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Bashir, Maduro, and the 'Pleasure of Being a Former President'

Bashir, Maduro, and the 'Pleasure of Being a Former President'

Monday, 4 February, 2019 - 11:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
“A ruler’s best protection is to remain in office. The walls of the palace are the strongest guards. Woe to those who lose the grip of power. People have a natural tendency to take revenge on those who no longer have the ability to intimidate them. They open the books of the former ruler’s tenure and hold him accountable for all of his decisions – the good and the bad. They blame him for all burdens, including floods, earthquakes and climate change. Calling on a ruler to step down is tantamount to asking him to commit suicide. Staying long in power becomes part of a sovereign’s heart and soul. It makes voluntary withdrawal an act that requires supernatural capabilities.”

That’s what I heard one day in a capital. The Intelligence director told me: “I liked your interview with the decision maker. Your questions were quick and you addressed sensitive issues without issuing an accusation. I do not hide that I was surprised by a question and wished that you had not mentioned it. But I remembered that you have been living in Britain for years, and naturally, one becomes influenced by the culture and methods of Westerners, which is far from our reality.”

When I asked him about that question, he replied: “In this part of the world, it is difficult to adopt a dictionary that you can use in London, Paris, Washington or similar capitals. Our story is different. When you ask the decision maker whether he is considering retirement, it means that his experience is unsuccessful. When you ask a practicing president if he can later assume the title of former president, you practically hint that the palace needs a new resident. Even our elections are closer to a referendum. British ballot boxes can disappoint a leader like Churchill. The French ballot boxes can thwart hopes of a prominent figure like Charles de Gaulle. But neither our boxes nor our countries can do the same.”

I remembered this conversation as we were watching for weeks the heated developments in Venezuela and Sudan. In Caracas, opponents flock to the streets demanding President Nicolas Maduro to step down. In Sudan, demonstrations are repeatedly held, calling for the withdrawal of President Omar al-Bashir.

We are talking here of two countries on two separate continents… About two different systems… And about two men who use different dictionaries.

What is common is the economic deterioration, the lack of goods and services, the presence of millions of displaced people and doubts surrounding election results.

The two leaders belong to two different generations. When Maduro was born in Caracas in 1962, Bashir was a young man dreaming of joining the Sudanese military academy, from which he later graduated in 1967. When Bashir and his comrades seized power on June 30, 1989, Maduro was pursuing courses in Marxism-Leninism and political economy at the cadres’ school of the Cuban Communist Party. After that, he worked as a bus driver, trying to realize his union and leftist dreams, which he prioritized over joining the university.

Bashir, in conspiracy with Dr. Hassan al-Turabi, led the “Salvation Revolution” to free the country from the disruptions of civilians and the elected government headed by Sadiq al-Mahdi. Maduro said he wanted to participate in “rescuing” his country.

Maduro’s thinking, behavior, and vocabulary were marked by three teachers. Simon Bolivar – a leader who mesmerized many young Latin Americans in stories that glorified the image of the continent’s “Libertador”; Fidel Castro, who has long stood in his olive outfit as a thorn in the eyes of America; and Hugo Chavez, the fiery and angry man who nurtured Maduro and put him at the forefront, before choosing him as his a successor when cancer attacked the guardian of the Bolivarian Revolution.

I remembered the words of the Intelligence director. We are talking about another world. We should not compare Maduro with Tony Blair. Nor Omar al-Bashir with Emmanuel Macron. Democracy is not a mantle that you decide to wear overnight. Democracy is tightly linked to economic, social and cultural progress, to the presence of institutions and safety valves. In a democracy, the ruler has no choice but to leave the palace immediately after his term ends. He doesn’t have the luxury to mandate the minister of the Interior to conduct elections with foreknown results.

At sunset, he sits on the bank of the Nile. He closes his eyes and recalls three noisy decades. Taking shelter under Al-Turabi’s mantle to later abandon it despite the pain of divorce… Forging and breaking alliances… Engaging in wars and truces… inside and outside the borders. He trained to swim in the midst of storms and mastered the art of forestalling the wind or flying in its orbit. Long and thorny tales… Osama bin Laden came and went away, so did Abu Nidal. Carlos the Jackal terrorized the world, before being handed over to the French and imprisoned. The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued a warrant for his arrest, but he remained in power. South Sudan was removed from the map and the president stayed in the palace in Khartoum.

The world talked about the tragedy of Darfur and the Janjaweed and he remained… He endured US administrations and missiles… Will he accept today what he has always refused? He explicitly declared that governments and presidents “cannot be changed through WhatsApp and Facebook”, stressing that only the results of the elections, to be held in 2020, will make him leave.

Maduro’s problem is not only with Facebook and WhatsApp. His biggest enemy is Twitter. In a surprise tweet, President Donald Trump recognized Opposition and Parliament Leader Juan Guaido as acting president and called Maduro to step down. The statement caused an earthquake.

Two years ago, I interviewed President al-Bashir, who told me that the constitution prevented him from running for a new term after the next elections. I asked him: “Is it easy for a long-term ruler to live in the future with the title of former president?”

“It is not only easy,” he replied. “It’s pleasurable.”

He recounted that one day as he was traversing a route in Khartoum, a policeman stopped the circulation to allow the convoy of former President Gaafar Nimeiry to pass. It reminded me of the experience of Marshal Swar Al-Dahab.

The Arab journalist’s career is really arduous. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, May God Have Mercy on him, and others had told me about the pleasure of being a former president.

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