The Egyptian presidential candidates are racing against each other in making claims that they would continue to live in their humble homes and not move to luxurious presidential palaces if they are elected in the upcoming elections. This is, in my opinion, just an ostentatious utterance in a country whose people are aspiring for a leader who would change their lives for the better, not one who would sleep with them in their poor underdeveloped districts.
Presidents of the world live in presidential palaces. In the democratic countries, they return back to their original homes after their tenure is over. In some other countries, they go from their palaces to prisons. It is not wrong or criminal for a president to live in a presidential palace during his reign. The president will not become great or humble if he chooses to live in a simple house and fails to run the affairs of the state.
As a representative of his people, the president has the right to a presidential palace, parades, motorcades, special aircraft, bodyguards and servants. No one will compete with him for these supreme rights. Leaders in the communist countries, which claim to be hostile to the rich and friendly to the poor, live in grand palaces, and I have first-hand accounts as I have been to Moscow and Beijing. In Tehran, the supreme religious leader, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the mullahs before them lived in luxurious presidential palaces, although Ahmadinejad loves to appear as a humble man driving an old car.
Because the presidential candidates in Egypt know very well that their people love the picture of an ascetic caliph and hate the atmosphere of grandeur, especially that which surrounded ousted President Hosni Mubarak, they are racing among themselves to appear simple and humble. Each one of them claims he would sleep on a mattress made of leaves and would rent the presidential palaces to feed his people.
There are 17 presidential palaces in Egypt. Some of them have been made into rest houses for the guests of the state. If these palaces were rented or made into museums and tourist attraction spots, their proceeds would not be enough to cover the expenses of their maintenance and protection.
The leaders who raised their countries to high levels did not promise their people to sleep with them on the pavements. Instead, they promised them with development projects. They came up with great ideas and they had a real spirit of leadership that enabled them to wage the battle of development and progress. For instance, Lee Kuan Yew, who built Singapore from scratch, lived in a grand palace and played golf. He built a country that is considered the number one country in Asia despite its meager resources and small area.
Appearances, whether through grandeur or humbleness, do not constitute a work program according to which voters should cast their votes. Caliph Omar bin Abdul Aziz lived in complete asceticism as an individual, but he managed the affairs of the state with fairness and justice.
Running the affairs of Egypt as a modern country cannot be confined to one person who is the president. The presidency is a complete governing institution. Mubarak was ousted because he limited the ruling of the country to himself alone. His son and wife helped in his downfall by trying to make the ruling system in Egypt hereditary. If Mubarak was able in his leadership, had a clean hand and was fair in his ruling he might not have been toppled. Where he lived or what he ate had nothing to do with his performance as a president.
The presidential elections in Egypt at the current stage are a good training for a long future. People will later discover that the best way to judge the candidates is by their programs and their political records.
The presidential candidate Abdul Moneim Aboul Fotouh continued to work from his humble office while running his campaign. It is a simple clinic in an old building in the center of Cairo. The same thing is true for Hamdeen Sabahi, another candidate. I have personally visited him in his humble office. These two candidates are living naturally among the people. They do not need to prove to the people that they are aware of their needs and issues if one of them is elected a president.
The writer is the General Manager of Al Arabiya. The article was published in the Saudi-based Arab News on May 16, 2012