(Editor’s Note: This article is one of two personal essays in this issue of TBS, one written by Vivian Salama, a reporter covering the Mubarak campaign, and another written by Usama Najeeb, a staffer working on the media team for that same campaign. Najeeb, a former Adham Center graduate student intern, also serves as assistant editor of TBS.)
When I was first asked to join the media team in President Hosni Mubarak’s presidential campaign, I wondered what the officials at the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) expected me to offer them as someone who did not belong to their political party. I was even more surprised to discover that there were plenty of other people recruited to the media team who, like me, were not NDP members.
When the NDP contacted me, I already had met Ayman Nour, one of the other presidential candidates and leader of the liberal Al Ghad party. In a personal interview that was part of a graduate project, I asked about the steps he was taking to introduce himself to the Egyptian people. We also discussed his prospects in the race and his political goals. He had started his “knocking on doors” campaign, a strategy I admired and which he had launched before the presidential campaign officially started in August 2005. It involved Nour taking trips and going door-to-door to introduce himself to people outside Cairo. I was impressed with his sense of mission and considered joining his party, but had lingering questions about the feasibility of his program and his ability to get elected.
At that point, I also had had a chance to hear from Gamal Mubarak, son of the current president and one of the leading reformers at the NDP, who spoke twice at the American University in Cairo, where I was a graduate student in television journalism. I attended the second of these events, a lively talk with AUC students about the current political, economic and social change the country is witnessing and the NDP’s steps towards a more integrated reform process. I can’t go into detail about what he said because the meeting was closed, but Gamal came across as both intelligent and methodical in his reasoning. His approach to reform seemed based on serious thought. I was pleasantly surprised.
Still, I was startled to get a phone call from the Mubarak 2005 campaign in the summer of 2005. When I first heard from her in July, Lamees El Hadidi already had been asked by NDP officials to take a leave of absence from her job as Cairo bureau chief of CNBC Arabia to work as foreign media coordinator for the campaign. Upon accepting, she set about composing her media team and called Professor Schleifer, TBS publisher and then-director of Adham Center for Television Journalism at the American University in Cairo, asking her old professor to recommend two recent graduate students. She called me and another colleague to join her media team at his recommendation. I do not know if she expected the graduate students to be political activists or not. She was surprised to find that I had attended demonstrations organized by the Egyptian Movement for Change, Kifaya (Enough). Clearly, I had certain objections to the regime. I believed that it could not continue to be oppressive and authoritarian at a time when Egypt’s citizens are becoming more aware, thanks to the increased flow of information in the independent and satellite media. Nothing can be hidden from Egyptians any longer because the state no longer holds a monopoly over the press and broadcasting. I had felt drawn to Egypt’s opposition because I knew that high levels of unemployment, inflation and a continuous decrease in the standard of living have caused deep frustration inside the hearts of the Egyptian people themselves. This frustration had started to boil over, leading to the emergence of activist reform groups and political movements (like Kifaya) demanding change. In short, I believed, and still do, that the Egyptian political and economic systems badly need comprehensive reforms after decades of arbitrary rule and the absence of democracy.
“The regime has committed mistakes. There are a lot of things that still need to be changed in Egypt,” I told Lamees in our first interview. “Do you think we have to admit that there have been mistakes by this regime?” she asked. “Sure,” I said, “this is not a regime without mistakes. The whole world knows that. There’s nothing to hide concerning this point. We do not have to wait until the regime is gone to start discussing what has been wrong with it. Putting things right now is essential and one way to win the people’s love.” She seemed surprised and picked up a piece of paper and wrote down what I was saying, but it didn’t seem to bother her. I appeared to have made the cut. “The average TV journalist here makes about $600 a month and that makes our project, which is supposed to take 45 days, worth a $1,000 or its equivalent in Egyptian pounds,” she told me. I decided I would accept in order to get a unique chance to experience my country’s first contested presidential campaign from the inside. I knew it would be an historical event that not everyone could participate in. Moreover, I felt that Mubarak’s campaign was the only one which provided details on how the candidate’s promises were to be achieved. If there was any party that had the power to really affect reform, it was the NDP, I reasoned. The other parties’ platforms were too disorganized and vague, based mostly on criticizing the president without offering viable alternatives.
I started working at NDP campaign headquarters in Heliopolis full time from 23 July. At first I focused on getting a sense of the responsibilities I would be undertaking. My first few days also gave Lamees and the media team time to judge my capabilities before the campaign started. My official title was Copy Editor. I was supposed to liaise with journalists, write press releases and analyze the important information written or broadcast in the foreign media about Egypt. Right away, I had a chance to air some of my own concerns. As a first assignment, I was asked to tell Lamees what the media said about demands for reform in Egypt. I wrote her a page about what I thought were the most important demands. My most important demand was for the regime to admit its own faults. I suggested that it should compensate for being so wrong for such a long time.
Setting the Scene
Mubarak’s surprise announcement in February that he would allow the country’s first-ever multi-party presidential elections had come amid strong outside pressure from the United States, which was pushing for its close ally Egypt to take a leading role in democratizing the Middle East. America also was pushing for a more responsible and free Egyptian media to help empower and strengthen civil society.
For months before the elections, reform was discussed in independent newspapers and media outlets as well as private TV and radio stations. At the end of May, violence broke out between state security and protestors boycotting a controversial referendum to amend the constitution that would change the system of choosing the president from a yes-or-no referendum to an open competition. Protestors were angry becuase they believed the referendum did not go enough, and placed unreasonable limits on who could run for president and under what conditions. I was there as a TV journalist and saw people getting beaten by police and government thugs. All this strife and debate contributed to the heated environment Egypt witnessed during the lead up to the presidential elections in September and made me personally wary of the regime’s promises that it would be able to reform from within. When the president announced he was running for another term in late July, Kifaya held another demonstration that was put down by state security, which broke up the rally in downtown Cairo using brutal violence. Unfortunately, this crackdown on free speech coincided with my first week on the job.
Off to a Rocky Start
It was the worst possible way for many of us working on the campaign to start the race, which officially began in mid-August. State security’s attacks on demonstrators appeared to justify the opposition’s complaints about the regime and raised legitimate suspicions about the president’s promises to reform as well as his party’s real commitment to “a change from within.” In fact, the assault on the demonstrators caused a sense of depression amongst all of us participating in the campaign. As members of the media team, we were very affected by the vicious way these demonstrators were dealt with. My first step when I arrived in the campaign headquarters the next morning was to see Lamees and offer my resignation, simply because I felt there was no way that I could be part of this. She said she felt the same. “It is more difficult for me because I attended demonstrations and am myself an opposition person,” I told her. “It cannot be understood.” She replied that she too was extremely upset, but that she had received promises that this would not happen again because it is the simplest right to protest and demonstrate anything as long as it is in a peaceful way and does not harm others. She convinced me to stay.
Inside the campaign headquarters, officials did take seriously reports on the intimidation of demonstrators and press releases written by human rights organizations, as well as opinion pieces in the local and international media. In this case, the media response to the violence against the Kifaya demonstrators were critical and strong. The independent, opposition and foreign media condemned the assaults on demonstrators and described the attacks as serving the campaign. Such violence was the regime’s usual tool to curb the opposition and proved that recent moves toward democratization were just for show, they argued.
Headquarters went into damage-control mode. Campaign department heads and senior NDP officials held a meeting about the demonstrations, but no one told us how to explain what had happened if we were asked by journalists. NDP officials were very concerned about the perception of events in the international and local media, but they talked about the campaign (and the party itself) as if it was a separate body from the regime. Violent attacks on protestors by security forces seemed to wait for an explanation by those in charge of security and not by the campaign. I personally felt there was no justification for what had happened. It was a crime by all measurers against a few people who simply wanted to express their opinion. Everywhere around the world, demonstrations are a peaceful way of expressing dissent. There was no question in my mind that orders for security to crush the protestors had come from inside the current regime, but we in the campaign were told that security had acted on its own. In other words, the police were to blame, not the NDP, and certainly not its candidate.
In the end, what was even more surprising to me was that few journalists called the campaign to ask about what was happening. No official statements or announcements were made. No one sought an explanation for why the security forces made the worst possible mistake at the worst possible time, only a day after Mubarak had officially announced his candidacy.
Strategizing Inside Headquarters
It was immediately apparent to me that Mubarak’s campaign was carefully planned and built on a scientific basis. Inside headquarters, there was a center for measuring public opinion, holding focus groups and conducting surveys. The campaign also had a center for writing the speeches under the supervision of higher NDP officials. Mubarak’s achievements over nearly a quarter century in power were obvious material for a campaign and we presented him as an experienced, strong leader—the only one with the ability to rule Egypt safely and securely. But the flip side of promoting Mubarak’s long experience was that other parties had 24 years worth of negative points to draw on for their attacks. They were able to point to severe examples of corruption and human rights violations. (Once again, the strategy here was both to separate the actions of state security from the party and the campaign and to downplay such violations by focusing on future promises and past strengths.)
My first day on the job, I met Ahmed Ezz, a prominent member of the NDP and a businessman who, along with Gamal Mubarak, was responsible for the campaign’s strategy. He started holding meetings in which he discussed the different aspects of the campaign with the staff, including goals and strategy. It seemed to me there had been lots of previous effort expended to formulate both the platform and the campaign itself. Clearly the NDP had an advantage over the opposition in finances, infrastructure, management skills and experience, facilities, technology and access to information. Other parties, on the other hand, were underfuned and badly organized. The NDP, however, vowed not to play dirty politics and attack the other parties. Perhaps they did not have to, since they were far and away the strongest contender. Everyone knew how it was going to turn out.
The campaign also studied anti-regime criticism closely. On the political level, there was the problem of corruption, political stagnation, one-party domination, the Emergency Laws, human rights violations, powers of the presidency, and lack of term-limits, etc. On the economic level, there were the questions of privatization, unemployment, national debt, and inflation. Meetings were held about how to address such problems and campaign staff prepared talking points to respond to the opposition’s attacks, point by point. At press conferences, which were held weekly at headquarters, campaign spokesmen’s answers to reporter’s questions had to be to the point and precise without any downright spinning or manipulation—a style that formerly was used by state media and the regime to manipulate information.
My colleagues and I on the media team had to monitor all that was said about Mubarak, the regime, and the elections in the different media outlets. The endorsements of religious leaders and prominent figures had to be evaluated and announced on the Web site, www.mubarak2005.com. Daily meetings were held to evaluate what was said in the papers and what different thinkers said about the coming elections. Among the local media, the overly positive coverage on the pages of state-owned newspapers like Al Ahram and Al Akhbar did not represent a big concern for the campaign. In fact, editorial staff from the major state-owned press and broadcasting corps were a constant presence at campaign headquarters, many of them in a consultant capacity. But the campaign was much more interested in the coverage from independent and prominent Arab newspapers such as Pan-Arab dailies Al Hayat and Asharq Al Awsat, the independent Egyptian daily Al Masry Al Youm and the Egyptian opposition party weeklies like Al Wafd, Al Ghad and Al Arabi. This preoccupation with independent or opposition newspaper coverage reflected the campaign’s obsession with its image and that of the regime. The election was supposed to show how free the country was becoming and media coverage was considered a major indicator of the success of Egypt’s “democratic experiment.” To this end, the campaign decided to grant one of only two Mubarak interviews to Al Masry Al Youm (the other paper was, predictably, Al Ahram). It was the first time Mubarak had given an interview to an independent Egyptian newspaper and it clearly was a symbolic decision. (For more on the role of television in the campaign see the articles by Charles Levinson and Paul Schemm in this issue).
How to allocate time for presidential election coverage on the state-owned broadcasting media was a more difficult question. We had to predict what other candidates and their spokesmen would say when given the chance to appear on television. Later we had to evaluate what they said and prepare timely responses. Although the competition was mainly between three candidates, Mubarak, Nour and Wafd party nominee Noaman Gomaa, the equal distribution of time on television meant that for every minute of airtime for the president, there were nine other minutes of material probably directed against the current president. We tried to compensate by airing sleek television ads and a professionally produced documentary. Daily coverage was allotted to each candidate on Egyptian terrestrial TV news, and each candidate had the right to air a short documentary which was not supposed to take more than 15 minutes of airtime. Ahmed Ezz asked Marwan Hamed, a young director, to develop the documentary and edit it. It was produced in specially equipped studios that were rented for that purpose.
Besides monitoring media coverage of the president, we carefully prepared for and arranged all the president’s rallies and meetings with “average” Egyptians, whether farmers or factory workers. Theoretically, anyone was allowed to attend a rally for the president so long as they passed the security standards, but people attending the speeches came mainly from NDP networks in the governorate or city where he was speaking. Journalists were bussed to rally sites all over the country. There was a list of “approved” songs and chants that were encouraged by campaign organizers.
Moreover the “spectacle” of rallies, technology played an important role in the campaign. All the candidates used the Internet and mobile messaging services as propaganda tools, urging them to vote and telling them more about their programs. Mubarak’s campaign was no exception. Indeed, it had the best Web site among all the candidates’ sites, containing headlines, press releases, pictures and texts of the president’s speeches. The Web site regularly was updated by IT specialists in the media team under the supervision of higher NDP officials. It was part of my own job to provide reporters with transcripts of these speeches, and English translations of the press releases, emailing it to them the same day or handing it out at the rallies. No other campaign could boast such an efficient system.
On the day of the election itself, the campaign set up a high-tech center to supervise the voting process. The center was in a tent outside the campaign headquarters, built on a piece of rented land just beside campaign headquarters. It was filled with TV screens that monitored the news and computers on a network connecting all the representatives of the party in all the polling stations around the country. At each polling spot, party representatives monitored voting levels and relayed that information on a timely basis back to headquarters, where it was analyzed to produce predictions of the results. This helped us guess how the voting was going and approximately what percentages were turning out to the polling sites. The results were impressively accurate. We predicted the President would win by 86.2 percent and the final tally was 88.6 percent.
Experimenting in Democracy: Final Conclusions
As a whole, we all were dedicated to making this campaign successful. Change had to happen, and so it was better if it happened through us. This was the general feeling I got from all my colleagues on the campaign, which was mostly built upon the views of young people. In general, a friendly and responsible atmosphere overwhelmed the headquarters. But there was a certain limit. There were many occasions when I was asked to leave a meeting or a room when a sensitive topic was being discussed. I even had my notes from a meeting confiscated once. I felt mistrusted and suspicious. What were they talking about that I couldn’t be present to hear? Obviously the campaign was a well-orchestrated spectacle, but it troubled me that there seemed so much to hide, even from ourselves.
One of the shortcomings of the parties and candidates opposing Mubarak was that they built their campaigns on the failures of the president. They always emphasized the fact that the current regime is no longer suitable and that it committed failures that cannot be forgiven. Instead it would have been better to base the presidential campaigns of opposition parties upon proactive plans and realistic goals. Details on how they would like to achieve certain goals could have made these parties’ platforms more convincing. Gamal Mubarak, who had a key campaign role behind the scenes, appeared to me as a promising intellectual who had leadership skills and goals to achieve. The NDP’s reform goals are quite to the point and critical, and they know more than any other party how to deal with the problems of Egypt. My thoughts about the NDP did not change during the campaign. However, the real test is yet to come when we see whether the NDP will transform these promises into action. There is no question that the NDP is the most powerful party in the country and that a new generation is rising within its leadership. I was convinced that Mubarak’s campaign promises could be realized, but I have lingering doubts about whether they will be. Certainly the campaign was very media-savvy—more so than the NDP had ever been before—but the question remains whether the change is only skin deep.
As a conclusion, I think the NDP’s campaign was a successful one for several reasons, and not just because the party’s candidate won hands down, as expected. The campaign itself marked the first time President Mubarak had to offer an articulated political program to the Egyptian people and stand before them in rallies and on television to justify why they should reelect him, even just in theory. Also the campaign forced the NDP to consider and respond to criticism of the regime, whether voiced by the opposition, in focus groups and polls, or in the media. This meant that campaign spokesmen and NDP members had to at least come up with solutions or statements that addressed its failures and shortcomings in public. Despite these positives, however, the promises Mubarak made in his speeches combined with the carefully crafted “democratic image” cultivated by the NDP to raise anticipation amongst the opposition and the population at large about how much freedom they have the right to expect, both in the streets and at the ballot box. If the NDP clings to its long held habits of cronyism, media manipulation, and intimidation of protestors even as it tries to reform itself, those expectations will not be met in future elections. It will be hard to lower them again without risking more widespread disillusionment, frustration, and anger.