The Arab World’s Leadership Deficit

hosni mubarakThere 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.

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