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The legacy of Suwar Al Dahab

Oct 28,2018 - Last updated at Oct 28,2018

Is there such a thing as an Arab republic? This question was raised in 2002, at a conference in Paris on Arab monarchies in which I was privileged to take part. The findings of the conference were published in a book, so I would not try to synopsise them here. However, it is significant that the book devoted a chapter not to Arab republics, but to “Arab quasi-monarchic systems of government”.

The world’s first republics may have been the ganatantras of east India, which probably predated the ancient Greek republics. However, the word “republic” derives from a Latin root that means “public affair”, hence the outlook that government is not the private affair of rulers.

A contemporary Arab contribution to these breakthroughs in human civilisation is the creation of the hereditary republic where the nation is the private affair of the ruler, of his children and history will tell if it remains the private affair of his children’s children. 

These reflections came to my mind as I read of the passing away of president Abdel Rahman Suwar Al Dahab, the only Arab in modern history to relinquish the powers of head of state within his life, by his own volition and without any coercion involved.

I remember distinctly the day in 1985 when my Sudanese colleagues rushed into my office to tell me that a coup d’état in their country, had toppled president Jaafar Nimeiry. Their happiness at this piece of news was clearly visible on their faces. 

I asked them why they felt so upbeat, and they said that the minister of defence, who had led the coup, promised he would hand over power to a new government as soon as it was democratically elected. My scepticism was understandable given the number of coups in the Arab world that only replaced one megalomaniac demagogue by another, and all the promises we heard, of which not a single one came true. 

Thirteen months later, Abdel Rahman Suwar Al Dahab confounded the sceptics by handing over power to the elected prime minister and retiring from politics. In 1987, he became hairman of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, following which he retired from public life altogether.

His name came up again in 2011, when I was in South Sudan in the run-up to its independence. Much to my chagrin, my South Sudanese friends; Muslims, Christians and animists, had nothing but scorn for Arabs, whom they associated with slavery. I concede that slavery is a point of shame for all humanity excluding no nation or race; but still, I asked: “Was there not a single Arab you know of who was good to you?” To a man, they said: “Suwar Al Dahab was good. Too bad he did not stay longer.” 

There is a moral to this story: Morality is not divisible. There is consensus on Suwar Al Dahab’s virtue because he lived a moral life throughout, and he was true to his word. The whole world would be better with more people like him.


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