Ambika Vishwanath

Ambika Vishwanath is a Middle East specialist and an independent consultant working with governments in Europe and the Middle East.

Middle East – Waiting for a Leader

Ambika Vishwanath

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A few years ago I was on a panel moderated by a former foreign minister of Sweden. After the panel session was over, he invited me and another panel member for tea, and the three of us walked to a coffee shop nearby. The other panel member was at that time a serving member of parliament from an African country and I was in esteemed company. During tea, over discussions where I gained much knowledge from two veterans of the political space, we promised to meet the next day at the train station to catch a train to the airport and our next destinations. As promised, I found the two men waiting for me at the train station and we travelled together in second class to the airport and then parted ways.What was most remarkable about my time with them, apart from the conversation and all that I learnt, was that I could never have imagined this happening in many parts of the world, where I would travel by train with a serving MP and a former minister, unescorted and unencumbered. Such occurrences are not unusual in Europe or other developed nations and even in many countries in Africa, but they certainly are in many parts of the world, including India, most of the Middle East or the Gulf nations. It is the humility of leaders such as these, who have transformed their countries, and created political spaces where elected and appointed officials serve their nation without expecting that the nation serves them. The state of nations around the world indicates that countries with men and women such as these fare higher on all political and social indices, than countries where politicians and government servants expect to be revered.

Decisive Leadership of Sadat and Begin

In 1978-79, three such diverse and strong willed heads of state came together and created a legacy that has withstood severe tests. They were President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Begin of Israel and U.S. President Carter; together they worked on the famous Camp David Accords, which lead to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. At war since 1948, the treaty in a nutshell, resulted in withdrawal of Israeli troops from Sinai and normalisation of relations between the two countries. The treaty has survived subsequent changes in leadership in both countries, harsh criticism from their neighbours, terrorist attacks and an assassination, internal threats and a revolution. Agreed upon by two men who were far from perfect, the treaty nevertheless depicts the will of leaders who demonstrated vision and courage.

President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Carter of the US

President Sadat of Egypt, Prime Minister Begin of Israel and President Carter of the US

Clarity of vision and courage are perhaps some of the most important traits of a leader, especially one who wishes to change the course of life, be it their own or their surroundings. History is replete with such transformational leaders, from Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, from Anwar Sadat to Nelson Mandela and Kemal Attaturk to Pope Francis. Many were not leaders in the traditional sense but they all demonstrated core attributes of what broadly defines a transformational leader. Leadership theories tell us that a truly transformation leader is one who moves from creating an inspiring vision for the future, clearly articulates such a vision and builds strong relationships with people around them to deliver the vision. They do not merely dictate what needs to be done but involve those around them in the process.

People also need the courage to follow through on their vision, wisdom to be able to overcome any and all obstacles, and most importantly, the willingness and ability to grow other leaders around them. Such attributes or character traits are what separate good leaders from the truly transformational ones. Perhaps the men I named would have all failed against such high benchmarks, but their lasting legacies tell us otherwise. Though admittedly the jury is still out on Pope Francis, but I am hopeful.

In 1978, President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, despite their vast differences and an ocean of religious beliefs that separated them, decided that working with President Carter and taking the first difficult step towards peace in the Middle East was worth the effort. Sadat paid for those efforts with his life. Today, the greater Middle East region is in a state that these men would never have imagined. Not only is there terrorism and violence like never before, the region has refugees growing by the millions, history that is being destroyed as I write, a culture that will soon cease to exist, and a host of political leaders that have become adept at the blame game. The governments in the region, both Arab and others, have failed to build societies based on freedom, good governance and respect for human dignity. They have allowed mistrust and hatred to grow, where any positive overture is seen with a negative lens.

Reccep Erdogan – A Promising Leader Who Fell Short

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Reccep Erdogan

In 2002, an enigmatic new leader with a grand vision swept the elections in Turkey and the newly formed Justice and Development Party or the AK Party formed the government. This enigmatic new leader entered the political space with a clear new dream of a resurgent Turkey, one that would lead the region and be a force to reckon with. For a country ridden with corruption and power-hungry elite, Reccep Erdogan and his band of wise was a welcome change. He quickly blurred the lines between the establishment and the people, and focused on real development including education, water, and energy. Slowly but surely, corruption across the country was weeded out, the economy grew at over 10-14%  well into his second term in office, the neglected rural parts of the country were brought into the mainstream and the world began wooing Turkey. He advocated religious freedom as a personal choice and it seemed that he had managed to find the perfect balance between a predominantly Islamic nation that was secular and a republic. What is noteworthy is that he did not do all of this alone, he empowered governors and mayors, gave power to his ministers and advisors so that collectively they could transform the country. The advisors around him and the wise men and women who gave into to his vision were from across different spectres, where Erdogan and the other co-founders of the AK Party realised the value of having perspectives from all spheres. In Turkey, on several occasions, I have been in the company of serving high ranking government servants and elected officials, who move about in public transportation without an entourage and serve their country with dignity and humility.

For almost a decade, Erdogan and the top leadership of AK Party were heralded as the force that would transform not only Turkey and its relationship with its neighbours, but the entire region as well. Other Islamic nations attempted to recreate the magic of the AK Party and bring in similar principles into their system of governance. There was new hope that old problems could be solved and new relationships in the region would erase old hate. But unfortunately, the trappings of power began to overcome the then Prime Minister of Turkey and he began to behave like a dictator. Civil liberties were curbed and the media was silenced. The old guard and sincere advisors from the party began leaving and were replaced by yes men. The enigmatic leader and the party began losing the idealism it started out with, taking away the hope it once promised. Erdogan had shifted from a transformational leader to a transactional one.

Hassan al-Banna and Failings of the Muslim Brotherhood

Leadership that transforms and brings about real change is difficult to sustain, and great belief and strength is required to stay true to ones original vision. This is true for leaders that we may or may not agree with. One of the great change makers in the modern Middle East was Hassan al-Banna, the founder of Muslim Brotherhood. While adding him to the list of transformational leaders might seem controversial, he was undoubtedly a visionary and leader to millions in pre-independent Egypt. Founded in 1928, the Muslim Brotherhood was his vision of a religious society based on justice and equality as defined by the Quran, and protection of the average Egyptian from foreign dominance and the tyranny of the royalty. He advocated the creation of inclusive social systems, schools, hospitals and other institutions that were not provided by the state and succeeded in bringing millions into the Brotherhood. The organisation grew rapidly, and in less than two decades had over two million members. He effectively used pre-existing social networks and groups to spread his messages, tackling issues of colonialism and nationalism, the need for public health and sanitation, better management of resources and nature and social inequality. Though al-Banna was ultimately murdered in 1949, he has been a great influence on modern Islamic thought and the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood. However, it seems that the principles that al-Banna founded the Brotherhood on have been lost and the organisation has failed to produce another great leader and visionary. Today, it is embroiled in violence and infraction and has moved far away from the justice and hope it once gave millions.

There is much to learn from the failures of those who have walked before us, and even those whom we might not always agree with. There is also much to learn from the mistakes of great leaders and the collapse of organisations.

Middle East – Waiting for a Leader

The region needs risk-takers and visionaries, communicators and courageous leaders who will bring people together for a better future. The transformation of the Middle East as a region and as individual countries can only happen with brave new leaders, men and women who have the courage to battle the odds and take the first steps towards change. These are not necessarily the heads of states or revolutionaries, but people like Prince Hassan of Jordan, who for years has advocated for a better future. He has gone beyond mere messages of social justice, a green economy and an equal society, and is attempting to translate his vision into concrete action with the creation of strong institutes and organisations in his own country. There is hope that the new leadership in Iran and Egypt, the royal families of Qatar and the UAE who have tentatively embraced change, may lead the way in a different style of rule and law in their countries, one that is inclusive and genuinely benefits their citizens and societies.

Transformational leaders and change makers cannot act alone and need the support of the people around them. Had the Egyptian President had greater support in his country and in the region following the peace treaty with Israel, the Middle East might have taken a very different turn. Just as societies need change makers and visionaries, it also needs people to support these men and women who are the risk-takers.

There is no shortage of ideas and dreams in the Middle East, especially with the harsh realities and violence of today, and there is no dearth of great men and women who try everyday to change the course of their lives and their surroundings. But for these men and women to rise above and become great leaders, who can change the course of history, they need a little more vision and a lot more courage, and a generous amount of humility. A tall order perhaps, but not impossible, as history has shown us. Only then will countries in the Middle East be truly transformed into great societies that last across generations.


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