A tale of two Arab men, one credible the other glamorous

2012-08-04 14:27

Two men emerged as new players on the fast-changing stage of Arab politics this week – Egypt’s newly appointed Prime Minister Hisham Kandil and defected Syrian general Manaf Tlas.

Kandil’s appointment is a quiet milestone and turning point for Egypt and the Arab world.

It shows how fears and warnings we have heard that Islamists will take over and ruin the Arab world are rubbish.

This smooth and incremental assumption of limited power by Islamists in Egypt is happening because of respect for the will of the majority as expressed in elections, an open press, political parties, civil society and a judicial system that arbitrates the whole package.

This is also the result of an ongoing negotiation among the Islamists, the military, the remnants of the revolutionary youth from Tahrir Square and other smaller groups in society.

This will mark the single most important moment in a transition that started with the revolution last year – the validated incumbency of an elected Islamist-dominated government system that must respond directly and quickly to citizens’ demands.

Tlas’ story in Syria is different. This dashing fellow (like his father, the former defence minister) has been close to the ruling Assad family his whole life, and has now defected from his post as an armed forces general to join the opposition.

He is a potential pivotal player in a post-Assad transition, and he wishes to play a unifying role in the opposition.

It is hard to take any of this seriously, given his grim lineage and record. Yet the mere fact that he is now considered a player in the coming transition reflects the sickness and desperation that pervade parts of the Arab political order.

Tlas went to Saudi Arabia this week on a pilgrimage to Mecca, presumably as an act of personal piety, but also to drum up political support.

The legacy of his entire adult life in the service of the brutal Assad security state, however, cannot be so easily erased, for he lacks the legitimacy needed to do anything meaningful beyond appealing to other Arab leaders or clueless Western leaders and analysts.

The glamorous Tlas lacks legitimacy and the legitimate Kandil lacks glamour and we shall soon discover if legitimacy really matters, or if it can be trumped by expediency and money.

» Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut 

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