Last Updated: Tue Oct 09, 2012 09:58 am (KSA) 06:58 am (GMT)

The age of rhetoric

Mohammed Salah

Chance played its part and the commemoration of the victory of the October War coincided with the passing of the first one hundred days of President Mohammed Mursi’s term in office. Thus the celebration commemorating the victory provided the new President with the opportunity to showcase the efforts he has exerted over these hundred days. And to the same extent as experts, politicians and specialists, and with them the simple folk, are interested in Mursi’s discourse and the contents of his speech, they are also interested in the atmosphere in which the celebration took place – starting from its location, as the “Cairo International Stadium” used to bear the name “Nasser International Stadium”; through the audience, being made up of a majority of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their families, in addition to soldiers and police officers; as well as those standing on the podium, among them leading Islamist figure Tarek al-Zomor, who was among those convicted in the case of the assassination of President Anwar Sadat; and ending with the scene of the President entering the stadium in a convertible car and going around the field twice to greet the audience, which greeted him in return by chanting “we love you Mursi”. Of course the speech was subjected to detailed analysis by both those who support him and those on the lookout for his mistakes. And it was evident that the President’s supporters would only see the speech’s qualities, whether when he spoke of the army and the victory or in his lengthy explanation of what he had done during these hundred days, and of his “achievements”, as well as the difficulties and problems he had faced, which had reduced the number of achievements. It was also evident that those who oppose him would only see in the celebration, both in terms of form and of content, the flaws and the mistakes, especially when it came to the absence of the surviving leaders of the October War from the scene, the absence of any reference to the “enemy” the Egyptian army had defeated in the war, or the “justifications” that were mentioned in the speech for not having kept his one hundred days pledge, in addition to making light of what the President considered to be “achievements”, which he presented in percentages of the five issues of which he had pledged to resolve the crises.

Regardless of the praise of or the attacks against what took place at the celebration in terms of form and content, this event returned to memory the “Ages of Rhetoric” and proved that Mursi likes to talk – whether it is talk that pleases his supporters or is unwelcome by those who oppose him – and always makes sure to improvise and depart from the written text, and that he is happy when he finds himself amid his supporters. The scene at Cairo Stadium reminded of what used to take place under Abdel Nasser and Sadat, back when the President made sure to communicate directly with the crowds – something which Mubarak stopped doing completely as a result of having been subject to several assassination attempts, which forced a security siege on him that prevented contact between him and crowds gathered anywhere, in addition to Mubarak’s own nature and traditional personality. The notion of political rhetoric at which Nasser and Sadat excelled had been the natural product of an age in which leaders had special speaking abilities, as had been the case with Mustafa al-Nahhas and Fikri Makram Ebeid, and before them Saad Zaghloul, and before him Abdallah al-Nadim. Rhetoric reflected the ability of the “leader” to use expressions people would be waiting for, thus arousing their enthusiasm, increasing their love for him and making them feel close to him, far from the written text. And that is something Mubarak lacked, as he most often remained faithful to the written text, and whenever he would depart from it would make mistakes that would be held against him.

Mursi repeated two days ago what he did on Tahrir Square when he addressed the crowds and swore his constitutional oath of office. And despite the fact that he has spoken on many occasions since he obtained the presidential seat, the majority of such talks had taken place at official forums or in mosques after prayer, where the audience would be relatively small, and without live coverage in the media. At the Cairo Stadium, on the other hand, the situation was completely different, in terms of the crowds and high television ratings. The scenes of Mursi during the speech showed that those who had explained his care for speaking directly to the crowd as a reflection of his religiosity and an imitation of the sermons of imams in mosques had not provided an accurate interpretation. Indeed, an imam in a mosque remains in place and stands behind the microphone until the end of his sermon. Mursi, on the other hand, at the stadium and before that on Tahrir Square, seemed uncomfortable behind the microphone and shifted “left and right” a great deal, until the event’s organizers noticed this and brought him a wireless microphone, which he seized and started pacing around on the podium and moving in every direction. He thus appeared in some scenes talking to those who were sitting behind him, presenting his back to the cameras that were broadcasting the event. It is the character of the “professor” who lectures students in the conference halls of universities. Perhaps he was influenced by his previous occupation as a college professor, who likes to explain and expound and does not avoid delving into details, which explains his use of terms like “test tubes” and “cargo tricycles” for example. What matters is that the event represented an opportunity for the President to break the siege of the “one hundred days pledge” he had committed himself to before the presidential elections. And whether or not his talk of achievements was convincing, and whether or not his justifications for the difficulties he is facing were appropriate, his horizons have become greatly broadened, far from the one hundred days, to prove his competence as a President, and also as a public speaker.

The writer is a columnist at various Arab publications. The article has been published in the London-based al-Hayat on Oct. 8, 2012

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