When President Gerald R. Ford pardoned his predecessor and ended the prosecution of Richard M. Nixon, the decision was greeted with criticism. Now, with the passage of many years, it inspires some criticism but also some respect.
The argument that Ford advanced is that the prosecution of a former president would be a distraction for the country. In retrospect, critics of Ford argue that the American system was strong enough to deal with a trial.
Both viewpoints, in fact, might be true. But both might not be true in two struggling African democracies, Tunisia and Egypt.
The prosecution of former presidents ousted this year by the people continues. The former Tunisian president, Zine Ben Ali, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Safely in exile in Saudi Arabia, he called it a political prosecution.
Hosni Mubarak, the former president of Egypt, is facing a similar legal threat in that country.
In Ben Ali’s case, commented BBC correspondent Jon Leyne, “It was a trial conducted with a speed and efficiency the former Tunisian leader might have admired, if he had not been the accused.” Whatever its defects as a legal judgment, it was “a means by which the Tunisian people can try to satisfy their rage against the autocrat they successfully forced from office five months ago.”
But in both cases, whatever the crimes committed, the recovery of democracy, formation of new and long-lasting governments, and the pursuit of economic stability are the key factors for the future of Egypt and Tunisia. The prosecutions of the former presidents, once historical perspective is gained, might well be debated as hotly as the pardon issued by Ford.