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Leadership and Spin

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Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem

In an interview two years ago, a French journalist asked me the tired question of whether the pitfall of the 25 January Revolution was the lack of a clear unifying leader. With exasperated breath, I explained to her that this was impossible for two very logical reasons: (1) If such a leader existed, he would have to be appealing to the Islamists, the MB, the communists, the liberals, the anarchists, the socialists (revolutionary and otherwise) and the reformists, which is impossible, and (2) It is incredibly unfair to demand that we find a leader when the whole world suffers from a leadership crisis. When she asked what I meant, I asked her if she considered either Sarkozy or Hollande to be her leaders, or if she knows any British person who believes in the leadership of David Cameron or an American that still considers Obama their leader. When she said “no” on all accounts, and asked me why that is, I simply responded: social media. Social media killed leadership.

Think about it: let’s say you find the person that has the history, background, personality, charisma, intellect and gravitas required of the classical “Leader” in this day and age, and then one day , while he is in the middle of a press conference or a TV show, he sneezes, and he ends up being one of the unfortunate people whose sneeze sounds funny. You can imagine what will happen next: a clip of this sneeze ends up being uploaded on Youtube, with 5 million views in 24 hours, and a hashtag called #thesneeze will be launched on twitter and will spread virally. Memes and Rage comics will flood your Facebook Newsfeed making fun of the sneeze; some ϋber-talented musician with too much time on his hands will turn “the sneeze” into a hip-hop remix; and then a number of TV and press journalists on a slow-news day will do in-depth stories and reports on how that sneeze went viral, ensuring that the scandal is complete. This great leader will be forever associated with the sneeze and the sneeze jokes social media created. Goodbye gravitas. Goodbye well-crafted image. Goodbye Leader.

The onset of social media made the jobs of spin doctors and image consultants much more difficult, and it lead to the very profitable business of Online Reputation Management, which is 24/7 since the Internet and its creatures don’t sleep. Any and every politician (or public personality) in this day and age should know this and keep it in mind, since the internet thrives on negativity and destruction, and scrutinises things in ways that the regular media never does. This goes double to the Egyptian internet audience, which any presidential hopeful back in 2012 will tell you; and none of them tried to present themselves as that “Great Leader”. They knew better. Or their advisers knew better. Something I can not exactly say about the advisers of our “Great Egyptian Hope”, Minister of Defence Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.

While there are a vast number of articles written on the charisma and the cult of personality that Al-Sisi commands, few of them tackle the components of this charisma. The man’s charisma and appeal is the amalgamation of his military uniform (70% approximately) contrasted with his soft-spokenness (30%),  which are highlighted in the rare instances in which he speaks in public, which are always in speech format, and never in TV interviews. Now, the moment Defence Minister Al-Sisi becomes a presidential candidate (or President Al-Sisi) he will have to (1) take off the uniform and wear a regular suit, (2) appear in TV interviews where-no matter how scripted it will be- people will finally be able to seize up the man behind the uniform and (3) try to find a new manner of speaking, since his current game will no  longer be effective. Imagine a presidential hopeful in a regular suit telling you- his potential voter- in the Al-Sisi soft-spoken manner that “they are the light of his eyes” or that “he is torture and intends to wake people up from five in the morning”. Did you imagine it? How quickly will you dismiss such a candidate?

Al-Sisi’s shtick worked so far because he represents the military, so when he says that “we are the light of their eyes” or “that the Egyptian people need someone who is merciful with them”, people accept it and are OK with it, since they perceive it as the military saying that. Once he resigns and no longer represents the military, his words will take a completely different meaning and context, and so will the people’s reception to them, and most importantly, the internet. Keeping him out of the media’s eye will be easy once he is sworn in, but until then, he will have to appear on our televisions, present ideas, programmes, solutions and campaign in the Egyptian political arena, which is the most toxic political environment in the world. It has destroyed shoe-in candidates in a day, and he will have to be part of it for at least a month. Imagine.

To make matters worse, his fanatics have raised the bar for him so high by crafting an insanely unrealistic messianic image for him, that it is impossible for him to live up to it. What will happen to our great leader the moment people realise that he is human? How long will his image last, which is the source of most of his political capital? How quickly will people turn on him, once they realise that he can’t perform miracles? And what will he do, when he realises that he has “Dear Leader” spin doctors in the digital age, and then the internet responds the only way it knows how?

Fun times ahead, everyone. Grab the popcorn. Either way, we are in for one last good show.

About the author

Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem

Mahmoud Salem is a political activist, writer, and social media consultant. His writings could be found at www.sandmonkey.org and follow him @sandmonkey on Twitter


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