On the importance of leadership, warts and all

Two posts I put up recently featuring opposition figures -- Iran's Akbar Ganji and Syria's Maamoun al-Homsi -- generated an interesting response: attacks on these activists as being cowardly, formerly close to the regime, or having some other negative side. It could be that these criticisms are fair -- I really don't know that much about Ganji, although his credentials seem impeccable, and even less about al-Homsi (but am fully aware the journalist who interviewed him, an acquaintance, is a Lebanese with clear political biases who works for the pro-Hariri newspaper al-Mustaqal, although he is mostly a cultural journalist and a poet).

The tendency to nitpick at the credentials of opposition figures -- which is fair enough considering there are plenty of self-serving opportunists out there and the world is still reeling from Ahmed Chalabi's manipulations -- is something that increasingly bothers me about political discourse in this region. I was guilty of it myself in 2005 regarding Ayman Nour, a politician whose career I was familiar with long before he became the poster boy for the "Cairo Spring." I'd always recognized that Nour was a talented populist but saw him as ultimately second-rate and unlikely to appeal to Egypt's elite. Looking back, I regret not giving him more credit and that especially the Arabic media (not just the state-controlled part) did not give him more of a chance. He may have been far from perfect, but he had the courage of his convictions (or maybe ambitions, but does it matter?) and I look back and believe he achieved something quite unique: he campaigned against a practically all-powerful president and tried to challenge him as an equal. In essence, he called the bluff of Mubarak's pretense to open up the political scene and presidential race, and put all his effort in it. The 7% score he got in the elections, while perhaps apparently small, was actually quite an achievement. I think the regime knows this, hence the five-year sentence and horrible treatment he is receiving in prison.

The Middle East will not be able to have credible alternatives to the existing regimes unless we start putting some faith -- some suspension of disbelief -- in the leaders who try to emerge against them. If we go along with the press attacks on these figures, the campaigns of disinformation, and wait for a knight on a shining armor -- well, we might be waiting for a long time.
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Issandr El Amrani

Issandr El Amrani is a Cairo-based writer and consultant. His reporting and commentary on the Middle East and North Africa has appeared in The Economist, London Review of Books, Financial Times, The National, The Guardian, Time and other publications. He also publishes one of the longest-running blog in the region, www.arabist.net.