Despite the immense political upheavals taking place in the Middle East in the last few years, opinions remain divided on the extent to which political realities in affected countries have actually changed.

One way of examining the issue is to compare the linguistic habits of the region’s outgoing autocrats and its new generation of political leaders.

Conventionally, Arabic is divided between Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), also called Fuṣḥā, which is a formal academic and literary language, and the numerous regional dialects, also called ‘Āmmiyya or Dārijiyya, many of which are mutually unintelligible.

The truth is somewhat fuzzier than this: spoken Arabic exists on a relative scale rarely reaching ‘pure’ Fuṣḥā or ‘pure’ ‘Āmmiyya. The register can even shift within a single utterance.

Each form carries its own implications and social and political meanings. With such a wealth of linguistic options, it is worth investigating how political leaders use the different registers of Arabic, and whether this demonstrates anything about their leadership style and relationship to the people.

Fuṣḥā: the Language of Politics

Fuṣḥā is the default register for political expression, parliamentary proceedings, political interviews, and speeches; most spoken dialects take their political vocabulary from Fuṣḥā.

In official announcements across the region, the language used often takes on an extremely formal character, with inflections, classical sentence structure, and frequent pauses that convey a feeling of dignity and gravitas.

By using this linguistic register, the speaker conveys his intention to address not only the nation, but also the Arab world as a whole.

Among contemporary Arab leaders, Bashar al-Assad of Syria stands alone in using Fuṣḥā as if it were a spoken language. This is partly because Assad never addresses the people without an audience, but rather always speaks before Parliament. It is also a reflection of Ba’thist ideology, which promotes Fuṣḥā as the means of communication for all Arabs and invests it with political, as well as social, weight.

Of course, Fuṣḥā also masks differences within Syria: people from coastal and mountainous areas such as the Alawite heartland have a strong accent (although it carries no religious meaning), and speaking in Fuṣḥā is a handy way of ignoring these regional differences.

The use of Fuṣḥā can, however, backfire dreadfully. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, the former president of Tunisia, gave his first speech in response to popular unrest on December 28, 2010, in stiflingly literary Arabic, with full inflections and no emotion (although there is an amusing moment half-way through when a phone rings in the background for nearly a whole minute). That he recognized the alienating effect this had on listeners is clear in his attempt to tone down the formality of his subsequent speeches, although in vain.

In contrast, throughout the Egyptian uprising Hosni Mubarak consistently delivered his speeches using the same register as Ben Ali. Even his final, paternal address made no attempt to connect with the people by using colloquial Egyptian Arabic. His apology, (“asaftu kulla l-asaf”, literally, “I am sorry all the sorriness”) used literary forms, which sound beautiful in poetry, but bizarre in a modern political context.

Like Assad, neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali had the habit of speaking directly to the people – that they addressed the nation on television was an indication of how unusual the circumstances in 2011 really were. For these men, use of a formal register symbolized their distance from the reality of the situation, and an attachment to the past.

A Change in Tone?

In Egypt, there has been only a slight shift in the register of political language, despite the political upheaval of the last two years.

In his prepared statements, Egyptian President Mohamad Morsi’s style is just as formal as Mubarak’s: the same complex classical structures, language that no one would think of using even if they could understand most of it.

The main difference between Morsi and Mubarak is the setting. While Morsi has used televised speeches from parliament and public addresses on days of national significance, Mubarak rarely took such steps, preferring to remain aloof.

In these situations, without a written text, Morsi has used a less formal register, adopting a style probably used in parliament before the revolutions and coming closer to how Egyptians actually talk.

Morsi’s speech last year on the anniversary of the October War is especially interesting – the text reads as though it had been composed in dialect and converted into Fuṣḥā, with shorter sentences, simpler grammatical structure, and questions directed to his audience. As a result, they responded well, interrupting him frequently to cheer.

We should not be surprised at the lack of a major register shift in Egypt. While Fuṣḥā remains the language of politics, the modest shift toward a more fluent, accessible discourse is encouraging (though concrete political developments in the country leave much to be desired).

Dialects: A Populist Rhetoric?

What of the leaders who use Arabic dialects?

Muammar Qaddafi is the exemplar par excellence of a leader eschewing Fuṣḥā. Qaddafi’s speeches, delivered almost exclusively in Libyan Arabic, were known for their length and lack of script – his inaugural speech at the United Nations in 2009, lasted so long that his translator (whom he had brought along) allegedly collapsed from exhaustion.

In his now infamous and last major televised speech on February 22, 2011, which lasted more than an hour and a half, Qaddafi abandoned traditional discursive techniques to such an extent that instead of using the traditional opening, “In the name of God the All-Mighty, the All-Merciful,” used even by the irreligious Ben Ali, viewers were met with a wide-eyed stare into the camera and the words, “Greetings, brave people!”

In that speech, individual isolated utterances (“Who are you?” “The time for marching has arrived,” “Revolution!”) tended to be in Fuṣḥā with a strong Libyan accent, while the rest of the speech was given in the Libyan dialect.

Qaddafi’s populist rhetoric was matched with popular language. His use of local dialect in political contexts made him seem closer to ordinary people, but also masked an authoritarian streak. This style, more associated with the old guard of Arab nationalist leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser, connected Qaddafi to the politics of the 1960s. With his demise, Libya, too, has shifted toward the linguistic center.

Two other politicians who have adopted Arabic dialects are Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir and Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh. Again, their choice of language reflects a desire to appear populist, even if the reality is quite different.

Bashir speaks largely like Qaddafi, using Sudanese Arabic but with a less erratic train of thought. At times of special urgency, he addresses the country in a Fuṣḥā style heavily-laden with Islamic formulae, hardly surprising considering his Islamist credentials.

Saleh, a political hanger-on from the 1980s, is perhaps the only leader whose usage of different registers mirrored how most Arabs actually speak. At rallies and in public, he spoke in a mash of two parts Yemeni to one part Yemenised Fuṣḥā. When speaking with leaders of other nations, he spoke Fuṣḥā, but with a Yemeni accent. 

In his first speech after the attack on his compound on June 3, 2011, Saleh appeared on television, his face burned, and spoke carefully in uncharacteristically high Fuṣḥā. He seemed empty, and his formulaic language reflected a loss of will to continue defying his opponents. The state had overtaken him.

For all three leaders, using local dialect aimed to ground their legitimacy in a sense of personal connection with ‘the people,’ no matter how false that connection might be. In these countries, the leader preceded – and was the origin of – the state.

Conclusion

No matter which register they used, Arab leaders have clearly been aware of the importance of their linguistic choice. In Ben Ali’s last speech on January 13, 2011, the day before he resigned, he said, “I speak to you in the language of all Tunisians.” In February 2011, Muammar Qaddafi’s eldest son, Saif al-Islam, gave a televised address in which he claimed, “I will not speak to you tonight in Fuṣḥā. I will speak to you in Libyan dialect.”

These promises were false – neither Ben Ali nor Saif al-Islam gave their addresses in a register colloquial enough to justify their populist rhetoric. Next to his father’s dialectical excesses Saif al-Islam’s speech sounded like a classical poem.

The use of Arabic registers in politics seems to be moving away from both rugged dialect and extremely inflated Fuṣḥā toward a more inclusive middle ground, even if actual political practice seems to be lagging behind. The ideological trends motivating new Arab leaders have less to do with populism or monolithic state power: politicians and politics are expected to be more accountable, at least in theory, and a register shift toward the center reflects this. Those particular political changes may not be permanent and are already threatened, but the linguistic shift may be harder to undo.