The return of Mohamed ElBaradei to Egypt and his readiness to challenge President Hosni Mubarak in the upcoming presidential elections was like throwing a pebble in the stagnant waters of Egyptian politics. It stirred political debate, mobilized many hitherto apolitical Egyptians and raised hopes for the possibility of change towards democracy and the rule of law in the country that has been weighed down by authoritarianism and corruption for almost six decades.
Recently, however, there has been a growing feeling that the initial fervor that accompanied the beginning of ElBaradei’s adventure has been dwindling. ElBaradei and his close associates have probably overlooked, or misinterpreted, a number of points.
First, the disparity of power between the Egyptian regime and its opponents is vast. After long decades in power, the Egyptian regime has become well-entrenched in Egyptian society. By controlling the security apparatus, the media, and dozens of government agencies that operate in all fields of public life, the Egyptian regime has risen to a colossal, octopus-like entity, thus perceived by many as metaphysical and unassailable. Moreover, in Egypt’s centralized political system, the president enjoys draconian powers by virtue of the constitution and a deep-rooted cultural heritage.
Opposing the state — this gigantic, unmerciful establishment that has many carrots and sticks at its disposal — is not less challenging than swimming against an invincible current. Even the unprecedented pressure exerted by the United States — the world’s only superpower and the provider of massive economic and military assistance to the Egyptian regime — bore little fruit. To deflect George W. Bush’s feverish push for political reform in 2004 and 2005, Mubarak only introduced cosmetic changes to appease his paymasters, but he ultimately kept his strong grip on power.
In battles with stronger foes, ElBaradei must remember that weaker parties should make use of all weapons at hand.
Secondly, youth comprises the vast majority of ElBaradei’s following. He directly addresses them and insists on the leading role they can play in the battle for change. But in contrast to his quiet, gradual, and calculated style, the young demand a bolder and more aggressive approach. There are signs that many of his staunch supporters are beginning to find him uninspiring, hence unworthy of leadership.
Momentum is one of the weapons needed to maintain the unity of any movement. Political leaders cannot be divorced from their followers. After all, what is a leader really worth without followers? And what is left of a movement that vows change if it loses its momentum? This is not an invitation for ElBaradei to substitute wisdom and reason with the impulsiveness and spontaneity of youth, but to incorporate rather than alienate one’s base of support is a must.
Counting on the unquestionable support of masses of young Egyptians would not be possible unless these peoples’ concerns, thoughts, aspirations and emotions are listened to, and acted on.
Thirdly, drama is crucial to success in the game of politics. Drama is not equal to theatrical performances that capitalize on hollow rhetoric or pure demagogy. It is rather the personal embodiment of a leader’s moral and political blueprint, using a creative mishmash of gesture politics, elements of surprise, and a sensible dose of excitement in order to raise awareness and foster acquiescence.
As the modern history of the Arab world vividly demonstrates, too much personalization is catastrophic, but too little of it is suicidal. Lackluster leaders are quickly forgotten, however qualified and devoted. Even in democratic societies, the impact of leadership is enormous.
In the Arab world, moreover, the dynamics that govern the relationship between leaders and people are peculiar. The masses of unsophisticated citizens do not really grasp the deeper meanings of notions such as "democracy," "secularism," and "pluralism." They would yearn for freedom and dignity, and wish for an improvement in their living conditions. But they would not decode the intricacies of politics, or understand its underlying philosophical foundations. Without passion, leaders’ chances of success are minimal.
That’s why King Hassan II of Morocco explained: “I am obliged to personify power as strongly as possible, for people do not obey a program or a plan. They obey men, a team of men, and it is all for the best if that team is embodied in a chief and symbolized by one face, one voice, one personality."
Perhaps out of inattentiveness to these vital realities, ElBaradei frequently stresses that Egypt "does not need a savior." This posture evokes a serious dilemma: unless ElBaradei’s followers see him as a savior and a leader, they will quit following him. If the link between leader and people is cut, then the very act of leadership is likewise cut from its roots. ElBaradei would be shooting himself in the foot.
ElBaradei needs to incorporate the politics of spectacle into his program of action.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo. He can be reached at: nael_shama (at) yahoo (dot) com.