February 25, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 773

Lebanese Editor Criticizes Arab Rulers: 'I Do not Want to Propose Something Drastic and Unreasonable… I Suggest We Adopt a Limit of Four Consecutive Presidential Terms, or 25 Consecutive Years…'

February 25, 2009
Lebanon | Special Dispatch No. 773

Rami Khouri, the editor of the Lebanese Daily Star, published a column titled 'Time to Implement Presidential Term Limits in the Middle East,' criticizing, using irony, Arab leaders for ruling for an entire generation. The following are excerpts from the article:[1]

'Human Beings Who Enjoy Unchecked and Unaccountable Power for Decades Inevitably Slip into a Pattern of Distorted Decision-Making'

"This is not a facetious or sarcastic proposal, but a considered one. It is dictated in particular by the reality in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, whose three current leaders - Libya's Moammar Qaddafi, Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine ben Ali, and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak - have been in power for a total of 65 years … and still counting.

"Mubarak in Egypt assumed office in October 1981, has been 'elected' to four consecutive six-year terms, and his ruling National Democratic Party has routinely won over 75 percent of seats in Parliament. Ben Ali in Tunisia took over the presidency in a bloodless coup in November 1987, has been 'elected' for three consecutive five-year terms (the last time, in October 1999, with 99 percent of the vote), and two years ago held a referendum that changed the constitution to allow him to run for more than three terms. His Democratic Constitutional Assembly Party won 92 percent of the votes in the May 2000 municipal elections. Qaddafi in Libya, who took power in a military coup in 1969, largely defies historical analysis, because every few years he changes his own title and position, the country's governance system and ideological orientation, and his relations with neighbors and other states in the region. The current power elite has ruled with him for 25 years - a full generation.

"I have never met any of these three leaders. I appreciate the good things that they have done for their countries, in security, stability and economic growth. But it is clear that no matter how decent, patriotic, and caring a president may be, the perpetual incumbency of individuals and their narrow circle of supporters has done more harm than good in the modern Arab security state. It is time to honor those who have served selflessly for decades, and to ponder alternatives to the prevailing tradition of Arab presidents-for-life.

"I raise this issue now because in the coming year the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents are expected to run again for new presidential terms. I urge them to think again, and to show their highest possible form of patriotism by announcing that they will reject the call to run for another term. Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi should make modern history by instituting a vital democratic practice - presidential term limits.

"My collective suggestion is not, primarily, a criticism of their persons. Rather it is a call for implementing a precious principle that has always been key to successful democracies (as the respected Lebanese law professor and democracy activist Chibli Mallat rightly reminds us): the routine and peaceful rotation of executive power.

"This is not an issue of ideology, but rather of biology: human beings who enjoy unchecked and unaccountable power for decades at a time inevitably slip into a pattern of distorted decision-making that exaggerates their own sense of wisdom and infallibility. This narrows the band of people who design national policies, and who benefit from them. Even the most honest and enlightened leader in the world should be rotated after a certain period of time. Perpetual power and unaccountable incumbency inevitably breed a combination of artificial, know-it-all self-confidence that usually spills over into arrogance and intolerance of other opinions."

Religion and History Both Provide Support for Term Limits

"Our creator did not program our human flesh and genes for life-long rule. Perhaps that is why in the holy books of Islam, Christianity and Judaism, the most common dictate for human behavior after the love of God is humility and kindness to one's fellow human beings. This is also why proven democracies in the past two centuries have all instituted presidential term limits. Where the Divine and the temporal converge, Arab leaders should dare to go. Now would be a good time to start this noble march.

"Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Qaddafi have all spoken about the need to reform their political systems, as have all Arab leaders. These three North African leaders are deeply beloved and appreciated by their people, to judge by the amazing repeated re-election victories they have notched up in the past quarter century, usually with victory margins of over 90 percent. This unremitting, intense love of the people for their wise and caring leaders is astounding, often defying rational analysis. I suggest, though, that if these leaders want to reciprocate the love and loyalty of their people, their most effective move would be to refuse to serve another term.

"They should announce their adoption of presidential term limits as their personal contribution to implementing the first steps to genuine Arab political reform. Great, historic, and very durable leaders, as these men seem to be, do not only speak the language of reform - they put it into action.

"I know that reform has to be homegrown and gradual in the Arab world, which is why I recommend that we ease into this, and not overdo it. I do not want to propose something drastic and unreasonable, like asking Arab presidents to serve for only two or three terms, or just 20 years. This is why I suggest we adopt a limit of four consecutive presidential terms, or 25 consecutive years … whichever comes first. That would mean that Mubarak should not run again because he is finishing his fourth term, but it allows Ben Ali in Tunisia to serve one more term, for a total of 20 years as president. Qaddafi has ruled for 25 years, which seems a decent amount of time to implement one's policies, and serve one's beloved people.

"Just a modest proposal to ponder from a humble citizen who loves the Arab people as much as their leaders do."


[1] The Daily Star (Lebanon), August 4, 2004.

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