Cometh the hour, cometh the hollow man or in Greece’s case, the hollow prime minister: Alexis Tsipras.
Greece, over the past week, is going through its gravest and most traumatic crisis since the second world war, after devastating wildfires decimated an entire seaside community outside Athens. As the death toll has now risen to 91 with another 25 people still unaccounted for, the horrific images of terror, anguish and destruction will remain imprinted on the national collective memory long after the demolition of all charred remains.
Obviously, a wildfire as ferociously deadly as this one is beyond human blame, and the political miscalculations that have come to light - the negligent planning, the delayed rescue, and aid efforts should not all be laid at the feet of the Greek government.
That said, there could be no clearer instance of a situation where serious, effective leadership was desperately required. Defining moments demand from national leaders courage, character, imagination and most critically compassion. I believe the Greek prime minister (the youngest in the country’s history) failed to show any of these qualities.
Oblivious and possibly ill-informed about the speed and ferocity of the destruction taking placing, Tsipras at first reacted as if he was not quite ready to acknowledge reality, let alone attempt to master it.
It took him more than 48 hours to deliver few sentences that people could understand before vanishing again. Only when the magnitude of the calamity became for the people on the ground unbearable, he resorted on the 5th day of the disaster to accept “full political responsibility” without apologising or satisfying calls for the resignation of his civil protection minister and other key officials.
I thought it was an empty, pointless gesture designed primarily for political damage-limitation purposes and which naturally added insult to injury for the people affected and the relatives of the victims. “How does he plan to redeem this political responsibility? What does political responsibility mean?” told angrily a TV reporter, a distraught 79-year-old man standing in front of his burnt home.
It is incredible that a politician like Alexis Tsipras could fail to appreciate how insensitive and contemptible this behaviour would appear. But then again, the same type of insensitive contemptible behaviour was displayed by George W Bush during the Hurricane Katrina and Theresa May during the Grenfell Tower fires when both leaders not only failed to demonstrate compassion and empathy but even declined to visit the devastated areas right away. For the record, Tsipras’s unacceptably belated visit to the ravaged areas came a week after the event.
Political leadership is about courage, character and example. If such leadership is to mean anything at all, it must stand for principles that are believed in themselves. It is hard to look at the Greek premier’s slow, detached, uncaring and unapologetic reaction to a grave national crisis and not conclude that sadly for him as a leader and tragically for the country as whole, he failed on every front.
As the county is trying to recover from the trauma of what happened, the question now is: will he be able to re-establish himself and his government in the eyes of the country? Very unlikely, in my opinion. His inability over the last week to do more than the bare minimum in a time of unparalleled disaster has cost him the respect of the Greek media and through them the faith of the Greek public.
Professor George Kassimeris is chair in security studies at the University of Wolverhampton