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Arab Leaders: False modesty and the trappings of power - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive
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In a recent interview the president of Tunisia, Moncef Marzouki, said that he does not even own a car and that his home is an old house. When asked how it feels to carry out his duties in the presidential palace, he replied: “In all honesty, I am yet to discover this palace … every day I undertake the work I have to do in order to help the people … as for the décor or whatever, I do not care for this.”

Displays of modesty, and going against “protocol” by steering clear of manifestations of power and sultanic splendor, have become fashionable amongst a number of political figures who have risen to power during the last year, following the seismic events of the “Arab Spring”. The Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi, for example, undertakes dawn prayers at a public mosque and refuses to block traffic for his motorcade. He prefers to stay at his residence at Tagammu al-Khamis, Heliopolis, rather than move to a presidential palace.

Supporters of such initiatives argue that these displays are spontaneous and genuine. Some suggest that they are important in order to break the stereotype created by former presidents and leaders who previously portrayed themselves as highly arrogant individuals obsessed with the trappings of power. In addition, those who support such initiatives argue that the humility of the president also instils a sense of modesty among his senior officials. An oft cited example is the Tunisian Foreign Minister, Rafik Abdul Salam, who was photographed at the last Ennahda party conference sleeping on the floor in the conference hall, after a long day of heated, partisan debate.

But does “humility” in itself mean better policy-making? When can we differentiate between what is spontaneous and what is contrived? In his book “The Language of Politics” (2000), Adrian Beard, having spent several years studying the rhetoric and statements of political leaders, and comparing these with their political stances, indicates that politicians—no matter how much they display qualities of humility and asceticism—are ultimately individuals who are fond of power and want to maintain it for as long as possible. Of course, there are exceptional cases whereby individuals indifferent to power have assumed control; individuals who have sought to diminish power’s psychological influence on their own personality, but they are very few in number.

Beard asserts that most people involved in politics often portray themselves as devoted individuals who have never sought to use power personally, but rather to serve their fellow citizens. Some of them may actually live in modest homes and their living conditions may not be overly materialistic, but they are not ascetics when it comes to the political powers granted to them.

Presidents in Western countries, for example, are always keen for public handshakes and photo opportunities with the general public, and presidents or political candidates can often be seen kissing babies or visiting war veterans to show that they have a human side. Likewise, a politician may be seen wandering through a government department to inspect its services, or eating at a popular restaurant to mingle with the poorer classes. In the end this behaviour is calculated with results in mind, for the president or political candidate does not live like this every day.

Here I do not mean to belittle such popular initiatives; a politician does not need to show that he respects his citizens or is interested in their affairs, but there is a very clear difference between purely calculated and spontaneous acts when it comes to public behaviour.

It is common for a dictator to want to cultivate fear and terror in the hearts of those he governs, but he will never gain their respect. In contrast, the ruler whose behaviour appears weak and hesitant in front of his own citizens undoubtedly loses some prestige. More importantly, such a ruler loses the ability to lead his citizens towards growth and prosperity.

Adrian Beard believes that what is important is not public behaviour, or public statements, but rather what is implicit. In other words, some leaders exaggerate their manifestations of humility, whereas in reality they are plagued by arrogance and a love of power, more so than anybody else. Whenever a politician profusely repeats statements of asceticism and humility, one realizes that this is an affectation.

In contemporary Arab history, there are many examples of leaders who lived in modest environments, and were known to have—relatively—clean hands, at least according to the accounts of their supporters. However, their policies were disastrous for their citizens and directly resulted in wars and regional conflicts, take the examples of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, and others. Even the “Arab Spring” states that witnessed popular uprisings were not ruled by despotic tyrants in their early eras, in the same manner that they seemed to be at the end.

In 2000, the late Moroccan politician Abdelhadi Boutaleb revealed that he was on an official visit to Libya on the eve of the 1969 coup, and hence he was forced to wait in a hotel until the airport opened. After returning to his hotel, he found a small handwritten note in his hotel room which read “from Muammar to his brother Abdelhadi Boutaleb.” Boutaleb then asked the reception desk: “Who is this Muammar?” and he was told that one of the “senior officers carrying out the coup” had come to visit him and put this note under his door. Boutaleb revealed that he was impressed by this humility and etiquette at the time, but it did not give him a clue that this young, polite officer would transform into what he ultimately became. Likewise, at the beginning of his reign, former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali released prisoners and called for democratic reform. At the time even Sheikh Rachid Ghannouchi praised Ben Ali and considered him to be a saviour, saying in a published interview: “Before the November Movement, Tunisia was on the brink of a civil war, and the new president has saved the country from an unknown fate.” (al-Majalla, issue 445, August 1988)

The beginning of even Bashar al-Assad’s reign was relatively open. He personally contacted intellectuals and artists to reach out to them, and some of those who are in the Syrian opposition today previously attended banquets at the presidential palace, participated with al-Assad’s popular initiatives, and commended the humility of the president and his good manners. However, today we realize the extent of evil and destruction the al-Assad regime has committed in order to crush the uprising.

As you can see, a president displaying humility at the beginning of his reign does not mean he will adopt good policies, and perhaps these manifestations of modesty might mask financial corruption and political abuse. Some would argue that the Islamists, because of their religious faith and conservative, ideological discipline are more likely to be humble rulers with grounded policies. This is not necessarily true, the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the most humble of all Iranian presidents in terms of what he eats and drinks—and the fact that he only owns a rickety old Peugeot car—but this does not mean that he is interested in developing his country. The poor president—as he has been called—has made the Iranians even poorer during his reign. Furthermore, reports published in conservative Iranian newspapers have accused the President and his aides of financial corruption involving billions of dollars. The Prime Minister of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, who continues to rule over the Gaza Strip after an armed coup, also excels in his calculated displays of modesty. He delivers the Friday sermon, leads the prayer, and consumes his meals sitting on the floor as the poor do, but Gaza during his reign has become a place full of scandals of corruption and power abuse. On 19 April, a Washington Post report indicated that some Hamas leaders were running their own underground trade and smuggling rackets, at a time when the Palestinians are becoming increasingly poor, and the Hamas Prime Minister is calling for an “Islamic Caliphate.”

If he cannot provide security and welfare to the citizens of Gaza, how can he participate in the establishment of a future empire? It is necessary to point out that whenever a president puts on an exhibition of humility, the reality is that the government will incur additional expenses to ensure his safety, regardless of the gains in his popularity as a result. The lesson does not lie in the appearance, even if it seems impressive, because real humility is manifested in efficient policies and delivering promises. A president who gambles the future of his country on foreign agendas, whilst his citizens are suffering from international sanctions, can never bring prosperity to his country even if he appears humble.

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi

Adel Al Toraifi is the former Editor-in-Chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper and Al-Majalla magazine. As a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs, his research focuses on Saudi–Iranian relations, foreign policy decision-making in the Gulf, and IR theories on the Middle East. Dr. Al Toraifi holds a PhD in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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