The Arab World’s Leadership Deficit

Written on February 21, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in News

By Ibrahim Al-Marashi, Assistant Professor of Contemporary History at IE University in Madrid, Spain.

There were underlying reasons for the Egyptian Revolution that created a perfect storm for Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow: corruption, unemployment, frustration, humiliation and restive youth. However one factor not stated for the revolt is a leadership deficit. President Hosni Mubarak was not a leader with the inherent charisma to galvanise 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 delineated 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 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 manifested in other ways. Without leaders to emulate, heroes emerge in the most unusual places. In Iran, the Shahab-3 missile and the nuclear programme 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.Read more…

As published in www.historyandpolicy.org in February 2011.


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