Revolutions without leaders

Since the deaths of Nasser (and to a much lesser degree, Arafat) the Arab world has not known significant leaders.

Christian and Muslim in Tahrir370 (photo credit: Reuters)
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 government.
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 written.
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 significant leaders.
Characters like Hosni Mubarak and Bashar Assad were either bureaucratic despots or cruel dictators with fake followings.
In 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.
Without revolutionary founding fathers, in the absence of authoritarian reformists and without great opposition personalities, the Arab masses remain split among political factions.
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 outgoing regime.
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.Yossi Shain is professor of International Politics at Georgetown and Tel Aviv universities.
Emily Shain is a student of Middle East Studies at Tel Aviv University.