27 November - 3 December 2008 Issue No. 924 Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875
http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2008/924/op11.htm The curse of neo-totalitarianism As dangerous as terrorism, the rise of autocratic dictatorship is a grave threat to world peace, writes Ayman El-Amir* -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- The post-11 September global scene is undergoing a transformation to a new phase of confrontation marked by the rise of autocracy in countries that were believed to be on the path to democracy. The new trend appears as an innocuous series of constitutional amendments designed to adapt these countries to modern standards of political life. In effect, it is a consecration of the 20th century "president-for-life" syndrome, complimented by camouflaged hereditary succession under a pseudo-democratic republican regime. Coupled with the global war on terror, the trend is bound to create not only more intense domestic conflict but also to fuel a new and more lethal transnational brand of terrorism. It may be a fact of life that the world is already smarting from implacable acts of domestic and international terrorism. However, the Bush administration's short-sighted strategy of separating terrorism from its root causes lent legitimacy to the suppression of fundamental human rights by indigenous dictators as much as it sanctioned Israeli murderous campaigns against the Palestinian resistance. Autocratic Arab regimes assumed the guise of fighting terror to enact or prolong draconian emergency laws that they have used to rule unopposed. In addition, they also contrived constitutional amendments that would ensure their uninterrupted hold on power. These amendments, proposed governments under the thumb of presidents, are usually rubber-stamped by an automatic parliamentary majority whose ascendancy to representative office is usually the result of cooked elections engineered by government manipulation. Constitutional legitimacy becomes the respectable codename for dictatorial rule that leaves no space for the rotation of power. The practice has become rampant. Most recently the Algerian parliament voted to remove statutory limitations that restricted the presidency to two five-year terms in office. The sitting president, Abdel-Aziz Bouteflika, who was first elected in 1999, was at the end of his second and final term. He is now free to run and be re-elected for any number of terms. In neighbouring Tunisia, where the former president Habib Bourguiba was proclaimed president-for-life in 1975, the constitution was amended in 2002 to lift the legal restriction, introduced by an earlier amendment in 1988, that limited the number of presidential terms to three five-year terms and to raise the cut off age for eligibility of presidential candidates from 70 to 75 years. The 72-year-old current President Zein Al-Abidine Bin Ali came to power by ousting Bourguiba in a 1987 palace coup and has ruled ever since. In Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who has shunned the designation of "president" for the obscure term "leader" is scheduled to celebrate the 40th anniversary of his ascendancy to power in September next year. Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Saleh has marked his 30th year in office, while constitutions and political practice in both Egypt and Syria prescribe no limitation for the number of terms a president can serve. After the death of Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad in 2000, his son, now President Bashar Al-Assad, only became eligible to be elected president by referendum when a constitutional amendment was passed, lowering the minimum eligibility age from 40 to 34 years. The precedent prompted stirrings and much speculation in both Egypt and Libya that hereditary succession is a real possibility. What appears to be a drive for lifetime presidencies is not exclusively endemic to the Arab Middle East. The Russian parliament has recently approved an amendment proposed by President Dmitri Medvedev to increase the term of the presidency from four to six years. An additional provision that the change would apply only to future presidents gave credence to speculation that the amendment was particularly designed to return former president, now prime minister, Vladimir Putin to two six-year terms starting as early as next year and lasting until 2021. Following his two terms as president, Putin was constitutionally barred from serving a third consecutive term -- a condition that has now been broken by Medvedev's presidential interlude. As the phenomenon gains momentum, with varying degrees of resistance in most parts of the world, countries where the transition to democracy has been stymied may begin to experience violent instability. Dictators who come to power under unusual circumstances tend to experience the delusion of being "men of destiny" and assume the mantra of "the father of the nation". A dictator's coterie, whose fortunes are linked to the ruler's continuity in power, feed him with the megalomaniac sense that his perpetuity in power is the salvation of the nation. They also fabricate a multitude of enemies that he has to ward off in order to protect the nation. Problems abound, fuelling the sense that a sitting president has to continue in power until all problems are resolved, or until he passes from life. The hidden truth could be more mundane. Behind a dictator's delusion of grandeur, the frenzy of self-adulation, cult of personality and exaggerated self- confidence lies a deep-seated fear that some day, someone will unseat him and open up a Pandora's box of vile crimes that should remain sealed for as long as he is alive. This may explain why some presidents are trying to engineer hereditary succession, so that the box may remain in family hands. It is also why that, as much and they flaunt democratic reform, dictators regard the introduction of true democracy as an act of suicide that they will never commit. Decades of repression and human rights violations in a fast- developing and open world pose challenges to dictators to which their only response is more repression. For one thing, it is the only way they can govern; for another, it is because the hoax of democratic reform has been oversold. As both resistance and repression escalate, violence becomes the only option left for desperate people. Under such tense and unstable circumstances indigenous militants who have gone all over the world to perpetrate international acts of terrorism may start coming home to roost. In 2003, special rapporteurs, representatives, experts and chairpersons of working groups set up by the then UN Commission on Human Rights expressed profound concern at the multiplication of policies, legislation and practices increasingly being adopted by many countries in the name of fighting terrorism. They expressed the view that these measures negatively affect the enjoyment of virtually every human right and drew attention to the dangers inherent in the indiscriminate use of the term "terrorism". Predictably, fears that governments, the police and special security courts would be able to act beyond the limits of accountability are now a fact of life in most countries under autocratic rule, Myanmar a prime example. Repressive regimes that borrow their legitimacy from the fake sacred mission of improving the lot of their population, even if it comes at the temporary cost of suspending human rights and fundamental freedoms, are doomed. The preamble of the UN Charter called, 62 years ago, for "Better standards of life in larger freedom". If autocratic rulers believe that China provided an example of better standards of life under repression, they are misled. While China has its own unique circumstances that could not be emulated elsewhere, the fact is that economic liberalisation is leading the way to larger political freedom in the country. The Chinese "miracle" was not achieved under circumstances of corruption, fraudulent elections, monopoly of power, cronyism, misrepresentation of reality by paid government propagandists posing as free journalists, and plunder of the wealth of the nation by a privileged few. No one is predicting that the problem of terrorism will come to an end anytime soon. More likely, terrorism and totalitarianism will become a revolving door phenomenon, with each one chasing the other and blindly fuelling it. The time has come for the UN Security Council to declare totalitarianism as much as terrorism a threat to international peace and security and provide a credible mechanism to fighting both. * The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.