Culturally and in practice, Egyptians tend to prefer that society is controlled rather than managed. Having a “captain on board” gives politicians a strong feeling of control over society; the captain can steer the ship toward its target destination. Management, on the other hand, is more about the talent to win over affiliates (and to some extent opponents) to a clear goal by building on one another’s strengths and inspiring society with a clear vision.
Managerial manipulation needs numerous talented politicians, while exerting control requires a single commander with exclusive power. Many Egyptian politicians believe that controlling society is the utmost power, when in fact management is the ultimate hidden power — but it requires specific personality traits that are not often available. The methodology of control relies on almost eliminating individual citizens’ intelligence and replacing it with absolute guidance by the state’s power, while manipulation works on mobilizing citizens toward a certain goal and ensuring their strong sense of allegiance to this goal.
The former President Hosni Mubarak was a highly effective manager. He employed intelligent politicians who he trusted to do his bidding, while they in turn were talented at managing their own staff. President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi clearly prefers the controller approach; he holds all the reins and meets his executives regularly to ensure that they are applying his vision precisely. Mubarak used to rule from a distance, while El-Sisi is often on top of issues and officials, directly and personally.
Egypt’s preference for the controlling method of government has negatively affected its regional leverage, which would benefit from more manipulation. We used to contain and influence a number of regional countries by offering a solid perspective and persuading them to adopt a common goal. Obviously, we cannot control other nations; thus, after losing our talented political manipulators, our regional clout has diminished greatly.
In the current era, when the internet and social media play a significant role in shaping society, manipulation may be more effective than control. Opposing arguments disseminated on social media often attack the mechanism of control, weakening the controller’s hold on the reins, and consequently his grip on power. Manipulation, in contrast, views social media as a tool; so it works on mobilizing citizens by presenting effective threads and content.
There are at least two different ways to run a country, but what matters is how successful a government is in achieving its goals.
The major disadvantage of social mobilization through control occurs when the commander loses his grip on society, leaving unguided citizens to be driven by their limited capacity, disrupting society. Manipulation, however, leaves enough room for citizens to think and act on their own and to work for the benefit of the nation — there is even room for accepting and adopting their efforts and initiatives. Many of today’s politicians who wholeheartedly support the president and feel that they are strengthening his administration are actually dragging the administration down.
In Egypt, we are quite slow to determine whether our operating method is functioning effectively. Egyptian politicians tend to work with the technique with which they are familiar and comfortable — which is not necessarily the most appropriate method for our current challenges or for the present era. In my view, politics is about manipulation and management; our politicians need to convince their followers of their vision, period.
• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom. Twitter: @MohammedNosseir