The Dictator’s Speech


in Archive


Some dictators don’t know how to talk. They know how to speak, of course. They are able to use language. They utter words, but they don’t say anything. Hosni Mubarak, the current president of Egypt (at least at the time of this writing) recently made a speech in an attempt to quell the street protests and demands for an end to his despotic regime.


You might say it was an airy speech, draped in the finery of general principles, wafting lightly on the breeze of abstraction. He uttered sentences such as, “There is a fine line between freedom and chaos and I lean toward freedom for the people in expressing their opinions as much as I hold on to the need to maintain Egypt’s safety and stability.” That’s a truly amazing sentence. My favorite part is when Mubarak lets us in on his own deepest feelings and commitments. Mubarak “leans toward” freedom for the people. But wait. He leans toward the freedom of the people only as much as he “holds onto” the need to curtail that freedom in the name of safety and stability. In fact, the sentence ends up denying the very thing it started to affirm. It cancels itself. We know nothing, at the end of the sentence, about what Mubarak intends to do. We don’t even really understand where he draws the line between freedom and chaos. He gives no opinion on accusations that he runs a corrupt and despotic regime. The people of Egypt have accused Mubarak of failing them and he responds with thin abstractions about the nature of freedom and chaos. Rarely, in fact, did Mubarak directly address the people of Egypt at all in his speech. It was a speech ejected over the heads of the people, launched from the room of an interior ministry somewhere, to be immediately filed away in a drawer labeled “Speeches to Suppress Civil Discontent and Remind the People of the Glorious Future, 2011.”

The tin ear and woolly mouth of this dictator is rather amusing given the fact that the very word “dictator” comes from the Latin verb “dicere,” meaning “to speak.” To be a dictator is to be the one who speaks, and the one for whom speaking ought to matter the most. The man in charge is the man who utters the laws, the man who tells people how it is, the man who talks the talk. The dictator speaks and it is the voice of authority. The voice that is, in itself, action. The dictator is the one for whom words and deeds are synonymous. The dictator dictates and the subjects of the dictator take dictation.

When you have a skilled dictator, when the dictator is up to the task, this relationship can work. Life is confusing. Politics are confusing. Wars and natural disasters can leave people without clear direction and with a need for directives. Discussions of the relative merits of democracy aside, the history of human civilization is filled with examples of dictators who really knew how to dictate, for better or worse.

Indeed, the modern history of Egypt contains a perfect example in Abdel Nasser, the great (and greatly flawed) Egyptian president who ruled from 1956 to 70. Nasser gave the Egyptian people a taste for dictation. He knew how to voice their fears, their aspirations. He knew how to make their projects his own and vice versa. He spoke with passion and power and soul. People listened to Nasser, even when he was wrong, which even he was willing, sometimes, to admit. Like all successful dictators, Nasser was able to speak meaningfully, even when he was speaking from absolute authority. He was able to voice the concerns and aspirations of the people he governed, undemocratically as it may have been. Nasser used speech in order to make it absolutely clear how he felt, what he was going to do and why he was going to do it. When Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, he said the following:

We believe in international law. But we will never submit. We shall show the world how a small country can stand in the face of great powers threatening with armed might. Egypt might be a small power but she is great inasmuch as she has faith in her power and convictions. I feel quite certain every Egyptian shares the same convictions as I do and believes in everything I am stressing now.

It’s the last part that really kicks it. Nasser said he was going to stand up to the great powers of the day (mainly Europe and America) and he said, moreover, that in doing so he was speaking for every single damn Egyptian person. And he was probably right about that. This was living and vibrant speech that did not attempt to obscure the facts in hiding its own intentions. It is the opposite of the way Hosni Mubarak uses speech.

Mubarak is a dictator in the direct lineage of Nasser who has, alas, lost the capacity to dictate. Maybe in the early years of his regime the dead language of Mubarak’s speeches had a usefully mesmerizing effect. He let everyone know that politics was closing up shop, that no meaningful claims would anymore emerge from the halls of power. He offered a warning, and a promise, that the political stability of his regime would come at the cost of any discernible motion in society at all. And so, the possibility that political language could mean anything shrank to almost zero. Mubarak was never going to do anything but rule, rule for the very sake of ruling. Anything he was ever going to say would be but a veiled reiteration of that one simple fact. Thus it has been for 30 years. Three decades of a smothering muteness.

Then, suddenly, the floodgates of talking opened again to fill the mute void of power. The speaking came from the streets, where it flowed like a river. The one place from which political language can always be renewed is the rich deposits found within civil society. The language of civil society is not the formalized, empty talk of State institutions. The language of civil society is a babble that happens in cafes and mosques and on independent television shows. It is people talking, even when they aren’t sure exactly what they mean to say. Civil society speaks in a language that isn’t necessary; it is contingent, chatty, buffeted by the whims of the moment and the affairs of the day.

What a relief it must be just to hear it, though. The streets are alive with human voices. Such speech is messy and conflict-ridden. You can hear, right now, on the streets of Cairo or Suez or Alexandria, as many opinions about what is going on, or what people want, or what has been done wrong, as you can find people. There is a chaos of speech, since the speech coming from civil society is always chaotic. It has none of the clarity of intent that would come from the speech of a competent dictator. It is the bubbling forth of a million unfiltered desires. And yet, it all manages to coalesce, for the moment, around one clear message. We want, everyone says, the end of the reign of Hosni Mubarak. We won’t take the dictation anymore. We want to speak again. • 31 January 2011