The nonviolent struggle to end dictatorship, whether presidents-for-life or decrepit kings, is now a rooted factor, despite setbacks, in the politics of Middle Eastern states
Chibli Mallat , Saturday 19 Apr 2014
Presidential fever is on in Lebanon. The parliament speaker has called for a session on presidential elections for 23 April. This is good for Lebanon and the Middle East.
You will find the most peculiar dimension of presidential elections in the world in the Lebanese constitution: the constituents of 1926 forgot to define the deadline for candidacy. The consequences were disastrous for the country, where parliament elects the president: until 2005, there were no official candidates, no programme, and no open campaign. There was no sense, until the last moment, of who might be elected. No one was formally a runner.
In October 2005, I tried to break this unhealthy situation by announcing my formal candidacy for the Lebanese presidency. The announcement, and the sustained campaign that followed over eight months, were also meant to oppose the forced imposition of the extension of Emile Lahoud in the Lebanese presidency. This was engineered by Lahoud’s allies and by Syria’s dictator, who was worried about his own continuation in power being questioned in Damascus. This was the direct cause for the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri on 14 February 2005, and the Cedar Revolution that broke out in the following days. But the Cedar Revolution failed to target Lahoud, and my candidacy was an active statement against the transformation of Lebanon into another Arab presidency-for-life situation. The popular movement rallied again around this goal. On 14 February 2006, four months after my campaign started, another million-strong demonstration rallied in downtown Beirut behind the central slogan of my campaign: “Bring the coercively-extended president down.”
With the parallel success in getting a UN Security Council Presidential Statement considering Lahoud illegitimate, the domestic and international planks of the campaign were aligned. As a symbol of a potentially different era, I received in my office the following week a visit from the US ambassador, a delegation from the Iranian Embassy, and the UN special envoy. In part because Walid Jumblatt, the first leader of the Cedar Revolution, did not implement “the Mukhtara plan” he and I had agreed in December 2005, the dynamism to remove Lahoud stalled, and the counter-revolution started regaining its lost ground.
Lebanon continues to suffer from this mistake, but the lesson was learnt elsewhere in the region. Already in 2005, we had been heartened during our demonstrations in downtown Beirut by the call of Kefaya in Egypt against Mubarak: La tamdid la tawrith (No extension, no dynasty). My Egyptian colleagues may find some comfort in my continuous teasing of Jumblatt about the fact that he also undermined the budding Egyptian revolution by paying a visit to Mubarak when our revolution was starting to energise the streets of Cairo. But when the revolutions hit the Arab world in 2011, the people of the region had learnt from the Lebanese precedent two important lessons: the president must be removed, and the revolution must remain nonviolent. Millions rallied around the slogan that failed in the Cedar Revolution: no more presidents for life. In early 2011, nonviolence succeeded in Tunisia and Egypt, and there was great hope across the Middle East for the end of dictators, from Bahrain to Morocco.
As in Lebanon in 2005-6, the system of entrenched dictatorships and manipulated presidential elections fought back. The counter-revolution takes many forms. In Egypt, the presidency was undermined in turn by the Muslim Brotherhood and successive military councils. In Yemen, the former president was replaced, without competitive elections, by his vice-president. In Algeria, a mummified president is challenged by a straw man set up by the army intelligence services. In Libya and Syria, the revolution turned violent. While Gaddafi was brought down by force to his tragic death in the sewers, the Syrian president fought with all his might and that of his Russian and Iranian dictatorial allies to stay in power. Only in Tunisia did the ghost of Ben Ali not resurface in another shape, but the story to end dictatorships across the planet, and in the Middle East in particular, is not over.
I sometimes read this history of the failure of nonviolent and orderly change at the top as an absolute setback of our Middle East revolutions. Looking at the way they were smothered in their central calling, one is understandably disappointed. And yet I remain convinced that my open candidacy for the presidency, and the rallying of thousands in the wake of the campaign in support of removing Lahoud, defined the basic right that people have across the Middle East: their right to serious, competitive, open elections, and the need to end the tenures of presidents and monarchs for life. This battle is not yet won, far from it, but the challenge to the head of the executive as dictator, whether he dons the shape of a general, an ayatollah, or a king, is now real. Even in Lebanon, candidates are now openly competing for the position. This was a novelty in 2005, and that stern wall broke. It will take a generation for the principle to take root across the Middle East. But costly as they are, nonviolent revolutions in the shape of the mobilisation of a large section of the population against ruthless dictators has become a tangible reality of political and constitutional life.
I am not a candidate for the Lebanese presidency. The campaign of 2005-2006 was exhausting and risky, and I am more interested in my work as a lawyer and as a scholar interested in nonviolence in the Middle East and beyond, conceiving of ways to make it more real over the coming generation. Looking at Lebanon, I am heartened that Lebanese politicians, however mediocre, are competing openly. Presidential fever can only be good. The country has its own deep problems, especially sectarianism and the interference of foreign powers. Beirut requires another nonviolent revolution, but the more important scene of change has shifted to the wider world – Damascus, Cairo, and now Kiev and Moscow. Lebanon is too small to make a difference. Still, I like to think that my campaign did make a contribution by putting an end to the belief that dictatorship is the rule rather than a passing exception. Open presidential campaigns, flawed as they remain, show that presidents- or prime ministers-for-life, and dinosaur-like kings and ayatollahs, are no more than petty criminals who should know by now that their future is in prison, or worse.
The writer was a former candidate for the presidency of Lebanon and is active with Right to Nonviolence, a Beirut-based NGO, to help redefine historical change. His book, Philosophy of Nonviolence: Revolution, Constitution and Justice beyond the Middle East will appear later this year with Oxford University Press.