Leadership deficit on both sides prolongs the unfinished uprisings

As Arab Spring opposition groups enjoy popular legitimacy but lack power, they can’t afford an unintelligent approach.

Assad's crackdown on peaceful demonstrations created huge challenges for the opposition movement [EPA]
Assad's crackdown on peaceful demonstrations created huge challenges for the opposition movement [EPA]

Beirut, Lebanon –
As the Arab uprisings unfold, it is increasingly clear that they are taking different forms in different countries. In three cases – Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – dictators were deposed definitively and relatively quickly. But in three others – Bahrain, Syria, and Yemen – the struggle continues between an incumbent regime and a popular opposition. In Yemen, President Ali Abdallah Saleh has resigned the presidency, but his apparatus has not disappeared.

Why have the intifadas in these countries so far failed to dislodge the incumbents? There are various commonly accepted explanations. In Bahrain, Saudi intervention props up the Al Khalifa dynasty. In Syria, the regime’s formidable military-security forces keep the Assad family in power. In Yemen, Saleh’s “military family” clings to key positions by virtue of its patronage networks and reported US counter-terrorism support. There is much validity to these explanations, but there are other factors as well.

A key variable that deserves more attention is leadership – or, more precisely, the leadership deficit. The stunning incapacity of the incumbent leaders to actually lead surely helps explain how the populist explosion across the region toppled some, and deeply injured others. Effective leadership requires brains and it also requires legitimacy. In none of the six uprisings did – does – the regime in power have much of either.  

Ben Ali and Mubarak were out to lunch; Gaddafi was out of his mind. Ali Abdallah Saleh was clever like a fox, ‘dancing on snakes’ as he liked to say … is there something about living in an authoritarian bubble, surrounded by only yes-men, that distorts their world-view?”

But incumbents’ leadership inadequacies can’t explain why matters were resolved (in a manner of speaking) in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya – and remain unresolved in Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. In all six cases the incumbents have been more or less equally inadequate. So we must also make an assessment of the intelligence and legitimacy of leadership among the opposition forces to see if the difference can be accounted for.

Regimes fail the leadership test

Heads of state in these countries fail the leadership test, both in terms of the wisdom of their policies and the legitimacy of their claims to rule.

On the intelligence side I am searching for the right word but nothing polite comes to mind. Suffice it to say that Ben Ali and Mubarak were out to lunch; Gaddafi was out of his mind. Ali Abdallah Saleh was clever like a fox, “dancing on snakes” as he liked to say, but he was a disaster in leading Yemen out of its multiple spiraling socio-economic crises.

The royal rulers of Bahrain were not smart enough to curb rampant corruption, or to figure out how to deal with the deep popular antipathy to their autocratic ways. And as for Bashar al-Assad, who early in his tenure had impressed so many outside observers (including myself) with his reform agenda, what was he thinking as he saw his countrymen suffering under the weight of his failing neoliberal economic policies and, then, as the protests spread, being mowed down by his brutal security forces? Was he thinking at all?

Whatever they may have been thinking, the idea of making concessions to the protesters or offering more than cosmetic reforms seems not to have occurred to them. Why they weren’t wiser deserves serious study. Is there something about living in an authoritarian bubble, surrounded only by yes-men, that distorts their world-view?

On the legitimacy side, if we invoke Max Weber’s classic formulation, these leaders lacked – lack – personal legitimacy – let alone charisma or ideological legitimacy. They are unable to convincingly wrap themselves in the symbols of Islam, Arab or local nationalism, socialism, liberalism, or development; or structural legitimacy – owing to the weakness of institutions of state to deliver either moral or material goods.

In terms of personal legitimacy, we find no heroes. Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi struck out on all three counts. The Tunisian was a grey figure; Mubarak was derided by Egyptians as la vache qui rit [“the laughing cow”, reportedly after the brand of cheese] and Gaddafi’s cult of personality may have hypnotised some, but deeply alienated most other Libyans. Ali Abdullah Saleh enjoyed only the respect accorded to a mafia boss. King Issa al-Khalifa was widely judged as weak, too easily manipulated by his uncle, who could also marginalise an apparently reform-minded crown prince. Bashar al-Assad could only muster the “pretend legitimacy” that Syrians had learned to display in the days of his much-feared father.

As for ideological legitimacy, what did any of these leaders stand for – in the eyes of their people – beyond a survival strategy? Not much. Ironically, the two leaders who departed so quickly – Ben Ali and Mubarak – could make a claim to have embodied a neo-liberal economic development strategy, whose macro-indicators were sufficiently robust to impress the IMF; but too many long-suffering Tunisians and Egyptians were unconvinced. Gaddafi had tried on so many ideological hats during his long tenure that, by 2011, it would have been difficult for Libyans – or anyone else – to figure out just what he stood for.

Ali Abdullah Saleh might have had a claim to be the father of unified Yemen and the man who (briefly) brought to it some democratic practices, but all that faded as Yemen spiralled downwards in the past decade; so by 2011 he could not be said to stand for any programme or higher values – nor could he claim any longer to be the bringer of stability to this disintegrating state. In Bahrain, King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa, who aborted reform plans of the early 2000s, could not erase a long history of the Khalifas in shutting down periodic demands, dating back to the 1950s, for democratic and constitutional reforms. As for Syria, early in the uprisings a government spokesman spoke confidently about being able to dodge the reform bullet, because of Syria’s unshakeable commitment to the Arab and Palestinian cause. The claim evidently rang hollow among Syrians.

Inside Syria – Has the Syrian opposition done nothing wrong?

Institutional legitimacy has long eluded the Arab political systems. There is little evidence of, or faith in, the rule of law. US observers have been known to note that the only reason their country survives its mostly mediocre leaders is because there is, among the American people, a deeply valued structure for political contestation, participation and decision-making. Even in the Arab states with the deepest historical roots – Egypt and Tunisia among them – bad leadership had dire consequences.

That said, however, in Egypt and Tunisia, institutional legitimacy – flawed though it was – still existed to a greater extent than in the other cases. This may help account for the speedy consummation of the turnovers: other sources of authority – and power – were embedded in a more institutionalised state and a more structurally diverse society. The military and organised opposition forces helped bring matters to a rapid conclusion. In the other cases, unfortunately, the incumbent rulers virtually were the state.

By mobilising the coercive instruments of state to their personal agenda – survival – they were able to mount formidable resistance to the popular protests. So far only Gaddafi has been eliminated, and that with NATO’s support to the opposition. In Bahrain and Syria the rulers so far remain defiant, paying only lip service to reform, while, in Yemen, the now-former president, with much of his entourage still intact, remains a force to reckon with.

Weak opposition leadership

Leadership failings by incumbent rulers explain only part of the puzzle of the unfinished uprisings. Leadership of the opposition also leaves much to be desired. But before offering any assessment of their intelligence or legitimacy, it has to be noted that opposition elements in authoritarian environments are hardly operating on a level playing field. Their ability to organise and publicise their objectives is severely hampered. Even highly intelligent leaders may fail; and their ability to generate popular legitimacy is hampered by their inability to organise publicly.

That said, the quality of opposition leadership in the two most effective cases, Tunisia and Egypt, may be contrasted with that in the other four. In both cases, an apparently leaderless movement crystallised with amazing speed and effectiveness. This “horizonalist” leadership, in the Egyptian case, has been insightfully analysed by John Chalcraft in the Spring 2012 issue of Middle East Report. Sustained mass demonstrations, especially in the face of regime brutality, cannot, for long, remain spontaneous. We now know that a tacit coalition of mostly young, social media-savvy organisers carried out a protest blitz with remarkable skill. And we also know that, in what might be called the second phase of the uprising, long dormant political organisations – mainly Islamist – were able to bring muscle and continuity to the campaign.

They were also able to steal the legitimacy card from the incumbent regime leaders. If Khaled Said and Mohamed Bouazizi were able to bring a moment of personal legitimacy to their unfolding causes, the protesters in both countries were easily able to embody powerful symbolic values – the struggle for dignity, freedom, popular participation. They were able to convince key elements of the relatively autonomous state institutions – especially the military – of the rightness of their cause.

The opposition in Bahrain is less incoherent than Yemen’s, and it would be gratuitous to designate it as ‘unintelligent’ considering the ruthless repression it continues to suffer from the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty.

Their ability to command institutional legitimacy was less effective, in large part because of the contingent nature of the political environment in which they were operating. Institution building takes time. But in both cases, the demand of opposition spokespeople to parliamentary elections and constitutional reform indicated at least a commitment to a future more institutionalised, legal, and non-arbitrary form of government.

The other four cases of enduring struggle reveal not only the “kill or be killed” mentality of the regime leaders, but also the divisions and inconsistencies within opposition groups over goals, strategies and tactics. Libya is the one case where the “long war” actually succeeded in eliminating the incumbent leader and his entire regime. It would probably still be going on, had it not been for the massive NATO military assistance to the resistance movement. In June 2011, the International Crisis Group described the Libyan opposition as “comparatively unorganised”. Others pointed to up to 40 different militia cropping up, as a conflict that had begun with peaceful protests became ever more militarised.

A National Transitional Council, initially based in Benghazi and led by Mustafa Abdul Jalil – who would become post-Gaddafi Libya’s first prime minister – became the institutional core of opposition, but owing to the civil society vacuum created by the Gaddafi regime, it has struggled to establish its legitimacy. Elections for a National Assembly scheduled for June could mark a turning point, but so far the centripetal regional and local forces comprising the opposition have complicated intelligent policymaking and the development of legitimacy. Fears of radical Islam and Cyrenaican calls for regional autonomy add to the challenges. Furthermore, as Dirk Vandewalle has pointed out, post-Gaddafi Libya is not starting with a blank slate: there are still embedded patronage networks that will need to be dealt with. And institutional legitimacy is yet to be created. Unlike the remaining three cases, however, the initially incoherent Libyan opposition has a clear playing field with Gaddafi and sons out of the way.

Incoherent, unintelligent

The opposition in Yemen, unlike in Bahrain and Syria, has come close to achieving its goal of deposing the Saleh regime but a complete victory still eludes it. Yet the political culture and social fabric of contemporary Yemen almost guarantees that there can be no “one” opposition. Topography, demography and history in one of the poorest countries in the world, the contradictions of unity and separatism – and the involvement of outside powers – would seem to preclude the formation of a coherent resistance movement.

Along with a liberal secularist element expressed in the Joint Parties organisation, there is also the presence of a son of the famous Hashed tribal leader Shaykh Abdullah al-Ahmar, and the military warlord Ali Muhsin – only recently a defector from the Ali Abdullah Saleh entourage. Months after Saleh stepped down in a deal brokered by the Gulf Cooperation Council, the new president, Abid-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, struggles to reduce the powers of the former president’s son, Ahmad, and other Saleh relatives who resist his authority. In addition, a simmering southern secessionist movement, an al-Qaeda insurgency and an ongoing conflict with the Houthi clan in the north render intelligent policymaking or coherent opposition almost impossible. Such legitimacy that might have accrued to the Yemeni state was severely corrupted by the Saleh “family”, and a landscape of opposition so incoherent scarcely nurtures a new legitimacy.

The opposition in Bahrain is less incoherent than Yemen’s, and it would be gratuitous to designate it as “unintelligent” considering the ruthless repression it continues to suffer from the ruling al-Khalifa dynasty. But it too lacks effectiveness, and there are those within the movement who question the wisdom of boycotting the by-election or rejecting the king’s offer of national dialogue. Despite the determined efforts of liberal centrists to insist upon the opposition’s non-sectarian character, the regime and its larger neighbour, Saudi Arabia, cast the uprising as a subversive Shia rebellion instigated by Iran against the Sunni authorities.

Syria is proving to be the most difficult and bloody of all the uprising cases.

The largest of the main components is the al-Wefaq party, which is Shia but claims to speak for a national constituency, inasmuch as some two-thirds of the population is Shia. To its right is al-Haq, whose leaders have called for the termination of the monarchy. In the centre is the Wa’ad party, which has supported dialogue with the reputedly more accommodating Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. But Prime Minister (and uncle of the king) Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, by most accounts, has been the driving force behind a policy of repression that basically groups all these parties together as a subversive movement. Hence in June 2011 a Bahraini court sentenced eight prominent activists representing al-Haq, al-Wifaq, al-Wa’ad, al-Wafa’, the Bahrain Freedom Movement and the NGO Front Line to life in prison.

The leader of Front Line, Abd al Hadi al Khawaja, subsequently went on a hunger strike to the point of near-death, which deepened international concern over the brutal tactics of the regime. Perhaps the most telling indicator of the opposition’s fundamental legitimacy is the fact that it can continue to resist, in spite of these tactics and in spite of the intervention of Saudi Arabia and other GCC states, which are determined to protect the status quo. Unfortunately, Bahrain’s opposition, like the other cases, has yet to transition from a quite remarkable “horizontal” leadership structure toward a more unified and forceful leadership.

Syria is proving to be the most difficult and bloody of all the uprising cases. The brutishness of the Assad regime’s response to the initial peaceful demonstrations has created huge challenges for a nascent opposition historically crippled by domestic repression and divided by culture, class, geography and ideology. Pushed to the wall it has had to confront a fateful choice: whether or not to take up arms against a regime well-fortified with military power and shielded from Western and/or Arab intervention (a la Libya) owing to the protection of Russia, China and Iran and its regional partners.

The divisions within the opposition are acute. There is the internal-external divide, with the Syrian National Council on the outside and the National Coordination Body on the inside. There is the ideological divide between Islamists and secular nationalists, and among the Islamists themselves are relative hard-liners (Salafists) and soft-liners (the Muslim Brotherhood). The prominence of both tendencies elicits apprehension (amplified by the regime) among Syria’s minority ethno-sectarian communities that their rights, and even security, could be endangered in a post-Assad era.

Opposition coherence is challenged even further by class divisions. As Yezid Sayigh insightfully notes in a recent analysis for the Carnegie Endowment, the “other Syria” (rural, mostly poor, hard hit by Assad’s neo-liberal economic policies) is heavily Salafist, while the urban middle-class Syrian opposition, including crucially the Muslim Brotherhood, to some extent benefits from these policies. Similar cleavages have been observed by Robert Bianchi at the National University of Singapore Middle East Institute in post-election Egypt and Tunisia. So, while a unified opposition would seem to be essential at the present stage, it is not easy to put together. While Syrians are broadly united in their hostility to the regime and seem to have swallowed their fear of its brutal methods, the opposition at this point exhibits a very serious leadership deficit.

Thus we contemplate the conundrum of leadership in the Arab uprisings. Regimes can afford to make unintelligent decisions that sap their legitimacy – up to a point – because their raw power compensates for their illegitimacy. Oppositions, however, while enjoying broad popular legitimacy, lack equivalent power; therefore, they cannot afford to be unintelligent for long.

Michael C Hudson is the Seif Ghobash Professor of Government and International Relations at Georgetown University. He is currently serving as the Director of the Middle East Institute at the National University of Singapore. He has written, edited and contributed to numerous books, including Middle East Dilemma: The Politics and Economics of Arab Integration (Columbia University Press), Arab Politics: The Search for Legitimacy (Yale University Press) and The Precarious Republic: Political Modernization in Lebanon (Random House).

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