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Opinion: Media-Made Heroes and Villains | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Barbara Walters arrives at the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) annual dinner in Washington on May 3, 2014. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM

Well, it is time to bid Barbara Walters farewell after this shining star took the decision to retire last month. Her fans and critics alike can agree on the fact that she deserves to be described as having been the “queen” of interviewers. Her lively personality always came through in the interviews she conducted with the world’s movers and shakers. Despite her decision to retire, some of the interviews that Walters conducted throughout her career will remain in peoples’ minds, whether because they influenced political decision-making or because they were a source of wonderment and, sometimes, even humor. Among these was her interview with former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. In response to her question about the reason behind the absence of criticism against him in Iraq, Saddam gave a supremely contradictory response, answering a question with a question and implying he did not believe the American people criticized the US president.

Walters’ interview with Saddam took place in the middle of the Iraqi dictator’s catastrophic invasion of Kuwait in 1990. In fact, Saddam’s answer deserves a place on the list of memorably bizarre statements made by political leaders. I remember how it made me, like many others, wonder how it was possible for a world leader to be so ignorant of the world around him. However, I have to admit I did not rule out the possibility that Saddam was really asking whether Americans had the courage to criticize the man in the White House. An obvious explanation for Saddam’s question is that he went straight from his hometown of Tikrit to the Baghdad presidential palace and so did not have the opportunity to travel the world. Apart from the period he spent as a political refugee in Egypt in the aftermath of the failed assassination attempt on President Abdel Karim Qasim, Saddam had never left Iraq. In fact, he may have read only Arabic books and newspapers affiliated to the Ba’athist Party.

Later, I noticed the paradox between Saddam’s failure to imagine the possibility of the American people criticizing their president and his knowledge of, and perhaps joy at, the US flag being burned by protesters or Iraqis stepping on a mosaic of then-US president George H. W. Bush at the entrance to a Baghdad hotel.

Saddam viewed himself as being the only impeccable figure in the world. Of course, the Iraqi dictator was not unique in this regard, nor could the practice of self-sanctification be confined to him. Many world leaders have sought to impose their presence on their people, whether through having millions of images of themselves plastered across their country, or erecting statues of themselves in every city center. As Saddam was indulging his delusions of grandeur, his people were becoming increasingly mired in conflict and violence. This ultimately resulted in US soldiers overseeing the toppling of his statue, with Saddam himself being forced to flee.

Every time I see a dictator on television playing to the crowds I wonder how the people have been able to endure this kind of thing for so long. Some of those who have inherited their position as leader are no less fierce than Saddam was when it comes to cracking down on dissent, and examples of this are clear to see.

Let us now turn to another issue, namely the Six-Day War, the 47th anniversary of which took place earlier this week. Was Saddam—or similar leaders, dead or alive—responsible for the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War? Definitely not! It was not individual leaders, but rather the situation that was to blame—in other words, the Six-Day War and the Arabs’ subsequent defeat in this conflict was a direct consequence of autocratic rule as a whole.

At this point, allow me to differentiate between Gamal Abdel Nasser the man and Nasser the Egyptian president. I will not deny my admiration for the figure of Nasser. Since I was a youth, my heart clung to the heart Nasser’s leadership offered. This is not to suggest I absolve Nasser of the mistakes he himself admitted making. At the same time, I am trying to do justice to Nasser when compared to the tyrants that came in his wake and who claimed to have been inspired by him.

It is true Nasser’s security services caused different types of damage to his opposition. It is also true that his aspirations of leading the Arab world helped boost Nasser’s ego and prompted him to adopt a policy of brinkmanship—marked by his involvement in the North Yemen Civil War and the closing of the Straits of Bab El-Mandeb and Tiran to Israeli ships. Yes, each of these incidents played a role in bringing about the humiliating defeat of three Arab states at the hands of the Israeli army. Nevertheless, one should not ignore the fact that it was not Nasser who described himself as Al-Qa’id Al-Khalid—the immortal leader—a title invented after his death. Nor did he swamp the streets of Egypt with statues of himself. In fact, even some of his foes agree that Nasser was as far removed from this policy of self-sanctification as it was possible to be.

Is hero worship inevitable, the result of some halo that surrounds leaders? I disagree. Without the media glorifying and enhancing the image of a leader by casting him as a figure unparalleled in the past, present and future, it would not happen. Though one can maintain that media figures in the Arab world are burnishing the images of our leaders, they can also be accused of damaging their reputations and practicing character assassination. Well, this is a story that deserves revisiting and perhaps the interviews that Barbara Walters conducted with world leaders throughout her career can give us a place to start.