This column first appeared in Malta Today
(written in the evening of Friday 29 November, prior to further developments over the weekend)
Not for the first time, Malta has clearly split itself into two divides: those who absolutely and with blind faith still believe Muscat has done nothing wrong, and those who absolutely and with blind faith are convinced Muscat is corrupt, and possibly even an accomplice to a heinous crime. There is also a third segment of people who, while they feel completely and utterly betrayed by the turn of events this week, still cling on to the hope that the PM won’t be implicated in the murder investigation of Daphne Caruana Galizia. These are not diehards, but simply people who were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and the enormity of it all is still too much for them to wrap their heads around.
It is an understandable sentiment, for there is nothing worse than feeling that one has made a serious error of judgement in sizing up another person, especially if it is the person chosen to lead the country. It is comparable to someone who simply cannot believe allegations that their spouse has been cheating on them (or worse) even though friends and family have spelt it out for them more than once. It is part denial, part shame and humiliation, part pride at not wanting to admit that the others might be right, and that you completely misjudged someone you thought you knew so well.
The news that Keith Schembri was released from Police custody further entrenched each position (as these things always do). For some it was a clear signal that Muscat is using his executive powers to cover up for his best friend, reinforcing their conviction that he is a criminal himself. For others it showed that there was no evidence to substantiate the claims which suspect Yorgen Fenech had made against Schembri, and that therefore the Police had no grounds to keep him remanded in custody. All this of course, also hinges on whether the Police investigation is even to be trusted or not (although reports state that Europol is involved, in which case are we saying that we do not even trust Europol?)
The news that Yorgen Fenech’s request for a pardon had been turned down by the Cabinet (the PM recused himself from the decision) was met by further mixed reactions. It was my impression up until that moment that most people were scoffing with derision at the idea of another pardon since a Presidential pardon has already been given to the alleged middleman, Melvin Theuma, due to testify next week. In fact, the joke of the week was that we should all do something illegal in order to then request a pardon. According to The Times, even the Caruana Galizia family was not in favour of a pardon for Fenech. Yet when the pardon was turned down, social media erupted with all sorts of conspiracy theories and accusations.
Then, on Friday afternoon, the announcement we thought we would never hear was made: Muscat would be stepping down from Prime Minister. The news spread in seconds, followed by the decision that the Labour party meeting which had been scheduled for Sunday in Fgura was being cancelled, which is perhaps the wisest move taken in a long time. Finally, the Government was acting in the interests of the whole country in order to calm down an escalating situation, rather than merely focussing on a show of strength for ’the party’.
This is clearly not a moment for rabble-rousing or for incitement using the tired yet dangerous cliche of ‘us against them’. There has been a build up which I have been fearing all week that, with passions rising, the two sides would clash in inevitable conflict. I was hoping for the tension to be defused because I do not think anyone wants to see Malta going back to a time when partisan violence used to erupt on a regular basis.
This is a time for level-headed leaders to keep their supporters in check in the interest of the nation, and this goes for the Labour Party as well as the various factions making up the Opposition – whether it is Delia, Busuttil or the various activist groups. While I can understand the mounting anger, I think it would be irresponsible for anyone to instigate for the so far relatively peaceful protests to turn into anything uglier. To date, from what I have seen, the police have handled the daily protests in an admirable manner, and have managed to control the crowds with no real incidents except for some damaged cars, and no injuries (except for that poor Policewoman whose foot was run over on the first day). I trust everyone can agree that these protests should not escalate into violence, for that will solve absolutely nothing but will simply plunge us back into dark days no one wants to re-visit.
The rest of Friday afternoon and evening were characterised by a rapid succession of media reports, some conflicting with one another, about what actually went on during the six-hour Cabinet meeting, Keith Schembri’s whereabouts, and a new statement by the PM that Yorgen Schembri had attempted to blackmail him into giving him a pardon.
It was so hard to keep up, it was so nearly impossible to sift the facts from conjecture, and it became so difficult to ascertain how much of it was true, and who we should actually believe, that in the end I gave up. This is the point we have reached in this sorry mess: that we do not know who is lying and who is not, and whether the allegations of the prime suspect should be taken at face value or are simply a way for him to deflect attention so that the Prime Minister and Keith Schembri will continue to be implicated in the murder plot.
To compound matters even further, the events of this week have left me with more questions than answers, and too many loose ends in this rambling, convoluted tale, which do not make sense. In the absence of proper media briefings by those leading the investigation, what we get instead are dribs and drabs from different sources, newsrooms contradicting each other, rumours which become unsubstantiated news stories and out of control speculation on Facebook.
As I have said before, Muscat’s only option was to step down. I still believe that is the best course of action as he needs to distance himself from the investigation in which he himself has now been directly implicated. If he is guilty of complicity, he needs to face the consequences, but if by some remote chance he has been telling the truth all along, then he will be cleared of the sinister accusations which have been hurled at him and will be vindicated.
Let the truth come out, and let the chips fall where they may.