If you want to know how dictators are created, you should watch the final appearance of Egypt’s new president-elect, Abdelfattah Al-Sisi, on television a couple of days before the start of voting on 26 of May.
I certainly do not mean that Al-Sisi is a dictator, nor should he inevitably turn out to be, not even a benign one (known in Arabic as the “just despot”). But if in the end he behaves like one, then we should know whom to blame.
The producers of the show on the channel — owned by one of Mubrarak era crony capitalists turned staunch al-Sisi supporter — will be among the first we must put on trial for committing that primordial (and very Egyptian) sin of turning a human being into a Pharaoh.
I still believe any such effort is doomed to fail after the Jan 25 revolution and the profound changes it has brought about in the collective psyche of the Egyptians and their expectations, or at least a significant portion of the population.
But given the heavy pharaonic legacy of Egypt, with authoritarianism running deep in the culture, there is no shortage of people still practicing the ancient black art — an army of hangers-on and eulogists prepared to do what they have always done best, the aggrandizement (bordering on apotheosis) of the man at the top of the executive pyramid. A very Egyptian malady.
The design of the set and the mise en scene was created to deliver a subliminal message of power and authority emanating from the man at the centre, Al-Sisi himself. But with eight journalists seated on gilded armchairs on either side of Mr Al-Sisi, who sat in front of what appeared to be a monumental baroque fireplace (so out of place in a desert city like Cairo, but that is the kitsch of the makers of idols in Egypt), the whole thing ended up like a picture of a monarch on his throne surrounded by sycophantic courtiers — certainly not journalists putting tough questions to a presidential candidate.
Significantly, it was al-Sisi who kick-started the show, not any of the presenters. In other words, a reversal of the normal relation between the journalist and the interviewee, which should send a chill down the spine of any one who cares about free speech.
Incidentally, the whole thing backfired, because presenting al-Sisi as a de facto president, demotivated many people from voting, and hence the less than expected turn out.
To be fair, some of the journalists did ask serious questions. But on the whole the tone and the manner were excessively deferential, at times obsequious and the journalists eventually (and inevitably I should add) degenerated into outdoing one another by asking the type of question that will draw attention to wisdom, or compassion, or fearlessness and patriotism of the great leader.
One asked about Mr Al-Sisi’s favourite books and music. The same woman, who had appeared on TV wearing a necklace with the name Sisi engraved on it, said she would be terrified to appear before Al-Sisi on the day of judgement! Yes, she did say that.
Al-Sisi himself said a few sensible things. He spoke of the need to rebuild Egyptian society, and repair the damage done to the social fabric of the country. He emphasised the value of edcuation and its impact on individual behaviour and ethics. These are things that no one can dispute. The problem is how. We will soon find out after his landslide victory.
He remains ambiguous, however, about the value of free speech and democracy. He had said that he wanted to turn Egypt into a democracy, but he also said that it would take 25 years to get there – which is not optimistic, but not very unrealistic either. It all depends on whether he takes concrete steps to prepare the ground for that transformation, and foremost among these I think would be to keep all the Mubarak-era sycophants (like those who sat around him on that TV show) at bay.
For example, he spoke of a “role for the media”, a phrase that harks back to all the authoritarian practices of the state since the military overthrew the monarchy in 1952. No one doubts that the media does have a role to play in educating and informing the public, but if by that he means that all journalists (like those who sat around him) will have to sing from the same hymn sheet then, there will be troubles ahead.
If he hasn’t already, he will soon find out that running a society is not like running an army. It was obvious during the televised interviews he gave in the run up to the vote, that he was not very comfortable with being talked to, or being asked questions he didn’t’ like. He’d better get used to that, because he’s no longer a solider, but a politician. Managing that transition will be his biggest test.
Unlike the military, people in society don’t obey orders because they come from high. That is fine in the army, but in society people have to have an incentive to do so. The stick alone won’t work. While discipline and hard work are desirable features in a leader, al-Sisi’s biggest challenge would be to remind himself every day that he’s no longer a solider and that now he is an elected leader accountable to those who voted for him as much as for those who didn’t. He will have to accept public criticism, and that cartoonists will lampoon him, because that’s what they do in a democracy. Al-Sisi has to learn to live with that.
Not only that, he has to defend those who criticise him and his future government, and to stand up to all the Mubarak-era chorus of hired pens who attack and libel every independent or vocal critic of the government as a “traitor”.
After more than forty years as a soldier, Al-Sisi will soon find out that taking off the military uniform was the easy part. Taking off the ”mental uniform” may prove to be his biggest challenge.
(Written for IslamistGate : http://www.islamistgate.com/729)