Once, when Hosni Mubarak still led Egypt, I met a man in his mid-20s on a dusty, congested street near Tahrir Square. When he extended his hand to shake mine for the first time, I noticed a small black cross tattooed on his inner wrist, a discreet but potent reminder of his membership in Egypt’s tight-knit and guarded Coptic Christian community.
The anecdotes he shared with me over the past two and a half years as Egypt transitioned from Mubarak to a military regime to an Islamist presidency back to a military regime were defiant, fearful and conflicted. Mubarak occasionally pitted Coptic Christians and Islamists against each other in sectarian battles when the regime needed a distraction, but Coptic Christians could still find relief and common cause in the regime’s imperative to keep Islamists out of power and on the run.
Before the 2012 elections, he told me “Egypt will be on fire again” when the Muslim Brotherhood takes power. The man to eventually confront that fire was Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi — Egypt’s former military intelligence director, whose portrait is now hung in stores and homes across Egypt and even adorns the backs of mobile phone casings by those anxiously seeking a return to normalcy.
“He is a hero,” my friend told me matter-of-factly when I asked his thoughts on al-Sisi in the wake of the military’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood. When he looks at al-Sisi’s portrait, he says he sees a man who will protect his people, rebuild the “new” Egypt and prevent any power, internal or external, from destroying his country. Al-Sisi’s ramrod posture, gold-embossed, red-brimmed general’s cap, starched uniform and stern gaze embodied what my friend and many other Egyptians craved in hard times: stability, authority, protection.
At the same time, he admits, al-Sisi is no Nasser.
Indeed, the age of traditional strongmen may be a thing of the past. In early civilization, a cult of personality often involved deification in a literal sense. A leader’s declared, godlike features were extraordinary enough to be sculpted and painted into masterpieces in a celebration and legitimization of their divine right to rule. Much later, modern history brought about the revolutionary strongman, emphasizing humble, peasant roots and calls for class warfare propagandized through mass printing and rousing speeches delivered over the radio.
But such personality cults are much more difficult to construct today. Instead, we see a number of regime leaders left with little but the dusty legacy of their predecessors to establish their own legitimacy. This is not to say that the desire for strong leadership and control has perished. Rather, even populations conditioned to authoritarianism have become much less forgiving of aspiring autocrats. This may mean that the world faces less of a threat from megalomaniacs pursuing the type of world-shattering grand politics that defined the past century. At the same time, chronic instability under much weaker leaders is likely to become more commonplace in places that have long been difficult to manage and where carefully constructed patronage networks are more likely to define one’s physical and financial security.
There are still many parts of the world where people find it perfectly natural to place a framed picture of a political authority above their fireplace or in their shop window. This can be done voluntarily out of respect for their leader and perceived protector. It also can be done out of fear, to feign loyalty and avoid danger. Whatever the motive, a psychological affinity for charismatic authority persists.
Though somewhat counter-intuitive, the age of mass media does not necessarily augment a cult of personality. The modern leader can now instantaneously and electronically spread his message to millions of people across the world, and diplomats and journalists will instantly react in kind in 140 characters or less. But with that proliferation comes a loss of control over message and audience, and substance has undoubtedly been sacrificed along the way. Political manifestos read and intensely discussed in cafes have been replaced with bite-sized propaganda and diplomatic jabs exchanged over Twitter. Even as traditional strongmen like Nasser, Mao and Hitler espoused a oneness with a downtrodden people to propagate their message, they also maintained a distance that enabled their idolization. With the social barrier between a leader and his people narrowed, the leader risks diluting the very aura he intends to create.
It is important to bear in mind that leaders whose authority we question today are operating under very different geopolitical conditions than their predecessors. When a number of personality cults arose in the mid-20th century, nationalism was taking on new and violent forms, the yoke of colonialism was breaking and wars were redrawing maps across continents. Out of the fragments of World War I arose MustafaKemal Ataturk, who redefined the Turkish nation and its relationship with Europe. Mao’s peasant rebellion united a country at war with both Japan and itself. Stalin battled German expansionism, expanded the Soviet empire and brought Russia into the nuclear age. Nasser overthrew the Egyptian monarchy, nationalized the Suez Canal, went to war with Israel and led a campaign for Pan-Arab unity. Such strongmen had extraordinarily blemished careers, but they created legacies nonetheless in trying geopolitical times.
The modern ruler’s legacy is far more contrived in the absence of foreign-driven existential crises. In Turkey, Prime Minister Recep Tayyep Erdogan’s biggest competition is a man who has been dead for 75 years. Though Erdogan retains substantial support, his gradual efforts to reverse the founding principles of Ataturk’s Europeanized military-backed secular state are fully exposed and under attack from a people on intimate terms with their history who continue to revere Ataturk as a father figure. For Erdogan to continue his political tenure and thus extend his political vision, he must finagle a constitutional amendment from deeply skeptical Kurdish voters or risk breaking apart his own political party. Whichever path he chooses, the inevitable challenge he faces will undermine his already-troubled legacy.
In Syria, propaganda posters still show an awkward-looking Bashar al Assad placed next to the image of his deceased father. Hafiz al Assad was modern Syria’s indisputable strongman, and his memory alone continues to prop up the young and embattled president. The majority of Alawites and other minorities in Syria continue to see their fate tied to the young al Assad far more out of minority affiliation and fear of a Sunni regime than out of belief in al Assad’s legitimate authority over a now-fractured Syrian state.
In Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro has the benefit of directly inheriting the legacy of a man still fresh in the minds of many in Venezuela’s lower classes. That said, the late President Hugo Chavez may have already been overreaching in claiming an extension of Simon Bolivar’s revolutionary legacy. Beneath the number of conflicting policies Chavez proclaimed in the name of his self-declared and somewhat ambiguous Bolivarian revolution lay an array of deep, structural problems inherited by a much less inspiring and constrained