Leadership deficit on both sides prolongs the unfinished uprisings

Because Arab Spring opposition groups enjoy popular legitimacy but lack power, they can’t afford to be unintelligent – Published on Al JAzeera, by , May 8, 2012.

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 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 failed so far 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 regime in power. In Yemen, Saleh’s “military family” clings to key positions by virtue of its patronage networks and 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 actually to 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 uprising cases did – does – the regime have much of either.

But incumbents’ leadership inadequacy 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: … //

… 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 militias 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: … (full long text).

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