The discussion was about Sudan and the price that the country is paying for its President Omar al-Bashir’s indictment by the ICC. I innocently argued that it would be enough for al-Bashir to resign; there’s no need for him to go as far as turning himself in. After all, the interest of the Sudanese people should be the priority. With a smile on his face, President Jalal Talabani replied: “Living in London has made you forget that we are in the Middle East. Here, it’s the people who leave, not the ruler.”
It’s a hard thing to be a journalist for Asharq al-Awsat, and it’s a terrible thing to be from Lebanon. You start to wonder how it is possible that some governments do operate without contempt for the Constitution. You find it surprising that an official would not steal public funds. You envy those states that have noble figures who build bridges to stability. When vile and absurd governance prevails and decision-making falls into the hands of state dismantling and destruction experts, we find it hard to believe that an official would willingly choose to step down without being kicked out of their palace by their people or have a noose around their neck.
I would not be writing this story had it not been for that day in 1989 when the Berlin Wall crumbled piece after piece, changing the fate of Germany, Europe, and that bright young woman who excelled in math and Russian in Eastern Germany. Had it not been for that day, she would now be retiring from a long career in research after getting her doctorate in quantum chemistry. Predicting a political future for her in the country of Erich Honecker was a long shot.
Her silence was not appealing to the ruling Communist Party and its Russian guardians. Perhaps she paid the price for being the daughter of a clergyman, although her father had arranged his relations with authorities enough to allow him to visit West Berlin often.
The fall of the Berlin Wall brought many opportunities to many people. On that day, a camp was defeated, and a model was crushed. Eastern Germany threw itself into the arms of the homeland, and Chancellor Helmut Kohl reunified Germany, despite the fears of Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. And it was Kohl himself who introduced the young women he called his “daughter” to government halls. Perhaps he did not imagine that she would abandon him the day his reputation became tainted by the “black money” scandal for the donations that his party received.
Angela Merkel can leave the Chancellery without falling into the trap of bitterness and loss. Seldom has such a departure been possible, other than for those who were bigger than their titles. It is an utmost bravery to choose to step down and leave behind the shiny title, the glowing medals, and the bright camera flashes.
Merkel chose when to leave. Neither the Constitution imposed it, nor electors required it. In fact, the Constitution allowed her to carry on with her duties, and her popularity was strong enough to secure her another term. She never said she was tired; she never claimed she was disappointed. Three years ago, she announced that she would not pursue a fifth term, and that was that. She upheld this statement of hers without any dramatic dimensions to her decision. She acted with the poise of someone who feels they fulfilled their duty in the given circumstances. She did not bother her people with an inventory of her achievements. She did not address history as if it were a servant in her office.
She did not worry about opposition or social media platforms. She’s got nothing to hide and nothing to fear. No politician would dare accuse her of stealing or squandering public funds, using nepotism or favoritism, backing deals with foreign entities, or facilitating the flow of funds to the bank accounts of people in her close circle.
No one would dare accuse Merkel of corruption. They may reproach her for taking her time before making some decisions, for welcoming one too many refugees, for being too patient with the moods of White House successors, or too keen to pay such a high price to rescue other economies for the sake of protecting the European dream that suffers the satire of populists who fear for assistance and identities. We can find reasons to criticize her, but no one can deny that for 16 years, Germany felt unprecedented stability. Sitting in her Bundestag office, Merkel was loyal to her country and herself. A composed lady, with a haircut and jackets that barely changed over the years. Instead of sprinkling magic velvet words to deceive and bribe people, she read the reports and analyzed the numbers. She upheld the domestic and international obligations of her government. She felt a deep sense of responsibility and honesty that time did not seem to deplete. She never came close to mirroring Berlusconi’s practices, nor was she ever accused of whatever Sarkozy was accused of.
The strongest woman in Germany, Europe, and the world; all over television screens and magazine covers. Yet, all the bright lights did not prevent the Chancellor from going to the supermarket, cooking a small dinner, or vacuuming her modest apartment. All the competitive campaigns did not make her change her ways, neither at home nor abroad.
Suffice it to say that she dealt with various US Presidents with an approach that prioritizes cooperation over differences and ego. Suffice it to say that she negotiated with a tough man called Vladimir Putin and a tough leader called Xi Jinping; not to mention her European dance with France, especially post Brexit.
How tough is the German lesson! But who says we’re learning anything? Had al-Bashir resigned early, Sudan would not be in its current state. The same can be said for Gaddafi, Saddam, and many others. But this is the Middle East. Jalal Talabani accurately summed up the region’s history and present when he said this is a region where the people leave, not the leader.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.