x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Morsi could have ruled Egypt better if he had charisma

In the Arab world, and indeed everywhere, good looks and personal magnetism make it easier to succeed in politics.

What if Mohammed Morsi had the height, the charisma and the eloquence of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the looks of Omar Sharif and even half the vision of great Arab leaders like the late Sheikh Zayed?

In that case, the first democratically elected Egyptian president probably would have had a better chance of winning over the people.

No doubt Egypt's current crisis is about more than just personal appeal, but it is true that people want a hero they can look up to, no matter how unrealistic that person's ideals might be.

Appearance and image have long been documented as among the most common and important attributes of successful leadership.

Mr Morsi does not have those assets. Bassem Youssef, the television host known as "Egypt's Jon Stewart", popularised a video clip of Mr Morsi adjusting his trousers and scratching his private parts. It is almost impossible for anyone, especially a president, to recover from such embarrassment.

Image is particularly important for Arab leaders, who have long been portrayed as father figures. For example, Mr Morsi's predecessor Hosni Mubarak spoke of the Egyptian people as "my children" and promoted himself as a builder, who commanded obedience and remained ageless. No signs of grey hair ever showed.

Iraq's Saddam Hussein modelled himself after Russia's ruthless Joseph Stalin and would be seen parading around in uniform like a general always ready to lead a battle. Many of those I met or interviewed in Iraq in his time spoke of him as a "real man" - and that included people who hated him and his brutality.

In the 1960s the Arab world turned Nasser into a demigod. Women and even men swooned over him, hanging on every word he uttered. Today, he is still perceived as one of the greatest Arab leaders, although his rule had some devastating effects.

Arabs are passionate people, and their passion can be felt in their relations to loved ones, as well as to leaders they admire or respect. But passion can be dangerous.

It can be risky, for example, to go around Lebanon questioning people's support for their party leaders or, worse, listing a leader's flaws. Great devotion is common, even to leaders known to have been war lords with blood on their hands.

There is nothing wrong with loving a leader who has actually done something good for you. But why put on a pedestal someone known to be brutal and oppressive?

In Egypt even Mr Morsi's wife, Najla Mahmoud, was not spared public scrutiny. We saw her photo being posted next to that of a beautiful, immaculate Egyptian princess in ball gown and tiara, with a caption saying: "From this to this?" People accused her of being dowdy, when she was just dressing humbly.

I have no sympathy for Mr Morsi's lack of decorum in public, but I do feel that the public has been too harsh about his wife. She is after all the first wife of an Egyptian president to wear the veil, in a country where the majority of women are covered.

She is also the first one to reject the title "first lady" - she prefers Umm Ahmed, or "first servant". That struck a chord with many Egyptian women I know, yet they also say she should wear more fashionable veils, for the sake of Egypt's "image".

In the first televised US presidential debate, in 1960, when Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy battled for public support, Kennedy's acclaimed bronzed complexion made him look healthy and attractive while Nixon looked drained and seemed to be in need of a shave.

Studies have shown that more attractive people simply have it easier in the world. Doors open faster and wider and more often for them than for the less attractive.

The same goes for politicians. It will be interesting to see how the next set of Arab leaders will look and speak. We can hope that they will all have more knowledge and understanding than the old dictators or some recent leaders - but it will also help if at least some of them look like heroes.

 

Rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau