Christian and Muslim in Tahrir370.
(photo credit: Reuters)
One of the most interesting features of the Arab uprising and unfinished
revolutions is the dearth of “big name” leaders among the contending political
camps. Can you name one leader in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, or Syria with a massive
following? Can you find one charismatic person who seems to carry the democratic
revolutionary spirit during these troubling times and is accepted across all
segments of society, even in countries that are not divided ethnically or
religiously, as Egypt is? Where are the Nelson Mandelas, the Vaclav Havels or
the Tuchilers of the Arabs? Indeed, national revolutions have always been
propped up by unique personalities and founding fathers. While some of these
leaders have led their nations into the abyss of tyranny and totalitarianism
under the banner of freedom and unity, others have emerged as democratic
founding fathers. In the Arab world, the abuses of power by supposed
revolutionaries like Muammar Gaddafi or Saddam Hussein have wrought havoc in
their societies, along with deep distrust of politics and
Even Arab national heroes like Gamal Abdel Nasser and Yasser
Arafat have led their people astray. Certainly, both Nasser and Arafat were
world-renowned revolutionaries with great authority over their people and on the
world stage. Before the 1967 war, Nasser was the face of Pan Arabism and Third
Worldism – in the same league as Nehru, Sukarno and Nkurmah, as Fouad Ajami has
But both Nasser and Arafat fostered their revolutionary stature
by fighting external enemies – colonialism and its “Zionist offshoots” – while
changing little for their peoples.
Nasser’s death in the aftermath of the
1967 Arab fiasco opened the door for the glamor of Arafat’s Palestinian radical
redemption. But Arafat too failed to deliver. Unable to transform revolutionary
zeal into Palestinian statehood, Arafat died a defeated man, denied the honor of
the permanent revolutionary image that he so aspired to.
Since the deaths
of Nasser (and to a much lesser degree, Arafat) the Arab world has not known
Characters like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad were
either bureaucratic despots or cruel dictators with fake followings.
fact, in the past three decades, many Arabs have turned for inspiration to
religious leaders like Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon, reminiscent of the
Islamic revolution in Iran.
Today, in the epoch of Arab uprisings, the
people of Arabia more than ever before need leaders. Not revolutionary
ideologues and fakes like Nasser, or bureaucratic military men like Anwar Sadat,
whose courage was never appreciated by the masses. This time around, the Arab
world deeply needs inspirational democratic founding fathers who can transform
and translate revolutionary outcry against the old regime into a new, liberal
Arab vision. Only such leaders can work to rebuild state institutions and modern
economies in an effective manner without succumbing the temptation of riding
popular emotions to externalize domestic failure.
Founding moments of
democracies have most often been associated with “founding fathers” like Kemal
Ataturk or David Ben-Gurion. When it comes to regime transition, such figures
may belong to the outgoing regime itself, as in the case of the Spanish
reformist prime minister Adolfo Suarez, who came into power after Franco’s death
and led Spain’s transition to democracy within the old constitutional framework.
Suarez enjoyed a great deal of support from the public and the majority of the
opposition who trusted his democratic commitment. In the Arab world, not even
one authoritarian leader has attained a sufficient degree of public acceptance
to lead a democratic transformation.
Transitions to democracy may also
occur when the nondemocratic rulers are able to find a good balance between the
degeneration of their own regime and the maturation and growth of contending
elements, and build “a powersharing” coalition with the opposition. This was the
drama in South Africa when F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela joined forces. In
the Arab world we find no evidence of power-sharing.
revolutionary founding fathers, in the absence of authoritarian reformists and
without great opposition personalities, the Arab masses remain split among
In the face of the brutality of the Syrian Assad
regime the opposition is divided. In other parts of the Arab world the masses
have remained amorphous and anarchic.
Certainly the Arab uprisings have
many heroes, symbols of sacrifice and martyrdom like Egyptians Maikel Nabil and
Khaled Said, and Tunisian Muhammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire. Many
others exhibit courage and great skill in mobilizing others via social media.
But these heroes and activists are not the political players who could lead
their countries to the promised land of stability, or democratic institution
building, nor could they chart the way for reconciliation with elements of the
Leaders are the beacons of hope and the examples that
include everybody in their vision. The millions in the Arab streets find it
difficult to identify with their political leaders – in fact many of them pride
themselves on the anarchy and a leaderless people’s revolt.
is professor of International Politics at Georgetown and Tel Aviv
Emily Shain is a student of Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv