The late Venezuelan president polarised opinion both domestically and abroad, and as I walked past the Venezuelan embassy in London several times this week observing Venezuelan and non-Venezuelans alike lay wreaths at the doorstep, paying their respects to a man who, think what you will of him, has made a lasting impact on his nation’s past and future, I mourned the lack of personality and fortitude among Egypt’s post-revolutionary politicians.
Chavez was a revolutionary without a revolution, while Egypt appears to be a revolution without a revolutionary. Where world leaders have the bad habit of over performing and over promising in the run up to elections, and inevitably disappoint once elected (one notable recent example: hint: “Yes We Can”), Chavez’s rise to the presidency in 1999 saw him take the bold and audacious steps he promised he would take in his election campaign. He set out to change the course his country was headed in: to revolutionise.
Chavez did not have the benefit of taking advantage of a widespread national revolt like Egypt experienced in January and February 2011. What Chavez did best, however, was to not act and speak like a politician. He offered hope and realism in the same sentence. He could be direct but genuine, harsh but sensitive, and most importantly, he knew his audience well. As I was watching an interview this week with Chavez, recorded after the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, where he openly criticised the invasions and the continued insistence of western powers to meddle and exploit, I could not help be reminded of Egypt’s own beloved revolutionary hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
I could list some superlatives to describe Nasser’s ability to get into the hearts and minds of Egyptians and why he remains so popular today in Egypt despite his obvious failures domestically and abroad, but this video, where he relays a conversation he had with the then head of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1953, underlies what it takes to gain people’s trust and favour. That is not to say that charisma and a gift for public speaking is enough: actions are indeed far more important than rhetoric. But right now Egypt has neither from its politicians.
Analysts and writers on Egypt, myself included, are often guilty of placing Egypt’s current political climate into the Islamist vs. liberal/secular binary. But for once, that binary does not apply when we consider the leading figures and politicians of both groups and why they are coming up short. The Liberals are still waiting on Dr Mohamed ElBaradei to do something. Anything. Perhaps even a sentence the average Egyptian can understand without having to have a degree in philosophy or literature. Coming out with statements like, “A Kafkaesque state,” I can just see the Egyptian fruit seller or taxi driver nodding in agreement while privately asking, “Is this the man who’s meant to understand my needs?” Then there’s his insistence on continually boycotting all elections. Did Nasser and Chavez sit on the side-lines and say, “I’m only going to play when you play by the rules?” No - they got involved, ruffled people’s feathers and changed the game.
I shouldn’t just pick on ElBaradei. Hamdeen Sabbahi, a man who seemingly came out of nowhere eight weeks before the June 2012 presidential elections to achieve a respectable third place has, for the most part, not taken advantage of the popular comparisons people were drawing between him and Nasser. It’s not too late for Sabbahi (as I believe it is for ElBaradei unless he starts getting muddy in the dirty game of politics very soon) but Sabbahi managed to attain his popularity as an independent, and the National Salvation Front that he is now a member of has both relegated him to the background and started to blur his image with the reluctant ElBaradei and the so called felool (remnants of the ancien régime) that so many Egyptians continue to dislike and distrust.
Then there is the Muslim Brotherhood. You would presume they do not have any leadership problems having won the 2011 Parliamentary elections, June 2012 presidential elections, and managed to pass through the constitution they wanted in December 2012 - but the warning signs are there. First things first – Mohamed Morsi was not their first choice to run for the presidency. That honour went to the enigmatic and true strong arm behind the Muslim Brotherhood, Khairat al-Shater. The ban subsequently placed on al-Shater running for the presidency left the Muslim Brotherhood no option but to field an alternative and that went to Mohamed Morsi, a man who, despite his presidential victory, is still mocked by Egyptians as the “spare tyre.” Internally, Morsi has done little to inspire his own party and friends. He is not a gifted speaker (when he decides to speak at all), and the continued insistence that it is al-Shater and not Morsi who makes the decisions continues to hinder any chance Morsi has of rallying the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone the country, around his leadership. Egypt’s modern political history has always seen its youth play an integral role, and if the trouncing of the Muslim Brotherhood in university student elections last week are anything to go by, the Muslim Brotherhood youth need some inspiration in order to attract (re-attract?) supporters.
Egypt does not need to look to revolutionaries abroad like Chavez in order to see the blueprint of what it takes to rally a nation. Nasser and Saad Zaghloul before him are just two examples in the past century of what Egypt can produce. But in this crucial post-revolutionary period where a vacuum is waiting to be filled, no one, on either side of the political paradigm, is emerging to the fore. As Egypt waits for a figure to embody the revolutionary spirit of 2011, it outwardly speaks of hope, but suffers in silence.