What a crazy couple months. We Arabs just cannot get out of the news. Whether it’s Qaddafi, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, or Iran (OK, they’re not Arabs, but, seriously, how many FOX viewers know that?), we just can’t get a day off.
Muammar Qaddafi is gone. He was killed in much the same way he ruled: brutally and without respect. As his demise showed, there is no second place in Arab politics. It’s winner take all. That’s because since Arab nations came about, political life has never been about systems, rights, or principles. It has been about personalities. It has been about dictators and monarchs, staying around long enough for their sons to take over the helm. Incidentally, in Arabic, “Muammar” means “Immortal.” Oops.
Until 2011, Arabs never had “former presidents.” They only had living ones and dead ones. In other words, you could have never walked up to someone anywhere in the Arab World and say, “Hey, you used to be president, right? Great job!”
But things have now changed. There’s a “former” Tunisian president (somewhere in Saudi Arabia), a “former” Egyptian president (somewhere in jail), a “dead” one in Libya (somewhere buried), a “current-then-former-then-current” one in Yemen, a “teetering” one in Syria, and some kings sprinkled throughout.
And let’s talk about kings for a second. Maybe it’s the American side of me, but I just can’t call someone “Your Majesty.” It’s a little too much for me. There’s nothing in someone’s DNA that makes him more fit to rule than anyone else. Kings, simply, are a fiction. Now, I don’t mind calling Barack Obama “Mr. President.” At least I had something to do with that. And I can, without fear of death or imprisonment, tell my president he stinks, and even vote him out, making him a “former president.” Kings, though, are forever. I read about kings in stories when I was a kid, and that’s exactly where they belong. Kings, queens, and princes are for fairy tales and children. They’re not for adults. Adults think intelligently and have discussions. They come to decisions rationally, and they choose their leaders democratically. All that’s happening now is that Arab political life is simply catching up to the maturity of its citizenry.
And it’s not going to be pretty, not in the beginning at least. Arabs are going through a catharsis, and that might mean that some of these “former” presidents turn into “dead” ones very quickly. It might not be right, but it might be necessary. In America, we almost never want to kill our presidents, but that’s because they don’t stay around long enough to make us want to do it. Even if we really like them, after 8 years, they’re “former.” They become adorable and endearing, like Jimmy Carter, the elder George Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W Bush. Somewhere in Texas, you can actually walk up to George W Bush and say “Hey, you used to be president, right? Great job… well, not really, but thanks anyway.” We love “former presidents” in America. They’re celebrities. We sit around, listen to their stories, and buy their books. And when one of them dies, time stops, and we remember him, partly for who he was, but mostly for who we are.
Maybe in 20 years, there will be some Arab “former presidents” walking around. Maybe we’ll be able to talk to them and hear their stories about building a new Arab society. And maybe Americans will like them. Instead of broadcasting their brutal deaths, maybe CNN can interview them and say, “Hey, you used to be president, right? Great job… seriously.”
We Americans should definitely be friends with nations that have “former presidents.” That’s at least some sign of a free society. Of course, not all nations with “former presidents” are perfect. America’s not perfect. Lebanon’s not either. And sometimes, like in Israel, having “former presidents” is just a cover for saying you have a democracy that actually does not exist. But still, I think we can all agree that having “former presidents” is a good thing.
Since 1979, the United States has had 6 presidents. Guess what? So has Iran. One day, even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be a perfectly healthy “former president.” Maybe one day, long after he is no longer leading, CNN can interview him again. Maybe when he’s no longer caught up in politics, he’ll eventually tell us that the Holocaust did happen and that there actually are gay people in Iran. There’s no reason we can’t be friends with the Iranians. See, there are actually 4 “former presidents” still living in Iran. So, in Iran, you actually can walk up to 4 different guys and say, “Hey, you used to be president, right? Great job… kinda.” Well, you probably shouldn’t say “kinda.”