Whatever happened to the Egyptian presidential candidates?

Samer Soliman , Sunday 29 Apr 2012

Egyptians are suffering a dearth of inspiring presidential candidates due to decades of political decay and corruption - we must be patient until we get the politicians we deserve

More important than finding out which presidential candidate someone supports, is knowing why they support him. About three weeks ago, I was riding a taxi to the airport and wasted no time in finding out the cab driver’s opinion about his preferred presidential candidate. Like most, the driver tried to avoid answering the question until he first found out who I supported. I also was evasive and refused to answer the question before he replied first. Finally, he told me either Ahmed Shafiq or Hamdeen Sabbahi.

I asked him why Shafiq and he said because he was able to upgrade Cairo Airport. Why Sabbahi? Because he is like Gamal Abdel-Nasser in his nationalist projects. I was not really surprised by the driver’s indecision between a candidate from the “remnants” and a “revolutionary.” The choices of average citizens have a different logic than us “non-average” folk in the political and public realm.

What are the similarities between Shafiq and Sabbahi in the driver’s opinion? I believe, he said, they are both capable of managing well public affairs or the state. This is the primary attribute that the Egyptian street is seeking in the president of the republic. A strong manager or chief civil servant who can salvage the state apparatus from the abysmal state it descended to in recent years, which hit rock bottom under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).

When garbage and remains of dead animals pile up on the streets of “posh” areas just like in lower class districts, and when people are exposed to unprecedented levels of insecurity, it is no wonder that large segments of Egyptians are seeking a president who is more like a chief civil servant.

A successful manager is a fundamental quality that the Egyptian street is seeking, which is why Mohamed ElBaradei was considered a presidential contender. When new politicians were looking for an alternative to Mubarak, they chose an Egyptian who through his qualifications and hard work was able to become a successful manager of a major and important international organisation, the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei’s job description is “international civil servant,” which is why young politicians sought him out to manage the Egyptian state apparatus, after it had reached appalling levels of failure and corruption that prevented it from producing successful civil servants. In fact, successful employees were regularly “cleansed” out of the state apparatus, pursued and defeated until they stopped succeeding.

ElBaradei’s advantage was not only that he is a successful employee but also is free of the corruption and oppression of Mubarak’s regime. His problem was that he was an international employee, which is a curse in Egyptian politics after it deteriorated under decades of rule by the military and security agencies. The adjective “international” undermines the person’s loyalty to Egypt and his integrity. The president must be honest and trustworthy in order to be entrusted with the interests of the people, which is a characterisation that security agencies and some groups were able to strip from ElBaradei in a coordinated campaign of character assassination.

And hence, ElBaradei left the post of chief civil servant for others to contest, mainly Amr Moussa and Ahmed Shafiq – after Omar Suleiman was eliminated. Suleiman came to battle with a thick moustache and security background to present himself as a strong civil servant who could control the dilapidated state apparatus.

An honest and trustworthy person is what many Egyptians sought in Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail. His “pleasant” face, charming smile, comforting calm, and confident tone made him an idol for his supporters who trusted him. Egypt suffers a problem of mistrust; if I ask you to count how many people you trust in this country, there won’t be many beyond the circle of your family and close friends. The crisis of trust is linked to the absence of a state of law, the dominance of the rules of the jungle, and shocking rampant corruption in state and society. That is why everyone is competing with and battling the others, and why many Egyptians chose to support a religious man “who fears God” in order to have a president they can trust.

In the absence of institutional foundations that allow society to oversee the office of president, it is logical for some to vote for someone they blindly trust, and who better than a devout religious man whose "qualities can be seen in his face.” He sold his supporters the notion that he can be blindly trusted, and told them, "You can trust me to sit and negotiate with the Americans and Israelis." But alas, it was proven with documents that Abu-Ismail is not trustworthy, and so he exits the contest leaving his supporters shell-shocked and in denial of all the hard facts that prove his mother is a US citizen.

Abu-Ismail left the presidential race and he may eventually be prosecuted for fraud and end up in jail, after a brief political career during which he shook Egyptian politics. It is a harsh but beneficial lesson for millions of his supporters who in the future will know that “clothing doth not a religious man make,” and that a beard and a zibiba (dark mark on the forehead) is not evidence of righteousness and virtue. Abu-Ismail exited leaving the model of honest and trustworthy for another candidate.

A master storyteller and inspirational speaker is the third attribute that a significant segment of the people is seeking in the next president. This is logical since we spent 30 years with a president who hardly ever spoke to us, and when he did he usually was reading a text written by someone else to babble on about his achievements in bridges, sewage and telephone lines, etc. Hardly anything about the future, or hopes for the future.

This is another feature that Abu-Ismail was very successful in; he is a successful preacher, and a preacher’s primary merchandise is words that inspire, promising a great future if not in this world then in the next. In this manner, he is very similar to a politician; the main merchandise in politics is also words and storytelling and the ability to inspire hope and build momentum.

A great president is not only a chief civil servant and manager able to fine-tune the performance of his subordinates, but is also an inspirational figure, a master orator who can penetrate the hearts and minds of citizens who are not his subordinates and outside the state apparatus.

The problem with Egypt is that the political arena has been stifled and muzzled for 60 years, which is why leaders have no training in speechmaking or addressing the people on a regular basis – except in the religious domain. This explains why today the political scene is dominated by men of religion and preachers – Muslims and Christians – and why many players on the political stage have religious backgrounds.

Chief civil servant, honest, trustworthy and master storyteller – there are the most important qualities that I believe many Egyptians are seeking in their next president, but none of them are present in one candidate. Every time people bet on a candidate who they think possesses these attributes, they eventually find out it is but an illusion.

Be patient fellow citizens, Egypt’s new political arena has only existed for one year, but in the coming years the country will witness hundreds and thousands of new leaders who will realise the aspiration of Egyptians for a capable president who can govern this patient citizenry who have been afflicted with catastrophes for so long, but nonetheless continue to dream of a better tomorrow.


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