Listen Now

Demand for Arab ‘Strongmen’ Weaker Than Ever

The Arab world is looking for effective leaders who can deliver real and lasting change, not new strongmen, argues Bessma Momani.

By: /
18 January, 2013
Bessma Momani
By: Bessma Momani

Professor at the University of Waterloo’s Balsillie School of International Affairs and a CIGI senior fellow

As we mark the two-year anniversary of the Arab uprisings, we see plenty of figurative post-mortems on the Arab leaders, or strongmen, that have been usurped by the masses. But what can we learn from these revolutions about the Arab people and the type of government they seek? How do these uprisings complicate the theory of “Arab exceptionalism” (as it was once described in polite academic and analytical circles)? This term, I’m afraid, was not intended as a compliment: Many analysts of the Middle East talked about how the Arab world was “exceptional” to the experience of democratization – and, implicitly, to modernization – thanks to resilient authoritarian political structures. In other words, Arabs were really good at constructing systems that revolved around security institutions, and that relied on nepotism and cultish adoration of the leader by the masses to surive.

I have never found this argument helpful in explaining the politics of the region, not least because it typically descended into cultural arguments about how the Arab people want strongmen, respect the abuser, or simply view “might as right.” It is an academic theory that has always been too reminiscent of cultural psychologist Raphael Patai’s 1973 book, The Arab Mind, which provided lessons on how to dominate the Arab people, and implied that such lessons were legitimated by the behaviour of Arabs themselves. When Seymour Hersh wrote his exposé in The New Yorker about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, he noted that Patai’s book was the inspiration behind the Bush neo-conservatives’ modus operandi for containing the Arab people. The book, like Abu Ghraib, is a reminder of how the Arab people have been dehumanized as they’ve been poked and prodded by outside analysts.

So, what does this theory that the Arab people want strongmen have to do with the Arab Spring?

In my opinion, the Arab Spring has debunked this theory once and for all, as Arabs have shown the world they are looking for the complete opposite of strongmen. The uprisings were devoid of charismatic leaders, and none have captured the imagination of the various revolutions thus far. Indeed, the international community has at times made loud calls for the revolutionary groups to find leaders so external powers would have interlocutors.

Frankly, the Arab people are not searching for new larger-than-life leaders. They are not looking for someone to take to the podium and rhyme off speeches that try to restore confidence with rhetoric and empty promises. Arabs do not want to pay deference to strongmen, real or perceived – they are fed up with omnipotent leaders. So, when Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi gave his speech to the nation, and when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad stood in front of the Damascus Opera House to give his statesmen a lesson in geopolitics, they were out of sync entirely with the dynamic of the revolutions. 

Today, the people of the Arab world want technocrats, functionaries, and doers to lead them. Long-winded speeches and convoluted ideological arguments are not satisfying to a class of educated, well-traveled, and increasingly cosmopolitan people. Greater and greater numbers of Arabs are calling on leaders to effectively formulate and implement policies – they want reforms in every sense of the word. Fiery nationalist speeches that may have been enough to spark hope in days past now only fan feelings of frustration.

In many ways, this is the reason for the Arab uprisings: It is a process resulting from the increased education, urbanization, and empowerment of the Arab people. It is hard to tell a generation of young, educated people that because someone else commands the megaphone and has a stick to back it, they ought to acquiesce. The actions of this generation disprove any thesis that Arab societies are predisposed to dictatorship and stagnation. The Arab Spring should put an end to “Arab exceptionalism”, and to the idea that we are merely waiting for alternative Arab strongmen to replace the ones that have been forced out.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Journalism in Canada has suffered a devastating decline over the last two decades. Dozens of newspapers and outlets have shuttered. Remaining newsrooms are smaller. Nowhere is this erosion more acute than in the coverage of foreign policy and international news. It’s expensive, and Canadians, oceans away from most international upheavals, pay the outside world comparatively little attention.

At Open Canada, we believe this must change. If anything, the pandemic has taught us we can’t afford to ignore the changing world. What’s more, we believe, most Canadians don’t want to. Many of us, after all, come from somewhere else and have connections that reach around the world.

Our mission is to build a conversation that involves everyone — not just politicians, academics and policy makers. We need your help to do so. Your support helps us find stories and pay writers to tell them. It helps us grow that conversation. It helps us encourage more Canadians to play an active role in shaping our country’s place in the world.

Become a Supporter