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In Shifting Sands of Middle East, Who Will Lead?

Author: Steven A. Cook, Eni Enrico Mattei Senior Fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies
November 15, 2012
Christian Science Monitor


Even before the recent round of Hamas rockets and airstrikes from Israel in the Gaza Strip, the Palestinian enclave was in the news as the diplomatic destination of choice for the leaders of the Middle East. Last month, the emir of Qatar visited Gaza. Bahrain's embattled king is also weighing such a trip. Turkey's prime minister, too, announced his intention to travel to the strip.

News reports speculate that the leaders' attention will further legitimize Gaza's militant Hamas at the expense of Mahmoud Abbas's secular Palestinian Authority, which is based in the West Bank. Yet the sudden diplomatic interest in Gaza has more to do with prime ministers, kings, emirs, and presidents seeking to burnish their legitimacy – or importantly, their credentials as potential regional leaders.

The uprisings, revolutions, and civil wars that have dramatically altered domestic politics in the Arab world have had a profound effect on regional power dynamics – including Iran. The Middle East is up for grabs, yet which country or countries will lead is as unclear and complex as current efforts to build new political systems in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, and elsewhere.

The issue of leadership is critical for the region. States with prestige and financial, diplomatic, and military resources can drive events in the Middle East – hopefully for good, but potentially for bad. In the 1950s and '60s, for example, Egypt's leadership under Gamal Abdel Nasser shaped regional politics around the myths of Arab nationalism, which led to intra-Arab conflict and regional war. The Arab Spring provides an opportunity for a power or group of powers to usher in a new era of peace, prosperity, and perhaps democracy.

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