MIDDLE EAST: Where’s our Nelson Mandela?

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Hop in a cab in just about any Arab capital, and within minutes you are likely to pass a picture or a poster of a president, king or emir. They tower and flutter, hard-eyed patriarchs at the intersection of art, politics and iconography. But for all their many poses and costumes, they seldom inspire, says Aijaz Zaka Syed.

He’s looking for a Nelson Mandela. In an essay in Egypt’s Al Ahram Weekly, the journalist yearns for an Islamic leader who transcends his billboard-sized portrait. He is not likely to find one soon, at least in the Middle East, where critics say corrupt and authoritarian leaders are more concerned with amassing power than sharing it.

“The Islamic world has produced no Mandelas despite the daunting challenges it faces,” writes Syed, the opinion editor of the Khaleej Times in the United Arab Emirates. “Ours is a world of short-sighted pygmies. And we need visionaries who can look far and ahead, beyond their noses, to lead us to a new dawn of hope.”

He continues: “The Muslim world may not be fighting apartheid and colonial repression like South Africans once did, but it has other far more dangerous demons to fight. From ignorance to illiteracy to poverty to violent extremism, we perhaps face even greater challenges than the people of South Africa ever did. Despite its rich natural and human resources, ours remains one of the world’s most backward and dispossessed regions.”


-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo