Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 July 2019

Transitions of power do not have to mean wholesale purges of government

The process of guiding a nation through a period of great change requires pragmatism, expertise and patience

Algerian students continue their weekly protests in Algiers to demand the overthrow of the "system" and trials for members of the ousted president's inner circle. The placard reads in French "We are almost there". AFP 
Algerian students continue their weekly protests in Algiers to demand the overthrow of the "system" and trials for members of the ousted president's inner circle. The placard reads in French "We are almost there". AFP 

A successful and peaceful transition of power in any country is a sign of its political strength and internal security. In a monarchy, that transition is based on lineage and hierarchy. The dignified abdication of Emperor Akihito of Japan this week and the handing of the Chrysanthemum Throne to his son, now Emperor Naruhito, served as a reminder of the importance of a well-planned transition.

The same goes for monarchies in the Arab world, even though monarchs here wield much more power. There is, however, a marked difference in Arab republics, which have historically struggled with peaceful transitions.

In theory, republics rely on elections to administer a transition of power at regular intervals. However, in the Arab world, they have overwhelmingly led to one-man rule. In countries such as Iraq, Egypt and Libya, military coups in the second half of the 20th century led to the end of monarchies and the installation of republics. Yet these republics did not develop a mature mechanism to allow the transfer of power.

Instead, the norm became that of lifetime rule for the president, unless a coup deposed him – and, with no woman holding the position of president or prime minister anywhere in the region, it has always been “him”.

As regimes fall, the question that arises is how far must change go? The removal of a head of state and those closest to him signals a change in leadership, yet often the calls for change are wider. If the president represents a political party, then members of that party become complicit in the eyes of their opponents.

When the regime of the Iraqi president Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, the first act of the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority was not only to outlaw the Baath Party, but to remove all its members from public office. As a party that ruled the country for 35 years and mandated membership for anyone seeking a senior role in public life, including as a university professor or journalist in state-owned media, the Baath party had a variety of members. Some were ideologically driven, others were opportunists and others still joined out of fear.

De-Baathification quickly became a convenient tool to attack adversaries, as political parties excluded elements of the previous regime from all walks of life. The gutting of most ministries and professional circles in the country led to a weakening of Iraq’s institutions and of the government’s capacity to carry out the most basic public-service functions.

Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein faced trial and was executed swiftly, amid questions about the integrity of the court. There is no question of his culpability in numerous crimes, yet his trial was flawed, leading to a missed opportunity to serve justice.

A contrary example is that of Tunisia, which chose to keep most public-sector workers in place after deposing President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. While Mr Ben Ali was exiled to Saudi Arabia, he and his wife were convicted in absentia of corruption and sentenced to 35 years in prison. Senior members of the ruling elite either fled Tunisia or faced trial, but the rank-and-file members of Mr Ben Ali’s government and the public sector kept their jobs, ensuring a much smoother transition.

As Sudan and Algeria become the latest Arab nations to deal with sudden changes of leadership, similar questions about the breadth of change arise.

News of the arrest of Said Bouteflika, the youngest brother of the former Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and two former intelligence chiefs is significant. Said Bouteflika was a symbol of nepotism in Algeria and was responsible for much of the mismanagement of the country in the years since his brother’s ill health. However, many elements of the Bouteflika regime have stayed in place as the country grapples with its next steps.

Similarly, in Sudan, the military council ruling the country at this time of transition comprises elements of former President Omar Al Bashir’s regime. Protesters in both countries are demanding a quicker pace of change and the removal of all elements associated with the previous two regimes. Yet, it is those very people who know how to steer their countries onto a new path and how to limit any disruption that may ensue.

While protesters may fear the lack of widespread change in their country should those responsible for how it has previously been run not be ousted, the gutting of state institutions can only lead to upheaval. Fundamentally, what is needed is institutional reform, with laws that stop abuses of power and determine how countries can be ruled equitably.

With decades of experience around the world, best practices of transition and transitional justice do exist. Yet, no one model fits all countries. While accountability is vital, the summary dismissal of thousands of public-sector workers leads only to disorder, resentment and the inability to implement real change.

Requiring victims to forgive a system that failed them is a big but necessary ask. Acknowledging crimes and mismanagement is also vital if a nation is to move forward. The next months for Sudan and Algeria will require learning the lessons of those republics that have gone through peaceful transitions, even if this means that justice is not immediately served.

Updated: May 5, 2019 07:55 PM

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