My Dream for Africa – Un jeune Burkinabé temoigne22 July 2018
Tunisia – a case study based on lived experiences during the last 8 years.
Even though Tunisians have succeeded in the first phase of the democratic transition where other Arab nations have failed, they are a long way from securing the bright future they envisioned.
The reasons for this lack of forward progress are many, but all evolve around one important element: the nonexistence of the required democratic leadership at all levels of the political, social and economic spectrum – government, parties, civil society and independent organizations – to envision, to plan, to organize teams, to assemble, to debate, to build the courage and to break with the past and make the tough decisions. In other words, in spite of a “revolution” and some small steps towards democracy, the collective mindset of the citizens and the politicians are still stuck in the pre 2011 way of thinking and acting.
It is a unanimous sentiment today that the leaders we have are not the ones we had hoped for and certainly not the ones that can lead us further into the Promised Land.
In my view, we cannot speak of the state of leadership unless we understand the background leading to such state, and unless we address these main factors, we will continue to swim in mediocrity.
CULTURAL BARRIERS: For the past sixty years or so, a leader’s job was simply to adhere to a social contract – Political leaders would provide citizens with public sector jobs and subsidized goods and services (such as health, education, energy, and food) in exchange for loyalty and minimal rights, submissiveness, and conformity. That was, and is, the fundamental relationship that guaranteed a status-quo, that guaranteed coexistence. Leaders never had to work hard at accomplishing a global vision, deliver on a campaign promise, run a campaign, listen to the people, search for answers, or have his post challenged. For sixty years, appointed regional and local leaders’ first concern was to please their superiors, but never to represent their people and fight for their needs. For sixty years, our educational systems never bothered teaching leadership as a human and social science. It was therefore easy to convince the masses of aspiring young men and women that leadership was a reward for services rendered to a higher force. Nepotism, favoritism, corruption and not meritocracy were the rule rather than the exception. In other words, none of our potential leaders had felt the need to develop the traits of good leadership. They never had to learn how to effectively communicate. They never learned how develop a sense of empathy, necessary to understand their peoples’ needs and translate them to actions. They never had to consider opposing views. They never had to strategize, build coalitions around a common vision. The absence of these essentials has led us to where we are today, catastrophic global leadership.
CULT OF THE PERSONALITY: Our love affair with the idea of EZZA3IM. This love affair may go back as far back as Hannibal for some and the prophet Mohamed for others; resurrected with the fall of the British and Ottoman empires, by the likes of Saddam, Abdel Nasser and Bourguiba and their roles in the liberation of their respective countries and the alliance of their tribes against colonial powers.
For Tunisians, Bourguiba became linked with the revolutionary modern transformation of Tunisia and worshiped as a benevolent “greatest warrior” (Almoujahid al akbar), without whom the transformation to a better future could not have occurred.
There are in my opinion three major factors contributing to the propagation of the idea Ezza3im.
First, after 2011, political reporting in the media has become increasingly “personalized” and “sponsored”, presenting issues as personal opinions of a single politician rather than ideological or party-driven. Similarly, the absence of sound political argument based on ideological or a principled standpoint the argument is built upon has driven media and public to make TV stars out of politicians.
Second, the absence of multi party systems has also led to an atmosphere of “one-man-show” in politics, and every politician looking for additional attention will work hard to keep the competition at bay.
The third factor feeding the Ezza3ama is relatively new to politics and leadership. It is the increased use of social media. The interaction between leaders and their followers on social media creates what psychologists and sociologists refer to as Parasocial Interactions (PSI), where the citizen falls in love with a certain heroic image of the leader, like that of a Hollywood or video game character. PSI has made it possible, unfortunately, to move from a politics of ideas to a politics of presence, leading to admiration of a character leader, or ezza3im.
GRANDEUR AND ENTITLEMENT: Thirdly, and probably the most incurable common disease in this country is the delusion of grandeur and entitlement. Many of our leaders, past and present, tripped on the fine line between over confidence and inflated ego. Big egos in politics lead to an feeling of narcissism. Narcissistic leaders are generally in the pursuit of money or power or both, and not at all interested in the well being of the people they are supposed to represent. Our short history as a nation has shown us that politicians wield vastly more power and control than the average citizen. The power they attain through political positions affords them all sorts of opportunities (blatantly unethical and sometimes illegal) to substantially augment their money and property through unethical dealing. For many of them (and here, as elsewhere, I’ll resist the temptation to name names) their appetite for material riches can be insatiable.
Another principal trait omnipresent with political leaders is their exaggerated sense of entitlement. It’s hardly surprising then that so many politicians somehow think they “deserve” to change the system in their favors. After all, from their self-interested perspective, isn’t that what the system is for? I can think of BCE loi de reconciliation, the talk of going back to a presidential regime, the 40% increase in budget assigned to the president of the republic, or the laws passed in the ARP to increase salaries and provide additional perks, at a time when more and more Tunisians are incapable of affording the more basic fundamentals such as food, medicine, and education.
As we can see, much work needs to be done before we even speak of the kind of leaders capable of leading in this new environment.
Tunisia is not an isolated island. We belong to an interconnected fast moving world. Globalization is in full swing. We are in a world that has never been closer yet never been so divided. Leading a nation requires new skills never seen before. Present and future generations represent new challenges for classic systems. They are armed with communication technologies that make it easier to detect incompetence, lack of transparency and governance. These changes have reshaped citizens’ perceptions of what they owe their leaders and what they can expect in return.
The relationship between Tunisian political leaders and citizens has shifted with the need for a new social contract. With a changing social economic paradigm came new traits and requirements of leadership success. Recent elected officials and those in political parties seem to have missed the paradigm change or just ignored it, perhaps finding their transformation not worth the effort.
A leader who has not spent much time within the various segments of society, who has not shared their pain, their highs and lows, and their dreams cannot really be a proper representative. The factors mentioned above act as obstacles to the leader being in the midst of the masses. Our political leaders have zero empathy. Empathy comes from contact and diversity. Many see it as a weakness, but they could not be more wrong. It is through empathy that you develop excellent listening skills. It is through empathy you understand the meaning of dignity. It is through empathy you feel the everyday injustices, and it is through empathy you can become a great communicator.
I recall making recommendations to several party leaders to go spend a few days with the masses and get away from their luxurious surroundings and comfort zone. Nothing builds trust better and faster than sharing time and space, debating and reflecting with those you are supposed to represent.
Great leaders are unifiers no dividers. They find strength in unity while capitalizing on diversity. Our political leaders fear what they do not understand and refute those who think differently. What George W. Bush once said in 2001 finally makes sense “if you are not with us, then you are against us”
The new complex Tunisia can no longer flourish under the leadership of one individual no matter how great he or she might be. The concept of Ezza3im is no longer applicable. With the current volatility and complexity of our society and the current political system in place, neither of Bourguiba, Gandhi, MLK, nor Mandela would have an easy time leading this country today. What Tunisia needs today are many leaders all across this nation, in every region, in every school, every university, every association, every municipality, every town, city and state. Collective change leadership is the answer. The complexity of the new political landscape calls for a collaborative environment where the strengths and expertise of many levels of leadership contribute to the greater health and growth of our nation.
This is where it gets difficult, especially for a nation and a people like ours, because this calls for a greater input and commitment on the part of each and every citizen. Our compatriots have to make a concerted effort of self awareness and realize that success and failure of our nation begins and ends with them, not the individual(s) running the nation. We can no longer look the other way, pay off bribes, sell off subsidized goods across borders, cheat on our taxes, not pay our fines and our bills, and expect our leaders to wave the magic wand and be super heroes. Collective leadership also means that citizens respect the basic fundamentals of democracy – voting. Collaborative leadership leads to a government of the people by the people, and for the people.
The new thinking of collective leadership starts with a country’s dedication to fostering successful collaboration in the home, in the school, and in professional settings. This is extremely easy when we begin to focus more on teaching values to our children, hold our kids and their parents accountable for certain behaviors and punish those whose behavior deviates towards the immoral unethical. Collective leadership is contagious and would eventually lead to people working hand in hand towards a common vision. It is certainly a long term project that might take years to become second nature. Not investing in this would be another collective error and the price to pay is unforgiving and insurmountable.