Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1210, (21 - 27 August 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Commentary - A new style of leadership

In his first few months in office President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi has established an assertive yet subtle style of government, writes Hisham Al-Miyani

Al-Ahram Weekly

On the home front, his remarks have been candid without being confrontational. He doesn’t evade the tough decisions that need to be taken, unlike leaders before him. Internationally, he has mixed independence with imagination in a manner that has led to comparisons with Gamal Abdel-Nasser, though he has avoided Nasser’s inflammatory rhetoric.

Al-Sisi spoke to the public from the heart when he addressed the pressing issue of economic subsidies. Once his message was conveyed, he followed through with precision measures. Removing subsidies in a gradual but calculated manner, with the patience of a surgeon, is a task Al-Sisi’s predecessors, including Sadat and Morsi, shirked in the face of popular opposition. Al-Sisi showed he is willing to sacrifice popularity when the actions that must be taken are in the best interests of the nation.

To counterbalance the shock of the removal of subsidies, Al-Sisi launched a mega project to develop the Suez Canal. It is expected to double the volume of maritime traffic.

When Al-Sisi launched the project the details contradicted many reports that had circulated in the media, all of them from sources supposedly close to the decision-making process. In their eagerness to show how well connected they are, politicians and journalists offered erroneous information.

A style of leadership combining candid statements with assertive action is a novelty to Egyptians. Earlier presidents either played it too safe, as Mubarak did, or, like Morsi, prevaricated. Al-Sisi is acutely aware that Egyptians want to see results and are ready to go the extra mile to get what they want.

The president has avoided pandering to pressure groups. He didn’t, for example, invite young revolutionaries into the presidential palace, or offer them symbolic posts in his administration. He hasn’t given in to pressure to amend the Protest Law, despite the clamour in activist circles, preferring to stand his ground on an issue he sees as essential to economic stability. If you want to protest, then protest within the perameters of the law is his message to activists, many of whom supported him during his ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Sisi is not big on haggling with pressure groups. He refused to amend the election law, though his supporters in political parties clamoured for changes that would reduce the number of seats allocated to independent candidates. Fledgling political parties think party lists will boost their stature while allocating seats for independents favours those with clan backing in the countryside. The president thought otherwise and was willing to stick his neck out, even if it meant alienating powerful politicians.

Again, there was a minimum of wavering, maximum quiet planning, and a willingness to distance himself from perceived allies, all of which gives the new president space for action at a time when the country needs faster and more effective decision making.

Al-Sisi understands the public will not be kind to him if he fails, which is one reason why he is focusing on the job at hand rather than pleasing a hodgepodge of opposed currents.

He is betting that the nation will be patient enough for him to have time to deliver results. If he succeeds in lifting the economy out of its current doldrums the accolades awaiting him will be matched by his own sense of personal gratification.

It is a wager that may seem risky but in today’s Egypt hesitation may be a much bigger peril than full-throttle movement ahead.

One thing that works in Al-Sisi’s favour is the feeling of common destiny he forged with the public last summer when he all but volunteered to remove the bungling Muslim Brotherhood from power if given a mandate by the people.

When Al-Sisi decided to phase out subsidies his advisers were honest with him. In the streets, they said, the people were cursing him. This must have been a difficult moment for a man whose political ambitions until a year ago were non-existent. But he was willing to bite the bullet and the policy remained, a sign that things are going to change and that change is not always going to be pleasant.

Whenever a crisis surfaces Al-Sisi is willing to appear in public and explain things. His calm delivery and clarity of mind is a change from the style of his recent predecessors. Addressing the nation after the subsidies decision he explained the reasons, admitted that it was a tough decision, and asked for time to make things better.

When close associates told him that political parties known to have backed him during his rise to power disagreed with the proposed elections law his answer was clear. They don’t have to vote for me again, he said.

This bluntness is seeping into his foreign policy. When US Secretary of State John Kerry was searched as he arrived for a meeting with the president a message was sent to Washington that it must stop putting pressure on Egypt and treat Egypt’s leaders as equals. When Al-Sisi turned down an invitation to attend an American-African meeting in Washington and sent the prime minister instead he was reinforcing the same message.

To drive the message even further home Al-Sisi visited Saudi Arabia, received the Chinese ambassador, and then went on a well-publicised trip to Russia where he inspected weapons, spent time with Putin, and allowed the media to portray him as someone willing to pursue closer relations with Russia if the Americans keep rubbing him the wrong way.

All of this paints the picture of a leader who is independent, focused on the job, willing to redraw alliances and prepared to step on some toes to lead the country to its destiny. Much of this reminds people of Nasser, who turned his back on Washington when it refused to finance the High Dam and forged closer ties with the Russians.

Nasser got away with a lot of daring decisions, some of them ill-advised, but he did inspire the nation and command the respect of friends and foes. Whether this is something Al-Sisi will be able to match we don’t know. Perhaps he is not even trying to do so.

He seems comfortable with his calm and measured actions, and so far the nation seems to be giving him the support that he needs. But the job is far from done. Al-Sisi has to prove to the Egyptian people that their trust was well placed. He must, for example, do more for the cause of social justice, boost the living standards of the poor, and keep the country on the path of modernity and progress.

It is not an easy task, but there is reason to hope that man at the helm is up to it.

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