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.
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 a resource curse a resource curse that forces Arabs to watch the region’s vast oil reserves being concentrated in the hands of a few, which provides the pretext for Western powers to divide, intervene and subjugate their landsI witnessed these elements 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 wishes for a visa 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.
Ibrahim Al-Marashi is Assistant Professor of Contemporary History at IE University in Madrid, Spain. He is co-author of “Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History” (Routledge, 2008). This article originally appeared at History & Policy.
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