An Arab Mandela

This region has produced many national liberation leaders, but none with a vision beyond ending colonial rule

Abdel Monem Said
Abdel Monem Said
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Today, we are laying to rest the great African leader Nelson Mandela, who passed away on Dec. 5 at the age of 95. Of his long life, he spent 27 years in prison and 23 years after that in freedom as a political activist, a president, a leader, an inspiration to the African continent, a Nobel laureate and a symbol of the struggle for a better world. In the days since he left this life, newspapers and television stations around the world have discussed the details of Mandela’s life, from his birth and adolescence to his fight for freedom and his leadership after his release from prison. They have assessed the period he spent in power and his relationship with other world leaders, especially American ones. Some of these leaders, such as Ronald Reagan, branded him a terrorist, while others, such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, regarded him as a beacon of freedom and hope.
There is little that one can add to the information about this man’s life that has not already been said. But there still remains the question as to why this type of man is so rare.

With respect to the Arab people, this question is of particular urgency at this time of sweeping change in the region. In fact, it is surprising that not a single Arab nation has produced a leader we can respect the way we respect Nelson Mandela. What we have instead are old leaders who took center stage. There was not much about them that we did not know before, and they had nothing new to offer apart from some repackaging of the Arab Spring and Arab Autumn revolutions in old wrapping paper.

The revolutionaries themselves had little to offer, save the transition from one revolution to another - or, in cases such as Libya and Syria, the transition to proliferating militias and all-engulfing violence and warfare.

South Africa stood apart from most Third-World colonized countries that clamored for liberation in the years following the Second World War. Like many former colonies, South Africa had been the object of a massive settlement drive in which thousands of people of Dutch, French and British origin seized control over large tracts of land and established a settler government. The phenomenon was not all that different from what occurred in Palestine or elsewhere in Africa, such as Zimbabwe. Those settlers were not there to colonize on behalf of their countries of origin. They wanted a state of their own, and that state was founded on the vilest of the reactionary ultra-right-wing ideas to emerge from Europe. This gave rise to South Africa’s notorious apartheid system, which was based on total racial segregation and the systematic reduction of the indigenous people to poverty and weakness. The architects of apartheid truly believed there state was appropriate for people they saw as “backwards.”

It was an environment that inherently bred resistance and violence, which also occurred in other African and Third-World countries. Mandela took part in many revolutionary activities, for which he received a lengthy prison sentence. His was the story of the creation of a freedom fighter through oppression by a formidable enemy: The powerful, reactionary and colonialist settler government endowed with vast wealth and resources, which enjoyed the support of many major international powers.
But another Mandela was born in prison. This was the Mandela who inspired millions of oppressed and persecuted peoples around the world, and who became part of that small club that includes such figures as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., whose ideas of resistance and liberation were framed in a larger humanitarian concept that envisioned the emancipation not only of the oppressed, but of the oppressors as well. Because of its more tolerant nature, this approach lets people understand the mindset of both sides of a conflict. Thus, they are able to approach in the spirit of tolerance and inclusiveness, and to search for solutions that promote peaceful coexistence.

This region has produced quite a few national liberation leaders, but none with a vision that extended beyond ending colonial rule

Abdel Monem Said

This is not to suggest that Mandela was ever prepared to surrender his principles. He remained firm and unyielding on the need for a new South Africa ruled by the majority of its people, which is to say the native African majority. He rejected all “compromises” that would officially eliminate apartheid but keep whites in power or grant them a permanent majority in parliament. But at the same time, he knew that a new South Africa—if it was truly to be a “new” South Africa - had to be able to accommodate all that lived there. This is the spirit that made the South African national struggle on a path of construction rather than revenge, a means to move away from hatred and rancor and toward love and understanding, a way to uproot the fear instilled by the oppressive past and to look forward with hope.

Mandela only served one term as president. But after that one term, and the many extraordinary things he accomplished, Mandela continued to devote himself to the major issues of concern to his country and the world. The many details regarding this are being discussed by others. Here, I would like to focus on that urgent question of concern to the Arab world.

Concerning the Arab world

This region has produced quite a few national liberation leaders, but none with a vision that extended beyond ending colonial rule. Yes, they had some vague ideas about development, but they lacked any broader understanding of the need to reconcile the existing diversity in their societies. They failed to appreciate that development and progress requires education and the promotion of new and different values.

It is impossible to explain the explosion of ethnic, religious and sectarian violence in the Arab world today without taking into account the fact that the Arab liberation wars and revolutions not only failed to generate mutual understanding and peaceful coexistence between ethnic and religious communities, it actually laid the foundations for conflict between them. The societies that had been shaped by fear of foreign occupiers and colonial rule remained societies based on fear, whether of the ruling authority or of the “other” in society. This has proven more brutal than the colonialists were in the past - and even more brutal than some post-colonialist authorities.

In societies of fear, there is very little room for hope. The little optimism that exists is artificial, confined to public displays or celebrations. In fact, rare is the Arab leader who smiles, especially that genuine type of smile for which Mandela was famous. That smile was one of his most important weapons in his struggle against apartheid and for change. Far and few between are the occasions when Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Muammar Qaddafi, Ali Abdullah Saleh or other Arab dictators were caught in the act of smiling. Apparently, they consciously avoided the smile, as though it would betray weakness or a relaxation of their grip of power and authority.

I wonder whether we will ever see the birth of an Arab Mandela, now that the Arab Spring has prematurely segued into an autumnal nightmare. The youth of that spring appear little different from their revolutionary forefathers.

Still, history brings many surprises.

This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Dec. 15, 2013.


Abdel Monem Said is the director of al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He was previously a board member at Egypt’s Parliament Research Center at the People's Assembly, and a senator in Egypt's Shura Council.

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