The Egyptian presidential race and the charisma complex

Waheed Abdel-Meguid , Thursday 30 Jun 2011

The era of single-man rule is over. In the presidential elections ahead, prospective candidates should focus on their platform, not their charisma, or the faults of their opponents

The majority of Egyptians have never been more interested in politics than they are today. If this is the only accomplishment of the January 25 Revolution then it is plenty.

It is important for those who made, participated in and supported this revolution, and all participants in political life, to cooperate together to provide the necessary environment for Egyptians to continue to progress beyond the narrow scope they were limited to for so long and to participate in politics. Most importantly, to participate in political life and public discourse starting with cooperating to make the upcoming parliamentary elections a truly historic landmark in terms of the number of people who cast their votes.

To guarantee that the vast majority of Egyptians will continue to participate in public discourse and not limit themselves to electing representatives in parliament and the president is to continue interacting with legislative and executive powers beyond the elections. This would be unprecedented for Egyptians since politics was abolished from their everyday lives for several generations. For example, because of the environment they grew up in, they have become accustomed to the president of the republic being above questioning and probing — perhaps even above mankind.

Egyptians should become accustomed to the idea that the president is a civil servant who works for them based on a temporary four-year contract which can be renewed once, and that they get to choose among candidates on this basis. This transformation requires that the focus be on a candidate’s skills in carrying out the required tasks, irrespective of his personality, strength or if he is charismatic or not.

Some supporters of potential presidential candidate Mohamed El-Baradei were mistaken to raise the banner "He may not have charisma, but he has a conscience," since it demonstrates unjustified concern. The era of charismatic leadership — essentially, overwhelming personal charm, distinguished oratory skills and extraordinary influence over the people — is over, or at least it is no longer enough to make one politician more successful over another. In this day and age, politicians in general, and electoral candidates especially, are evaluated according to their platforms, positions and ability to convince that they are capable of executing plans to resolve the problems of the people through popular participation, rather than possessing a magic wand, which has been proven to be an illusion.

As a result, this era does not feature any of the charismatic leaders the world has known at other times, such as Nehru, Sukarno, Tito, Abdel-Nasser and Nkrumah in developing counties, and Churchill, de Gaulle and Eisenhower in developed countries. A politician’s charisma relies on overpowering personal presence and influence over the hearts rather than the minds of the people, in a way which creates a strong bond at the core While this image is based in some fact, there is also a lot of fiction that plays an important role in the bond between the people and charismatic leadership.

But fiction now quickly erodes because of the communication revolution, which lays leaders entirely bare in front of the people, and in a manner that has closed the space needed, or charisma, to shine through and dominate the scene. It is now difficult to cover up the blemishes of a fairy-tale image, including misspeaking, ordinary human faults and serious mistakes. Hence, it is no longer possible for a politician to rely on personal charm, even if it comes naturally to him; instead, he must rely on a platform that achieves the aspirations of the electorate, can be implemented and does not just constitute golden promises.

Contemporary leaders with strong personal presence such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Brazil’s Lula de Silva, Malaysia’s Mahatir Mohammad, and others won legitimacy based on their political programme, work and successes on the ground rather than relying on personality.

Some potential presidential candidates in Egypt try to imply that they have charm, influence and attraction, but Egyptians have had enough of single-man rule that peaked by producing a clique that robbed the country and the people with an appetite for oppression and domination. Accordingly, campaign managers in the presidential election should know that their campaigns will not be successful unless they realise that their primary target right now, before electoral campaigns officially begin, is to present their candidate by addressing minds and proposing innovative ideas to improve the lives of the people.

Just as important, is putting an end to the negative publicity some campaigners for potential candidates have begun propagating against the competition, whether objectively by focusing on weaknesses in public discourse, undermining their ability to carry out the tasks of the next president, or personally by attempting to tarnish, accuse or stir suspicion about some aspects of the lives of opponents or their political background or their relationship with players here or there. This type of political campaigning poisons the atmosphere altogether, not only during the presidential election, at a time when everyone should cooperate in creating the best possible atmosphere to build a democratic system.

What some presidential campaign managers do not know, since this is a new concept for us, is that targeting opponents more than focusing on spotlighting their own candidate gives rise to the opposite results and could damage their credibility. Therefore, they would be mistaken if they think that targeting opponents will advance their candidate. The supporters of the candidate under attack are also mistaken if they spend too much time and effort responding to these attacks. The best response to negative publicity is positive campaigning which gives Egyptians what they are waiting for now.

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