The popularity myth at the heart of Egyptian politics

The popularity myth at the heart of Egyptian politics

“Our home telephone used to ring 24 hours a day; it went completely dead after my father left power,” a friend told me, describing the difference in status between authorized and discredited Egyptian politicians.

Additionally, he revealed that his father had fallen into a state of deep depression when he realized his relationships with numerous citizens had been founded solely on the “government favors” he was able to provide.

This story, and many similar ones, clearly raises questions about what is known in Egypt as an “admired politician.”

Is popularity a quality that politicians are born with or a trait that is fashioned by their affiliates? Perhaps Egyptians’ desire to be ruled by popular political leaders works on seeding this phenomenon among the millions of citizens who claim to adore their leaders.
In fact, uncharismatic leaders probably serve their nations better, because their fellow citizens assess them based on their competence and actual achievements, removed from any emotional attachment.
Culturally, Egyptian society is able to accommodate neither a number of strong politicians nor a team of qualified political rivals. We are an individualistic society, tending to select a political leader, then surround him with a number of ordinary technocrats lacking any kind of political appeal, whose only role is to highlight our leader’s superiority. This ruling mechanism often results in the reinforcement of the political status of any given leader — at the expense of having a truly competent governing team that could better serve our national progress.
The Egyptian media play an essential role in boosting the image of political leaders, not only by continually highlighting their achievements, but also by working on creating plenty of phony accomplishments with which to credit them. The success of the Egyptian media can be measured by their ability to implant an extremely positive image of a given leader in the minds of the majority of citizens regardless of the reality. Moreover, illiterate citizens are not the only victims of the media; well-educated people fall into the media trap as well.

The media in Egypt also play another role: Zooming in to scrutinize executives who might be nominated for higher positions to check whether they are able to comply with our ruling mechanism. The successful ones in this process are those who understand the political boundaries within which they are required to live, and who do not attempt to cross them in search of personal political credit. The “zooming in” that many politicians currently benefit from would definitely become a “zooming out” should they ever cross the designated lines in an attempt to grow their popularity.

Our failure to judge our leaders by their competence and achievements, rather than carefully cultivated charisma and phony public personas, is holding back the country’s progress.

Mohammed Nosseir 

Knowing that popularity matters so much in Egypt, the state carefully observes anyone who has the potential to be popular, whether in politics, religion or business. It then works on identifying and building up their shortcomings, which can be used to discredit them if needed. Thus, a readymade file is created that can easily be pulled out should any politician display the desire, or ambition, to play a role greater than the one assigned to him. The so-called scarcity of political leaders in Egypt is not due to the incompetence of society; it is the result of a well-designed scheme that entraps citizens.

Egyptians are similar to all other universal citizens in that they place their personal interests above their attachment to any political figure. Consequently, the state tends to argue that the popularity of leaders actually serves the interest of citizens. Newcomers to the political arena have an advantage over politicians in office because their blank political history, along with their unexamined programs, gives them an edge when addressing citizens’ emotions, whereas politicians in power are subject to relatively objective assessment.

Political popularity in Egypt is a myth that serves a number of leaders well at the expense of our national progress. If this trait were truly genuine, rulers would willingly run free and fair elections and compete with a large number and variety of opponents, confident in their success. In Egypt, however, elections are all about how the process is designed to favor certain candidates over others, and the state’s efficient mobilization of citizens — both of which are camouflaged with the words “popular candidate.”

• Mohammed Nosseir, a liberal politician from Egypt, is a strong advocate of political participation and economic freedom.
Twitter: @MohammedNosseir
Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view