Mandela’s Mideast legacy shines on

South African anti-apartheid leader had unshakable devotion to Arab allies

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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The Arab world met the news of former South African leader Nelson Mandela’s death with a heavy heart. As a steadfast opponent of injustice, his message and legacy spoke deeply to many in the Arab world.

Egypt’s presidency released a statement this morning in response to the death of Nelson Mandela, saying the South African leader would be an eternal source of inspiration who will “remain in the hearts and minds of Egyptians” as a symbol of “national struggle,” linking his legacy with Egyptian revolutionary General Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas took the opportunity to highlight Mandela’s emphatic sentiments towards the Palestinian cause.

“We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians,” Mandela said in an address during his presidency in 1997.

Two years later, the South African leader made stronger remarks while on a trip to Israel. “My view is that talk of peace remains hollow if Israel continues to occupy Arab lands,” he said.

“I understand completely well why Israel occupies these lands. There was a war. But if there is going to be peace, there must be complete withdrawal from all of these areas,” Mandela had added.

A senior official from Palestinian Islamist group Hamas proclaim following Mandela’s death that he was “one of the biggest supporters of our cause,” according to Reuters.

South African President Nelson Mandela and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, pictured here in 1999, were staunch allies. (Reuters)
South African President Nelson Mandela and Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, pictured here in 1999, were staunch allies. (Reuters)

Mandela, who met Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat numerous times over the years, hailed the leader as an “outstanding freedom fighter,” upon news of his death in 2004, according to Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

“Yasser Arafat was one of the outstanding freedom fighters of this generation, one who gave his entire life to the cause of the Palestinian people,” said Mandela, who had met Arafat numerous times over the years.

But what relationship did Mandela have with the Middle East during his single term as South African president?

“Mandela identified with all national liberation movements, however they emerged,” Abdallah Schleifer, a professor emeritus of journalism at the American University in Cairo told Al Arabiya News.

The South African leader showed unwavering loyalty, standing by Muammar Qaddafi who had supported hi m previously, even when the Libyan leader had fallen out of favor of the international community.

Not speaking ill

“Libya had been very supportive of the ANC [the African National Congress, Mandela’s political movement], and for that, Mandela, would never speak ill of him,” said Eugene Rogan, a Middle East historian and professor at UK-based Oxford University's Middle East Centre.

Mandela maintained relationships with other revolutionary leaders worldwide, including with former Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro.

“Even though some of the people he made friendships with turned out to be quite nasty, he never would go back on that,” said Schleifer.

Mandela’s unshakable devotion to Qaddafi resulted in him naming one of his grandsons in honor of the Libyan leader.

His support for the Libyan strongmen also allowed Mandela to flex his diplomatic muscle by serving alongside then-U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan as an intermediary in the long-running dispute between Libya and the U.S. and Britain over bringing to trial the two Libyans accused of involvement in the Lockerbie bombing.

Good wishes

Mandela’s continual support for Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stemmed from the latter's long-term support for the South African leader's movement before coming to power.

“He never faltered in his good wishes towards the PLO and his gratitude towards Arafat for the support he’d given to the ANC in their years of struggle,” Rogan told Al Arabiya News.

Personal friendships and unshakable loyalties aside, Mandela’s support for Arafat and Qaddafi was “moral,” rather than actionable – and a worthy endorsement considering the South African leader’s global popularity.

“To have the support of someone who has the global legitimacy as Nelson Mandela was important to people like Qaddafi and Arafat,” said Rogan.

Although both Mandela and Arafat are gone, Palestinians continue to draw comparisons between Israel’s stance towards Palestine and the apartheid regime in South Africa.

“They [Palestinians] relate very strongly to the experience of the ANC and of the securing of the majority rule in South Africa. So for Palestinians, the Mandela legacy is going to be one that’s very poignant,” he said.

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