The concept of charisma – derived from the Greek word for grace – has held a vital place in the vocabulary of social sciences since the German sociologist Max Weber introduced it in his masterpiece The Theory of Social and Economic Organization as one of the three types of political authority. At times of stress, Weber explained, the extraordinary traits of an individual ruler could provide him with unswerving popular support. The authority of charismatic leaders rests, thus, “on devotion to the specific and exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplary character of an individual person.
Whether born out of suffering or enthusiasm, charismatic leaders believe that they are on a ‘mission’ of change. Hence, Weber argues that charisma “is the greatest revolutionary force. In the 20th century, charismatic leadership found in Third World countries a fertile soil. Nasser, Castro, Nkrumah and Khomeini, to name a few, capitalized on the sufferings and aspirations of their constituencies and utilized their charismatic authority to introduce great changes to their states and regions.
Charisma, however, has been commonly used – or perhaps misused – ever since to describe strong and attractive characters, including politicians, TV anchors, athletes, and movie stars. The unexpected rise of the first African American to the helm of the United States last month was a reminder of the great magnitude charisma can realize in the realm of politics, and has propelled many in this country to believe that we need an Egyptian Obama.
But do we really need an Egyptian Obama? Charisma could be constructive, but in Egypt the venture is risky and the stakes are high. The oriental mind has been instinctively attached to persons, not ideas. The history of the region is abridged; the actions of monarchs and army leaders are scrupulously recorded, the tales of people are carelessly dismissed. In the absence of a democratic milieu that sanctions individual and collective liberties and rights, this overstated attachment to exceptional characters could well lead to the ‘pharaohization’ and deinstitutionalization of power. Nothing explains this risk better than the chapter of Nasser in Egyptian politics. Nasser s fatal mistake was not the debacle in Yemen or the humiliating defeat in 1967; it was that his state was predominately based on the intangible tie between him and the admiring masses, and not on formidable institutions and deep-rooted norms. Nasser s Egypt advocated socialism and Arab nationalism without socialists and Arab nationalists just as his successors advocated capitalism without capitalists. That’s precisely why his whole political and social project withered away after he prematurely died in the autumn of 1970. Because Nasser s vision was not implanted in the structure of the Egyptian state and bureaucracy, Egypt did not undergo any wide-ranging turmoil when Sadat singlehandedly restructured his domestic and foreign policies in the span of a few years.
Nasser s blunder should not be repeated again. In addition to the obsession with heroes who miraculously make history, the popular yearning for charismatic leaders is born out of the current deterioration of Egypt s social, economic and political life and the almost fatalistic belief that nothing progressive could ever arise out of it. Opposition forces are weak and the constitutional guidelines for running in the upcoming presidential elections make the takeover of the NDP s candidate nearly inevitable. Many believe that only a charismatic leader could break the stalemate by uniting the nation against the forces of despotism and corruption.
That is a dangerously mistaken conclusion. It is ridiculous to believe that a new face at the helm of the state would be able to change Egypt s fate so long as the tenets of the authoritarian, backward, and corrupt regime remain intact. Planting a new leader – no matter how intelligent and sincere – in the soil of the current regime would backfire; the new leader would adapt to the dispositions, dynamics and doctrine of the old regime and, thereby, the latter will maintain its supremacy. In short, a new pharaoh is born and the rotten ancient regime receives a kiss of life.
There is a better alternative to waiting for the salvation the charismatic leader offers, namely erecting the foundations of democracy and liberty, dismantling the police state, and combating the forces of corruption and patronage ? in short, demolishing the political and legal structures that breed pharaohs.
Charisma could never alone be the panacea to Egypt s ills, not unless it replaces the existing regime with a new regime, a renewed social contract and strong institutions that operate according to a clearly defined set of rules that outlive its leaders, both charismatic and not.
Nael M. Shama, PhD, is a political researcher and freelance writer based in Cairo.