In this essay, Basma Abdel Aziz considers the consequences of the coarse rhetoric that surfaces when Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi goes off-script.
In the theater many decades ago, actors would have been at a loss without prompters, because they were expected not to deviate from their scripts. Actors waited to hear their cue and then delivered the line just as the playwright wrote it, not a word more or less. If they blanked or missed their cue, they tried to fill the silence as best they could.
As time went by, strict adherence to the script became less critical, and there emerged actors who modified their lines. They added or removed dialogue, and sometimes even invented new scenes to surprise an audience. Today, prompters have practically disappeared: sticking to the script has become the exception, and deviating from it the rule. The ability to improvise is a source of pride for actors, and the same is true for politicians. Those who read directly from prepared speeches or teleprompters are few; most prefer to rely on their charisma.
Improvising is commendable if actors or speakers are skilled, but it can be unsuccessful if they aren’t eloquent, intuitive, and skilled in rhetorical devices, or don’t have a strong and engaging delivery.
Going off script can also have disastrous effects, which can spiral out of control. For example, Egyptian actor Saeed Saleh received attention a few decades ago when he strayed from his written lines in the middle of a play. The incident landed him in prison, albeit indirectly, and Saleh became famous for his incendiary political comments. One particular remark became well known, and may have been the main reason he was later harassed by authorities. In a satirical scene, Saleh delivered a line that wasn’t in the script: “My mother married three different men: the first man served us moldy cheese, the second taught us to be thieves, and the third bends with the slightest breeze!” Saleh didn’t name specific individuals, but it was clear whom he was referring to: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, three successive presidents of Egypt. In the early 1990s, Saleh was arrested in his home, charged with possession of hashish, and sentenced to prison. He was released shortly afterward. In the eyes of many, this was direct punishment for crossing the line with his pointed quip.
Egypt’s current president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, also strays from the script that his listeners expect. He does so in speech after speech, to the point that his digressions can no longer be considered anomalies. Just as Saleh brought laughter to millions, so too does the president. His most recent speech on February 24, 2017, about the future of development in the year 2030, is one such example that crossed bounds of normalcy and caused a stir. It sparked page after page of commentary, and dozens of articles and analyses, ranging from criticism to justification.
Leaving ridicule, resentment, and rapturous applause aside, one can identify several consistent features of the president’s discourse. Even though he speaks off the cuff, and not from a prepared speech, certain elements have become regular fixtures over the past year and a half. His most recent speech is an ideal example, as it contains many of the most prominent features of his rhetoric.
The president consistently wins over the masses with his unrehearsed comments by playing to their nationalist sentiments. Yet somewhat contradictorily, Egypt often appears in his speeches dressed in rags, and it’s up to average citizens to mend the nation’s tattered clothes: by donating money directly to the state. The president went a step further in his latest speech, when he proposed that people make donations to the state over the phone. Citizens could dial specific numbers that automatically convert their calls into Egyptian pounds, he suggested, and government officials could snap up the money to support the economy. This was a clear departure not just from his prepared speech but also from the hopes and dreams of many citizens. Instead of giving them the impression that the current government can capably uphold its responsibilities, it filled them with a deep sense of weakness and helplessness. The nation emerged not as a great and powerful entity, but instead as an ailing beggar, to the displeasure of many listeners.
In subsequent speeches, the president consistently focused on the idea of a widespread international conspiracy that threatens Egypt’s national security and is on the verge of destroying the country. This is a baseless idea, not grounded in reality. On more than one occasion, the president used the phrase “evildoers,” in a literal sense, perhaps to indicate the parties allegedly orchestrating this conspiracy. Never has he specified who these “evildoers” might be, however. The ambiguity of the word strips his speech of credibility; it could be interpreted as referring to any number of actors. One possibility is that he was alluding to other Arab countries. The Egyptian media has repeatedly and openly attacked certain Arab nations for “conspiring” against Egypt, but the state no longer adopts this line in its rhetoric. Alternatively, the president may have been referring to certain religious groups. However, a considerable part of the public has begun to realize that these groups are weaker than they are made out to be; their often-exaggerated capabilities are actually quite modest, and most of their leaders are now behind bars. Western countries could be another potential target of the phrase, were it not for the fact that official discourse consistently paints them in positive terms. While the Egyptian media tirelessly demonizes the United States, the state seeks to express its goodwill and announce new partnerships, and it benefits from the U.S. on multiple levels. Ultimately, the president’s use of the word “evildoers” in both his last speech and subsequent television appearances was less convincing than usual. The word is no more than a flimsy excuse he employs to avoid discussing his economic plans and their uncertain prospects.
Another distinct feature of the president’s discourse is his use of words and expressions ill-suited to the esteem, respect, and status that the state supposedly conveys. For example, in his latest speech he told listeners, “If I could be sold, I’d sell myself,” and “Chip in a buck for Egypt every morning.” This demonstrates how overwhelmingly crude his rhetoric is, far beyond what could simply be considered colloquial, given the tone and frequency of such remarks. The president could certainly have found a more respectable, dignified way to convey what he meant. The idea of sacrificing oneself for the nation is regarded highly, and resonates with a majority of people across the political spectrum. The problem lies in his choice of expression, which turns a positive sentiment into yet another negative one. Needless to say, popular connotations of “selling oneself” are more a point of embarrassment than pride.
Many centuries ago, the great Arab thinker al-Jahiz wrote that a model orator should choose his words to target different sections of the audience. This strategy is clearly of no concern for the president, and completely lacking at the level of the state. One could identify many more features of his rhetoric, but careful analysis requires twice the amount of the words I’ve used here.
Even though the president’s rhetoric lacks persuasive power and a cohesive argument, he is still able to sway a section of his audience. These are by no means a homogeneous group. Some are people who still have faith in the ideals chanted during the 2011 revolutionary movement—“Bread, freedom, social justice”—and believe that his proposals can achieve them. Others are people who realize that his discourse is a far cry from what they hoped for but are in denial. After all, it is difficult for a person to admit that he or she has been abandoned; individuals have a deep desire for security, and create psychological barriers that prevent them from acknowledging defeat. Still others simply pretend to be affected by his rhetoric. These are people who benefit from the status quo, but given their increasingly negative reactions, it seems their ranks are dwindling. The regime makes more enemies every day with its repressive policies and unjust actions. Finally, there are people who understand the depth of the crisis, and how weak the state’s vision for the future is, but they are exhausted from the volatility and instability of the past five years and unable to mobilize. They discuss, criticize, and ridicule his rhetoric, but do not have the strength to organize actual opposition.
It is natural for actors and performers to take pleasure in going off script. The desire to break free of all constraints, whatever they may be, is innate and undeniable. Restrictions—whether imposed by a playwright, director, or prompter—inhibit spur-of-the-moment creativity, and hinder actors’ efforts to engage their audience, gain popularity, and increase revenue for artistic work. The Egyptian president’s off-script remarks cannot be said to achieve the same goals, however, or even come close. The reaction to his February 24 speech made this abundantly clear. The public may have rushed to tune in, and laughed in response, but if he continues to speak in this manner, they may soon come to their senses.
"تأملات في خطاب الرئيس" © Basma Abdel Aziz. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2017 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved.