Saturday,25 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)
Saturday,25 November, 2017
Issue 1359, (7 - 13 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Crises of succession

Strong leaders often create headaches for their successors, whether in Europe or the Arab world, writes Tewfick Aclimandos

Syria has never been the “Prussia of Middle East.” It is not as industrialised, its army has never been as powerful, and Damascus has never been anything like Berlin.

Prussian society was also never as multi-confessional or as multi-ethnic as Syrian, and Prussia never experienced the kind of military coups that have been associated with Syria. Syria has never had a Social Democratic Party, unlike Prussia, and so on.

Nevertheless, the two countries do have some common features: both are (or were in Prussia’s case) surrounded by powerful enemies and had a lust to expand, feeling their frontiers were not “natural ones”. But Syria has never had the means to do so, even as Arab nationalism borrowed themes from its earlier German counterpart. The Syrian elites are sophisticated, and their contributions to Arab culture have been impressive. Syrian cities, often amazingly beautiful, have been the stars of Arab civilisation.

Yet, despite such differences, former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger once said that former Syrian president Hafez Al-Assad was the “Bismarck of the Middle East.” His comment looks plausible, since both men were ruthless players with clear goals in mind. Both were superb and patient negotiators and were impressive manipulators of men, groups and countries. Kissinger paid tribute to Al-Assad’s extraordinary ability in his comment, although many people thought at the time that Al-Assad lacked Bismarck’s agility.

But Kissinger and brilliant if controversial French historian Fabrice Bouthillon reached the same conclusions about Bismarck. This great Prussian leader, arguably the greatest statesman in the world between 1814 and 1914, unwittingly sowed the seeds of Germany’s destruction. His legacy in internal and international affairs was too complex for his successors to handle, relying on complex equilibriums that required a subtle hand and great acumen.

In order to be secure, the newly united Germany needed a succession of brilliant leaders of genius, and while this was not impossible to imagine, it was always improbable. Mediocre leaders could launch catastrophic events as a result of Bismarck’s legacy. Of course, Bismarck left Germany in much better shape than Syria, but the comparison between Bismarck and Al-Assad is still a relevant one.

 A Syrian friend put forward two examples. Hafez Al-Assad, the father of current Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, would never have allowed the communitarian divide in Syria to worsen, just as he would never have allowed it to disappear, as he needed it for his own purposes. This policy required considerable fine-tuning on a daily basis and long-term management. Hafez Al-Assad would also not have unnecessarily alienated the leaders of the Arab Gulf countries. His son has done both, leading to catastrophe for the country.

Could similar things be said about former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and, say, former French president Charles De Gaulle? The institutions these men created were tailored for them, and they proved to be difficult to handle for some of their heirs of lesser stature. However, the differences are still significant.

In my view, during the 1980s Egypt’s institutions were organised in such a way that all the country’s brains and talent stemming from the state or civil society contributed to improving the qualities and wisdom of the country’s leader by respectfully briefing or teaching him. Of course, such advice could worsen his character and exacerbate some of his personal weaknesses, and of course he could also decline such advice and sideline its bearers. This also does not mean that the experts were always right, as both former presidents Anwar Al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak often proved their advisers to be wrong on one count or another.

I was impressed by the metamorphosis of Mubarak, who slowly and steadily stopped being an average, if efficient, military officer, and instead became a wise statesman and shrewd leader, although he was still too cautious for my taste and too unwilling to invest in confrontational but badly needed reforms in the economy and education. But the combination of his common sense and the in-depth knowledge provided by his advisers made at least the first half of his presidency successful. Mubarak did not need to be a genius. He just needed to be a good listener.

Saying that De Gaulle’s institutions were tailored for him is correct, but it misses some important points. De Gaulle had a deep understanding of competing French political cultures, including the Catholic, the secular, the revolutionary, the monarchist, and so on. He behaved, as far as I can tell, like a Catholic monarchist who has understood that the revolution has won despite its inability to provide a formula for stable government. As a result, he proposed a brilliant synthesis of the two traditions: the executive would be strengthened, the parliament would be weakened and a powerful president would be elected by direct suffrage, thus securing overall legitimacy.

In France, the president under De Gaulle was an elected king. Once elected, he was no longer an ordinary man, but instead incarnated France. When people seemed to think otherwise, De Gaulle called a referendum, putting his own survival at stake. His heirs have not dared to do the same thing.

Subsequent French presidents Georges Pompidou, François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac also had a deep understanding of the virtues of the Gaullist solution. One French scholar once said that former French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing has been unable to understand that monarchy is not the same thing as aristocracy, and almost everybody concurs in saying that former French presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande did not understand the importance of the symbolic function of the presidency or mistakenly thought that times had changed. Hollande, for instance, kept saying that he was “a normal president,” meaning a normal human being, overlooking the fact that this statement simply led to self-inflicted damage.

Perhaps in postmodern French society this monarchical symbolism no longer fulfils its function and is no longer credible. In Egypt, society is now too young, too dynamic, too restive and too complex to be managed by the old Nasserist formulas, and it badly needs to find a new direction.

But important segments of the two societies still long for the old recipes. Traditions bring security, and they outlive the contexts that gave them birth. French President Emmanuel Macron is said to understand this and is trying to behave accordingly. But the symbolic function of the French presidency also needs substance and not just formal gestures if it is to be successful.


The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

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