Eight years after mass demonstrations began in Cairo, some observers wonder whether President Abdel Fattah el-Sis has led his country any differently from how his ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak would have had done. Taking a different tack, many others have argued that the Middle East would have followed a dramatically different trajectory had Yitzḥak Rabin or Anwar Sadat not been assassinated. Martin Kramer, seeking to shed light on these questions, examines a series of transitions of power in the last 100 years of Middle Eastern history. He begins with the case of King Faisal I of Iraq, who died unexpectedly of heart failure in 1933:
Faisal’s aim was to forge Iraq—its Arabs and Kurds, its Sunnis and Shiites—into a nation. By 1932, he still had plenty to do. . . . Did Faisal’s premature demise change the course of history? Some might say not. After all, the Iraqi monarchy survived for another 25 years, until the 1958 revolution. [His son and successor] Ghazi lacked his father’s moderation, but he died in a car crash in 1939. The next in line was a child, so Iraq was then ruled by a regent, in partnership with Faisal’s own faithful lieutenants. . . . But one thing is certain: Faisal departed the scene in the middle of his own arc. He had done much, but more remained to be done, and he was still in a position to do it.
This is the crucial question that must be posed. If a leader were to disappear, where would he be in the arc of his life, his career, his vocation? If he is a leader, presumably he has a record of achievement. Is he in the middle of his life’s work, still attending to it? Is he bringing it to a conclusion? Or is it behind him? (As we shall see, this doesn’t directly correlate with age. Sometimes leaders launch early; others do so late.)
Let me now give a contrary example, of an unexpected death that came too late to have a huge effect. Gamal Abdul Nasser and his Free Officers overthrew the Egyptian monarchy in 1952. He soon emerged as the first among equals, then as the unquestioned ruler of Egypt. His biography became identical to Egypt’s history: the Soviet alliance, the Suez war, the Nasserist wave of 1958, the makeup and breakup of union with Syria, the stumble of the Yemen war, and the disaster of the 1967 war with Israel. . . . In [a sense], he was finished before he was dead; he was already at the end of his arc. . . .
[Thus] the paradoxical rule of thumb is this: the more successful the leader has been in realizing his project, the less consequential his exit, no matter how sudden or unexpected. In a way, this is counterintuitive. When a great leader dies, hasn’t history been robbed of his next act, or his last act? No: the greatest leaders, and the luckiest ones, who’ve worked fast and evaded the bullet and the pathogen, have finished the last act. Very little is left on the agenda, and the less latitude there is for a successor to change the set course. They have made history.