The Arab world´s leadership deficit

Ibrahim Al Marashi. Professor. IE School of Arts & Humanities

14 June 2011

Behind the revolutions taking place in the Middle East there lies the frustration of a people who have always lived without democracy, and who need a real leader.

There were underlying reasons for the Egyptian Revolution that created a perfect storm for Hosni Mubarak´s overthrow: corruption, unemployment, frustration, humiliation and restless youth. However there is one factor that has not been stated and that is a leadership deficit. President Hosni Mubarak did not have enough charisma to galvanize the population. It is a problem that faces the entire region.

I am not suggesting that lack of leadership is the causal variable in the unrest that began in Tunisia. Rather, it is the process of how leaders emerge that serves as an important symbolic element. In the vast majority of Arab states, leaders have emerged through military or palace coups, or happened to be the leader of the strongest tribe when colonial powers drew up the boundaries of the Middle East. For example, both the late Hafiz al-Asad of Syria and Hosni Mubarak rose to power due to their position as head of the air force. It was their military post rather than a plebiscite that propelled them to leadership. Thus most Arab heads of governments have emerged through processes that did not include the general will or consent of the people. In other words the leadership deficit is linked to a lack of legitimacy. In the majority of Arab states, the leader stays in power by either coercion or by subsidizing loyalty. In the absence of state leaders that the Arab street can call ´heroes´, those heroes are often resuscitated from the past. In the Arab world, ´heroes´ were created out of those leaders who resisted colonial efforts to rule them. In the early 1830s Imam Shamil fled the Chechens against the Russians in a struggle that lasted 30 years. His contemporary Abd al-Qadir rallied the Algerians against the French in the mid-1800s. In 1882 Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi of the Sudan began his struggle against the British. Abd el-Krim rallied the Moroccan resistance against the Spanish and Umar al-Mukhtar of Libya resisted the Italians throughout the 1920s. Yet they failed to defeat those who attempted to colonize them. The only leader in the Muslim world who defeated a colonial attempt at subjugation was Mustafa Kemal Pasha, otherwise known as Ataturk of Turkey.

The Arabs have few victories to claim, going back a millennium, all the way to 1187 to celebrate a leader, Salah al-Din and his victory in Jerusalem during the Crusades. What remains after that date are only a few de facto victories. Victories defined in terms of survival. In 1956, when the Egyptian President Jamal Abdul Nasser lost a war against Britain, France and Israel, the Arabs claimed it a victory because he stood up to the ´West´. Even then, the highly popular Egyptian leader was feared among the elites in Jordan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. When Saddam Hussein was soundly defeated by Coalition forces in the 1991 Gulf War, the Iraqi leader claimed it a victory because he stood up to the ´West´ and survived.

Some in the Arab world claim that a new Crusade is being launched against them and that all the Arabs really need is a new Salah al-Din to unite and pull them to better times. They ask, ´Who will unite us and revive our past glories? Where is our modern-day Salah al-Din?´ In fact, an entire series broadcast during Ramadan on Al-Jazeera asked that very question, ´Where is the Salah al-Din?´ Saddam tried to fill that role in 1991 and 2003, oblivious to the fact that standing up to the world´s superpower was more difficult than standing up to the Crusaders. Hassan Nasrallah, head of the Shia Hizbullah, emerged as a hero in 2006 due to the beating the Lebanese Islamist movement gave Israeli forces during the Lebanon war. Yet even Nasrallah is victim to the Sunni-Shia polemics that rage through the region.

The Middle Eastern leadership deficit is evidenced in other ways. Without leaders to emulate, heroes emerge in the most unusual places. In Iran, the Shahab-3 missile and the nuclear program have emerged as a nationalist folk hero, even amongst opponents to the Islamic Republic, as it signifies the nation´s progress. In Iraq, a folk hero was the Scud missile because it was able to strike Israel. After 2003, the Iraqis never had their version of a Konrad Adenauer, Charles De Gaulle or Nelson Mandela to unite their nation after a conflict. Other heroes emerged in the chaos, such as the Baghdad Sniper, a man who had killed numerous American soldiers, until his capture.

The Bush administration prescribed democracy as the solution to the Middle East´s illness: terrorism. Such a solution only dealt with the symptoms of a much greater problem: corruption, unemployment, frustration, humiliation. Some states suffer from the curse of having key resources that has ended up with Arabs seeing the region´s vast oil reserves being concentrated in the hands of a few. This in turn provides the pretext for Western powers to divide, intervene and subjugate their lands. I witnessed this personally. Humiliation and frustration expressed by the unemployed Tunisian wasting his day sitting in a café. The stateless Palestinian in Egypt desperately seeking a home. An Iraqi waiter serving American soldiers who curses them under his breath for destroying Falluja, yet desperately wants a visa to go to the US.

At the same time, elements within Arab society project on their leaders both patriarchal and patrimonial functions. It is the leader then that is the symbolic head of a system expected to deal with the afflictions of the Arabs: humiliation, foreign intervention, frustration, and corruption.

I had travelled to at least eighteen countries in the Middle East, and it was only in Turkey, that I witnessed something different. I could not even count the number of political party offices I saw in Istanbul. Most Middle Eastern countries have only one state-sponsored party, if any, while some allow a few parties to operate with no chance of influencing politics. In Turkey, numerous newspapers criticized the government, rather than serving as its mouthpiece, as was common in the Arab world. Elections were contested, not fixed as in most Middle Eastern states. My positive assessment of the Turkish system is based on the fact that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was elected, albeit with by under 50% of the vote. While he is unpopular with elements of the population, particularly urban elites, he emerged from within a political system and process that at least enjoys legitimacy among the Turkish public.

The events that occurred in Egypt are revolutionary. For the first time in the history of the Middle East, it is the people who are shaping their nation´s destiny. The only regime changes that occurred in the past were through either military coups or foreign invasion. If a popular and capable leader can emerge out of the masses fueling the Egyptian Revolution it would mark one of the first steps in overcoming the region´s leadership deficit.

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