Iron Curtain and the totalitarian regimes that fell one after another, revealing so much entrenched corruption, exploitation, incompetence and harsh oppressive rule.
Arab protesters have indeed been calling for lifting emergency laws wherever that applied, but this was just one demand out of many.
Arab leaders who claimed an undisputable monopoly on the seat of power on the ground that they know better and they serve better the interests of their countries and peoples have also ended up robbing their countries, oppressing their people, blocking any progress and destroying the state institutions. Those same failed leaders want now to lead the reform their people are demanding, after decades of patient waiting and endurance.
Libyan President Muammar Qaddafi is practically and physically destroying his country and his people. He and his son Saif al-Islam have promised a fight to the finish, to the last bullet, the last soul and the last child, not of an invading foreign enemy, but of the Libyan people. Qaddafi is now waging a war of annihilation against his people to punish their insurgent behavior against his 42-year-long rule, regardless of how despotic and ruthless it has been. If he has to go, he has to destroy everything before he does. Neither the Arab League nor the Security Council nor NATO has been able to protect the Libyan civilians confronting alone the military might of their angry leader. So far, the humanitarian intervention has proved to be a fiasco.
But Qaddafi offered to lead a sweeping program of reform if the dialogue and the reconciliation he and his son offer are accepted. So also did Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Syrian president and others.
How could that be possible? How could the same destroyers repair 42 years of systematic destruction? It is not one mistake to be rectified, it is an entire system of government that is rotten from top to bottom.
It is absolutely normal for a leader to positively and objectively respond his people’s demands and grievances, and to promptly act to address them. That is an inseparable part of the duty of any wise and honest leader. But the blunders of the leaders in question, the ones facing the wrath of their people, are not innocent mistakes or accidental neglects; they are deliberate, vicious and blatant crimes.
What we have been witnessing in the last few months in many Arab countries are revolts not only against dictators who oddly remained in office for decades, but against corrupt tyrants who persecuted their people, impoverished them, reduced them to utilizable inert subjects, deprived them of their rights and dignity, dictators who, with their families and cronies, treated their countries as if they were their private farms. It is stunning that they continue to defend their positions using all means available to them to try to save their staggering positions, and on top of that insist on their right to lead the required reform.
What has unfolded so far in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya is really shocking. Apparently leaders who are negotiating a safe exit for themselves and their families, as well as immunity from prosecution, are not aware that they actually have nowhere to hide. Over three decades of tyrannical rule, Zine Elabidine Ben Ali had built for himself, his and his wife’s families an enormous amount of wealth. He now cannot use a penny of that, and he deprived his country of it as well. Not only because the money he robbed is frozen in banks around the world until the courts decide to return it to who it belongs, but also because he would not need it in his isolated sanctuary in Saudi Arabia, with no chance to ever be able to leave the place even for a cup of coffee.
How much, from now on, will president Hosni Mubarak, his sons, his ministers, his agents and the rest of his family benefit from and enjoy their looted wealth?
Is that not a lesson for any dictator to learn without costing his people further destruction and loss?
Published in the Jordan Times on April 20.