Why can’t our rulers peacefully hand over power and ride off into the sunset?

The Middle East remains a region where leaders ride to power in tanks and then chain themselves to the structure of the state itself.

Why can’t our rulers peacefully hand over power and ride off into the sunset?

On 2 July 2024, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte calmly handed over power to his successor, the former intelligence chief Dick Schoof; he then left the Binnenhof government building in The Hague on a bicycle after 14 years as PM. He waved to the small crowd of cheering Dutch supporters, then pedalled off into the city. It just seemed so very Dutch. If only all transfers of power were like this.

The Netherlands has by no means been the only country that has changed its leadership in recent weeks. In India, Narendra Modi must now learn to govern in coalition, which is a new experience for him in his third term.

Western elections

In Britain, the Conservatives’ 14-year reign ended with a wipe-out, as they lost 251 MPs, including 12 cabinet ministers and one former prime minister. The Labour Party was the big victor and now governs with a huge parliamentary majority.

In Iran, the reformist candidate Masoud Pezeshkian won the presidential election run-off, called after former President Ebrahim Raisi died in a helicopter crash. Analysts say that little substance will change while the Supreme Leader remains in place.

In France, the polls shocked everyone, returning a left-wing coalition as the strongest by number of seats and the much-vaunted far-right National Rally coming third. Now, they must broker deals for a ruling coalition, which the French are not used to.

Our region is not one in which rulers leave office by bicycle after calmly handing over the keys

In the United States, the presidential election scheduled for November began in earnest when Democratic incumbent Joe Biden debated his predecessor and 2024 challenger, Donald Trump. Biden, 81, performed poorly. He blamed it on a cold, but even supporters think there may be age-related reasons.

In Israel, the newspaper Maariv reported that the run-up to elections has begun. Benjamin Netanyahu rules in coalition with ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties, but they are aghast at being asked to serve in the military and have threatened to walk out in protest. The newspaper's political affairs analyst Anna Brasky said the question of elections was now not 'if' but 'when', as Israelis slowly climb down from their post-October 2023 war footing and start venting their anger at the government.

Hanging off others

The outcomes and impacts of these elections extend beyond their voting populace. With varying degrees of influence, they affect other countries and regions. The Middle East closely follows these election outcomes to determine what may change. There may also be elections in places like Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria, but the same family has ruled Syria for half a century. At the same time, Iranian militias in Lebanon and Iraq will continue to exert a strong influence regardless of the polling.

All the polls show a strong Trump win in November, not least because of the president's seemingly failing faculties, yet there is no US-Iran rapprochement for Trump to rip up this time. Analysts had wondered whether Biden would return to the negotiating table over Iran's nuclear programme, but he has not.

The question of Israel, the Palestinians, and a two-state solution is never far from world leaders' lips, but no state other than Israel has any influence over events in the West Bank and Gaza, not even the United States.  

Our rulers who came to power in tanks will only leave after destroying the nation-state and the society they sought to rule.

With Palestine, as with so many other things, if you ask an official or politician in the Middle East how they see the region's situation in the coming months or years, they will always tell you they are waiting to see the results of elections elsewhere. It strikes me that we have chosen to be spectators, closely following what happens across borders and oceans and letting this determine our fate.

All in the handover

Ours is a region of those who came to power in tanks, not one in which rulers leave power by bicycle after handing over the keys. Once in power, our region's rulers tell themselves and others that they are so vital that they and the state are one and that there cannot be one without the other. In short, our region of rulers who came to power in tanks will only leave after destroying the nation-state and the society they sought to rule. If they cannot rule it, no one can.

Why is our region so plagued by military rule and sectarian conflicts? Why do our nations let their existence become tied to a ruler? As we can plainly see, all other countries have rulers that come and go without the nation collapsing.

Since 2000, the White House has had four presidents who have come and gone. America has not collapsed. Yet if you tried to take the al-Assad out of Syria, you would be likened to a surgeon removing a patient's heart and expecting them to be OK.

If only the region's more firmly ensconced rulers would take a leaf out of the Dutch book and get on their bikes rather than let their people scatter to the four corners as the remains of the state are picked at by militias and gangs. If only…

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