How Much of a Difference Do Individual Leaders Make in Middle Eastern History?

April 15 2019

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.

You have 2 free articles left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iraq, Middle East, Yitzhak Rabin

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

You have 1 free article left this month

Sign up now for unlimited access

Subscribe Now

Already have an account? Log in now

Read more at BESA Center

More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat