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The Harsh German Lesson

The Harsh German Lesson

Monday, 27 September, 2021 - 05:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

The discussion revolved around Sudan and the price it was paying because its president Omar al-Bashir is now wanted by the International Criminal Court. Feigning ignorance, I said Bashir was better of resigning, even if he did not turn himself over to the ICC, because the interests of the Sudanese people must be above all else. Smiling, Jalal Talabani said: “You’ve been in London for too long. You’ve forgotten that we are in the Middle East. Here the people leave, not the rulers.”

How difficult it is to be a journalist in the Middle East. How horrible it is to be from Lebanon. You wonder at governments that work without debasing the constitution. You are astounded by officials who do not squander public funds. You envy countries that produce officials who aim for stability and security.

We have grown accustomed to decisions being controlled by experts in dismantling countries and destroying cities. We no longer believe our ears when a president chooses to retire by his own will without the people kicking him out of power or tying a noose around his neck.

The truth is, if it weren’t for that day, this story would never have been written: It was the day that witnessed the fall of the wall and changed the fate of Germany, Europe and that girl that aced her mathematics and Russian language classes in East Germany. If it weren’t for that day, she would have been retired after a long career in research after she earned her doctorate in physics.

It was hard to predict that a political future was in store for her in the country of Erich Honecker. Her quiet demeanor did not attract the ruling Communist Party and its Russian superiors. Perhaps she would have paid the price of her being the daughter of a pastor even though he used his ties with the agencies to arrange trips for her to West Berlin.

The day the wall fell opened opportunities for several people. On that day, a camp and a model were defeated. East Germany threw itself in the lap of the motherland and Helmut Kohl took over a united Germany in spite of the concerns of Francois Mitterrand and Margaret Thatcher. Kohl, himself, used to call her “my little girl”. Perhaps he never imagined that she would abandon him one day after his reputation was tarnished by the donations scandal.

Merkel can leave the Chancellery without being weighed down by bitterness and defeat. It is rare for an official to quit in such a way. It is rare courage for an official to choose to leave a shining reputation, accolades and the media spotlight and opt for retirement.

Merkel, not the constitution nor the voters, chose the time of her departure. The constitution and her popularity allowed her to continue in her position. She did not say she was tired. She did not claim that she was disappointed. Three years ago, she stated that she would not seek a fifth term. She committed to that deadline without dramatics. She acted firmly like someone who sensed that they have performed their duties given the circumstances at the time.

She did not irritate the public with a list of her accomplishments. She did not address history with disdain. She did not feel threatened by the opposition or social media. She has nothing to hide and nothing to fear. No politician would dare accuse her of stealing or squandering public funds. Or of nepotism or clientelism. Or that she favored foreign deals and deepened the pockets of members of her inner circle.

No one dares accuse Merkel of corruption. Perhaps they may criticize her for being too hesitant in taking some decisions or being too welcoming of refugees or of humoring the moods of successive White House presidents. She may be criticized of being too keen on saving the economies of other countries in order to preserve the European dream that is being torn to shreds by nationalists.

Criticisms are valid, but no one can deny that the past 16 years in Germany were the most stable in its history. At the Chancellery, Merkel was true to her country and herself. She kept the same haircut, wore similar suits and did not pepper her statements with exaggerations and metaphors. She spoke honestly to the people. She read out reports and respected the numbers and her government’s commitments to Germany and beyond. Her deep sense of responsibility and integrity did not weaken over time. She never adopted Berlusconi’s approach and was never accused of the charges that have damaged Sarkozy’s image.

The most powerful woman in Germany, Europe and the world. Her image was all over the media. All that gloss has never stopped her from humbly shopping at the supermarket, cooking a modest meal or carrying out chores at her simple apartment. Her rivals have never forced her to alter her approach in Germany and beyond. It speaks for itself that she managed to deal with American presidents, prioritizing cooperation in spite of different policies and conflicting interests. It speaks for itself that she negotiated with difficult men such as Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping. Of course, we shouldn’t forget her complicated ties with Europe, especially France, after Britain quit the European Union.

The German lesson is harsh, but who said we are learning? Had Bashir resigned early, Sudan would not be in the situation it is right now. The same can be said of Gaddafi, Saddam and many others. But we are in the Middle East. Jalal Talabani reviewed the past and present of the region and concluded that here, the people leave, not the president.

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