The president’s men…and the president’s head

By Adel Al Toraifi

Over the past week, three Arab regimes are continuing their struggle to stay in power; these are the Libyan, Syrian, and Yemeni [regimes]. Regarding the first regime, the situation has transformed into a “hit and run” war between opponents of Colonel Gaddafi and his supporters, whilst the NATO air strikes have failed to resolve the battle on the ground in favor of the rebels. The second case has taken on a factional and sectarian dimension, with the majority confronting a security and partisan regime that remains in power despite the bold events taking place in the country. As for the third regime, the president is standing alone, facing the defection of senior commanders and allies, who are joining the opposition. There are two prominent features evident in all these cases: the incapability of the opposition movement – or the armed rebels – to forcibly remove the leader and his regime, as well as their rejection of any mediation or solution that includes the safe departure of the leader and key government figures, or their agreement not to prosecute members of the former regime [in return for transition of power].
In Libya, the African Union and Turkey both provided initiatives for a solution, but the Libyan National Transitional Council rejected these because they did not include the immediate removal of Colonel Gaddafi and his family [from power]. In Yemen, the Joint Meeting Parties opposition coalition expressed their reservations about the Gulf initiative because it was said to have included provisions ensuring immunity for the president during the transitional phase.
The crisis of [finding] an “exit” for Arab leaders is one of the biggest obstacles to a peaceful transition of power, in an atmosphere of political turmoil and directionless youth uprisings. The exit door seems closed, and the hawks in the opposition seem determined to present the president and the whole of his regime as offerings to the young rebels in the streets. The regime itself feels it is under a severe blockade, and perhaps the only way to survive is to fight until the last man. Perhaps Gaddafi’s “Zenga Zenga” speech is a genuine reflection of the way in which regimes and their key figures view their personal fate. The Egyptian and Tunisian models do not provide any confidence or security for those who remain in charge of Arab republics. Former Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has had an international arrest warrant issued against him, whilst former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak faces a subpoena from the Egyptian attorney-general. Despite his speech which was broadcast on “Al-Arabiya”, in response to what he called a smear campaigns against him, the state of anger and agitation against Mubarak is still prominent on the Egyptian street, prompting the current government to prosecute him. Perhaps the prevalence of the spirit of revenge and personal accountability has put the [Egyptian] Supreme Council of the Armed Forces under pressure to quickly imprison the majority of ministers who were members of former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif’s government. This has raised a lot of questions about the legality of the precautionary measures, and the extent of the politicization and selectivism in the accusations submitted to the [Egyptian] Attorney-General.
No president, minister, or general, wants to find themselves in jail wearing a white jumpsuit, after their power and wealth has been seized, and their reputation ruined. Therefore, some of those in power are holding on to this – under these circumstances – not just for its own sake, but because their own fate, and that of their families, are also at stake.
Here, advocates of regime change are facing a moral dilemma: Do they show tolerance towards the president and symbols of the former regime, prioritizing stability and ensuring that the transition process doesn’t transform into an open battle of score settling against those who deserve to be brought to account, as well as those who don’t? Or, is it necessary to hold the president and his men to account in order to cleanse oneself of the previous era, and ensure that the past does not repeat itself in the future?
There is no doubt that attempting to prosecute any president is not easy, and all those who assume in advance that the president is guilty, and that it is sufficient to prove one or two cases against him to ensure his conviction, are mistaken for two reasons: Firstly the president in most countries of the world governs according to the law and the constitution, that is, he does not need to break the law in most cases because he can change it, or instruct parliament to amend the constitution, so that he can do whatever he wants. Thus, from a legal and constitutional perspective, the president has acted in accordance with his presidential powers. Even in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi only took decisions based on the legitimacy of the popular committees. Secondly, presidents often deal with important state affairs or major national interests, i.e. macro politics, and do not interfere or administer the affairs of central or local government, i.e. micro politics.
What does this mean? In short, the president only signs laws and regulations that have passed through parliament or after these decisions and projects have passed through dozens of committees, councils and local governments. This means that the president is only part of what happens. This does not mean that the president is innocent or should be acquitted, but it is important to realize that often it is difficult to find conclusive, compelling evidence that can be used in court to convict leaders. There are a few cases where the attorney general can convict the president on personal grounds, but these are rare because of the nature of the presidential position in a republican or parliamentary regime. Take the Iraq war for example, and the British Iraq War Inquiry [also referred to as the Chilcot Inquiry] which has heard, and continues to hear, dozens of testimonies attributing responsibility for the decision to go to war to the British Prime Minister and his government. In Egypt for example, former Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif was eventually imprisoned due to a car number plates scandal, and this is a different issue to the slogans originally raised against him, and accusations of dictatorship lodged against the regime. In France and Italy there have also been attempts to prosecute the president, but they often clash with the constitution and the presidential system itself.
The countries of the Arab world that are experiencing political turmoil can benefit from previous examples that prioritized the interests of stability, and who moved forward during the transitional process, choosing to cleanse the situation, as happened in Iraq recently. [President] Suharto ruled Indonesia between 1968 and 1998, the year that his reign came to an end was the same year that he won elections for a new term. As was the case in the Egypt of old, Suharto’s party dominated the parliament, and his family and regime had the lion’s share of the state’s economy and wealth, sparking a massive youth uprising against him. University students protested for months, and then key areas of the capital were occupied. The police intervened to disperse the demonstrations and dozens were killed, with Suharto ultimately forced to resign under public pressure. The military and the political elite were faced with two options: either allow the president to leave with dignity, resigning from his position in favor of Vice President [Bacharuddin Jusuf] Habibie, with power being handed over in accordance with the constitution, regardless of the volume of criticism against him, or the army would have to resort to forcibly expelling the president which would see the country drowning in chaos and retaliation. The people of Indonesia chose the first option and power was handed over, whilst the former President was granted immunity and protection, and went to live in an apartment complex in Jakarta. Of course, there were those who demanded that Suharto be tried, but the political elite was aware that it was necessary to maintain the prestige of the former president, because like any president he had supporters and a degree of popularity, and by doing so, they would preserve the dignity of the presidential institution and the state. Thus when Suharto died his presidential funeral was even attended by some of his opponents, who he had placed in prison.
Another example took place in Chile, where General Augusto Pinochet ruled via a military coup until a massive popular uprising was staged in 1988, where Pinochet was forced to amend the constitution and approve presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of the following year. The opposition went on to win, so what did Chile do? Pinochet was granted the title of “Senator for Life” in the first constitutional amendment adopted after the election, and he subsequently went into exile. When human rights groups sought to try him through British courts in 2000, the British authorities allowed him to leave on the grounds of illness. He returned to his country in the same year, and despite many attempts to prosecute him, he was exempted from prosecution on several occasions until his death. He was never convicted of any of the charges brought against him. Despite the government’s refusal to recognize him as a former president, he was granted a military funeral under the title of former Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and flags flew at half-mast at all military bases.
Even the United States, characterized by its republican system, Supreme Court, and unique democracy, did not imprison President Nixon after the “Watergate” scandal, but rather he was granted a presidential pardon, and his funeral was attended by the U.S. President. As for President Clinton, who lied in court regarding the case of Monica Lewinsky, he overcame a vote of no confidence by a small margin, but then emerged as a statesman and a man of peace, touring the world to promote his charitable foundation.
The Arab republics are faced with two options, they can either overcome the past through tolerance, and prioritizing the peaceful transition of power, or they can drown in the mire of chaos and revenge. Did [current prime minister] Essam Sharaf in Egypt, [chairman of the rebel National Transitional Council] Mustafa Abdul Jalil and [Libyan rebel army leader] Abdul Fattah Younis in Libya not serve in governments under dictatorial regimes? Were these figures, until recently, not extremely close to the same regimes and figures that the people today want to see brought to trial?
It is easy to court the revolutionaries by calling for the president’s head, but until recently weren’t they all “the president’s men”?

First Published in Asharq Alawsat Newspaper on Thursday 14 April 2011. 

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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