Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 May - 1 June 2005
Issue No. 744
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Too much hype

It doesn't matter if the hype surrounding the referendum was a coordinated NDP effort. More important, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif, is how effective it was in persuading the electorate to vote


"This time your vote will make a big difference" -- the phrase that became the mantra of the NDP's campaign to inspire an apathetic public to take part in Wednesday's referendum -- did not emerge by chance. NDP campaign strategists made a conscious decision to focus on the notion of participation and the voting process, a ruling party source said.

The dilemma for the NDP was selling the referendum in the midst of opposition calls to boycott it and a much more formidable, age-old conviction amongst the public that no matter what voters want, the government controls the outcome anyway.

"The heart of our campaign," said Mohamed Kamal of the party's Policies Committee, "is getting as many people as possible to participate and vote." And while the party wants the public to endorse the amendment, turnout may be a more accurate analysis of success than a yes vote.

That was why Egyptian television viewers have found themselves exposed to an avalanche of talk shows, commercials and official statements urging them to "seize the historic moment" and "vote for the future". The Information and Communication Ministry campaign, a high-ranking party official said, was "not part of a party plan", but more a result of a self-driven ministry effort to "use television to spread the word about the referendum and educate people about the process." The army of commentators, analysts, and spin-doctors who filled the nation's screens were supposedly trying to do just that.

Coordinated plan or not, the overall effect was a far cry from the government's traditional attitude towards referendums, which have usually resulted in very low voter turnout. Was the hype akin to a practice run for parliamentary and presidential elections this fall?

Whatever it was, it did not make independent and opposition circles happy. They charged that even though the media did not ignore the opposition's call to boycott the referendum, little or no airtime was provided for proper explanations of the referendum's implications, or why the opposition thought it needed to be boycotted. Even those lightweight opposition figures who were allowed to present their views were usually grilled and ridiculed by the shows' hosts.

"The campaign for the referendum should have been based on information, and not on ideological battles between the NDP and its rivals," said Cairo University constitutional law professor Fathi Fikri. With both sides engaging in a fierce war of words, the public was "lost in the middle", Fikri said.

The NDP's Kamal argued that the debate was "balanced to a great extent". Denying that there was an unnecessarily negative focus on the opposition boycott, he said "important issues have been addressed, and in some cases we heard harsh criticism directed against the NDP and the government on national TV for the first time ever."

Kamal said the campaign's importance was in letting people "know we are serious about change". He rejected the notion that there was too much spin going on. "We are not spinners," he said. "We simply have a good story to tell. Sometimes we might not have a good storyteller, but it is to the party's credit that a vibrant debate is taking place in the country right now, and that this is only the beginning."

Much more important, Kamal said, was the way the referendum vote would determine future policy options. A yes vote would put the country on the path towards multi-candidate presidential elections. "Egypt is seeing a totally new environment," he said, expressing enthusiastic optimism that there would soon be "real debates on policy issues, and a real campaign season with different candidates."

The critics were far more pessimistic, seeing the hype of the past few weeks as a prelude to the NDP unfairly using all the tools at its disposal in the lead up to the elections themselves. For the referendum, the NDP has already made use of state organs like mosques, public sector companies, and universities. Rallies have been organised nationwide to urge people to vote, even though opposition parties were not allowed the same privilege to try to convince the public to boycott.

Imams of state-controlled mosques have issued edicts about participation being "a religious duty". Even the mufti of the republic joined the bandwagon, urging worshippers before last Friday's prayer to cast their vote. Again, whether these were individual efforts or part of a multi-faceted party plan was unclear.

In any case, media experts warned that this type of overexposure might end up killing the message itself. "Some of the shows and commercials that urge voters to participate are good, but others were insulting to people's intelligence," said American University in Cairo media professor Hussein Amin, a member of the NDP. Amin, who was not consulted on the NDP campaign, said that if people find themselves over-saturated with too many messages, they would not end up responding positively to participation calls.

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