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The tyranny of deadly devotion

One man does not make a nation. People tried to make Arafat and Palestine equivalent

Bakir Oweida

Published: Updated:

From time to time, we need to repeat to ourselves things we know to be true. I reached this conclusion on Monday evening, when I watched a documentary on the UK’s Channel 5 called “7 Days that Made the Fuhrer.”

The irony is that I had already felt a similar impression that very morning after reading an article by Robert Fisk in the Independent, entitled “The real poison is to be found in Arafat’s legacy.” While I agreed with the title of the article, I disagreed with the lengths that the writer took in analyzing the negative dimensions of Arafat’s political legacy.

But what was the link between the morning’s reading and the evening’s viewing? The answer is simple: Tyranny.

Before anyone screams in angry opposition, I would like to clarify that I do not mean to put Adolf Hitler and Yasser Arafat in the same basket—certainly not. However, both of them share a nationalist sentiment which developed in the usual way, as do perhaps dozens or even hundreds of other politicians and leaders. But this sentiment later evolved into a state of tyranny that overcame them. Their self-image, which was present in their daily practices and which will be recorded in future history books, became more important than serving the interests of those they ruled.

At that stage, the nationalist feeling becomes ingrained, reaching a state of deep narcissism. The leaders deny this, making everyday behavior—whether in private or in public—a bridge that presents the image of a down-to-earth leader, who lives a hard, simple and austere life. If the situation requires, this leader can be pious. If the people are angry, the leader can be angrier. If the people are sad, he will be sadder. If the situation requires compassion, particularly with mothers, children and old people, then the leader can turn this on, too.

All this was possible as long as they proved that no one could best them when it came to the love of their country and their people. But at the same time, these leaders were also demonstrating a state of narcissism that would ultimately overcome their judgment and control their fate.

Arafat, the man

Arafat was a man who embodied this duality, a leader obsessed with an image based on absolute purity. In order to preserve that image he was not prepared to take any step that could harm it, even centuries later.

This brings us back to the main point of my article last week: One man does not make a nation. People tried to make Arafat and Palestine equivalent

Bakir Oweida

On a personal level, I saw him live a simple life, work late into the night, wear the same clothes and eat little. There is no doubt that many journalists similar to me saw that, too. However, I also saw him very angry at any political objection, and he viewed disagreement with any Palestinian position as an objection to him as a leader.

Even in press interviews, he refused to accept the possibility of the existence of a better way to manage some crises, even with trivial issues like office administration. I asked him in an interview in Tunis if his personal approval of every administrative procedure regarding, for example, the family of a detainee or a martyr, was necessary. He said “yes,” pointing to a number of different colored pens in his pocket and adding, “I must sign every document with one of these.”

In another interview in Sanaa, I asked him about the discontent in the Fatah organization about corruption among some leaders. He stood up and angrily denied the existence of any discontent or corruption. However, during a subsequent interview in the Libyan capital, he admitted the existence of some financial corruption among staff of PLO’s offices. However, he then added: “What can we do? We make them representatives of the PLO, but they transform into representatives of the countries within the PLO.”

There are many famous expressions and quotes associated with Arafat. Perhaps the most important of these is: “Oh Mountain, the wind cannot move you.” There is no doubt that he was referring to the Palestinian revolution, but it is possible that to him, the mountain was none other than Yasser Arafat himself.

There was also his response to any criticism of his political stances, based on a famous Arab expression: “They found no wrong with the rose, so they said it is red,” which means that people will disagree with you no matter how perfect you are. It is known that the rose is a link between lovers, and I do not see any fault in Yasser Arafat’s devotion to Palestine. But just like some devotion proves deadly, it would not be difficult to say that this devotion killed Arafat’s dream of an independent Palestinian state. Arafat could not deal with the circumstances and realities on the ground. The devoted man died, and along with him the dream, whether by polonium or otherwise.

Again, the idea is not to question the sincerity of these feelings, but sincerity does not negate the fact that these feelings were used to serve leadership for leaderships’ sake and to avert any challenges to that leader.

This brings us back to the main point of my article last week: One man does not make a nation. People tried to make Arafat and Palestine equivalent, and last week I talked about how people are now trying to make Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah into the Lebanese state. As long as a political leader refuses to accept the existence of someone who loves the homeland more than they do, this tyranny of narcissism will remain within them. It will rule their decisions, not only about states and politicians, but also towards the interests of the country and the people they claim to love.

In my opinion, these are some of the negatives in Arafat’s political legacy that harmed both him and Palestine. The tyranny that Adolf Hitler eventually embodied was a completely different story. It was produced by his mother’s narcissistic relationship with him and his father’s rough treatment. It grew in him when he was young, and it remained within him when he was the leader of the Nazis. The essence of Hitler’s tyranny is simple: Any house can produce a bright star or terrible tyrant.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Nov. 24, 2013.

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Bakir Oweida is a journalist who worked as Managing Editor, and written for several Arab publications based in London. His last executive post was Assistant to Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, responsible for Op-Ed section, until December 2003. He can be reached on bakir@hotmail.co.uk and bakir@darbakir.com

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.