Al-Ahram Weekly Online   25 - 31 August 2005
Issue No. 757
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Democracy 101

Some see the presidential campaign as a superficial exercise in make-believe. Perhaps, writes Tarek Atia, but it also has the potential to be a dress rehearsal for the real thing

Click to view caption
ELEMENTS OF A CAMPAIGN: The three leading candidates craft the images they want voters to see. Mubarak has tea with a farmer and his family; Nour salutes his supporters downtown; Gomaa's attempt to mimic Wafd hero Zaghloul

It certainly looks like a real election. The streets are filled with billboards shouting out slogans about how they plan to lead Egypt into the future. On TV and in the press, a steady flow of ads and news coverage promote the popular and policy merits of the candidates. And just like in a real election, only two or three of the 10 men trying to become the next president look to really be in the race, judging from the amount of money and time being spent on their campaigns and their level of presence in the public eye.

Of those three, the incumbent, President Hosni Mubarak, is getting the lion's share of attention. A drive across Cairo's lazy summer streets reveals many more of the green-tinted Mubarak 2005 billboards per square kilometre than those promoting the merits of Noaman Gomaa and Ayman Nour, the two opposition party chairmen who appear to be the president's closest competitors.

Gomaa's attempt to portray himself as a populist reincarnation of his Wafd Party's historic icon, Saad Zaghloul, illuminates the Cairo sky in some places. With his finger pointing forward, the Gomaa on the billboards insists, "Be with me people and let us genuinely change Egypt". And again, just like in true campaign style, his two-page, full-colour ad, which has appeared in the major dailies dozens of times, has courted controversy for supposedly being too negative. Underneath the slogan, "We've suffocated", the ad features a group of angry people describing the nation's chronic ills -- poor education, an unattractive job market, deteriorating health policies. Described by columnist Magdi Mehanna as "a highly skilled and extraordinarily intelligent" ad, state-run media bosses were initially reluctant to run it in their publications, fearing it was too harsh in its criticism of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) regime and its candidate Mubarak. Only after the government stepped in with a green light did the ads run.

Gomaa's Wafd Party, meanwhile, has been running plenty of stories in its own daily paper alleging that its posters and banners in various parts of the country are being torn down by the NDP.

Other signs of a vibrant campaign include reports that both Nour and Gomaa have contracted private planes to take them across the country campaigning, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds each. Nour himself has pioneered a "knock on the door" style of campaign as well as other gimmicks like putting out a daily paper that he sells for 24 piastres, to symbolise Mubarak's 24 years in power. He has even claimed that two of Mubarak's current ministers support him and that he will include the two in a shadow government to be unveiled before the 7 September elections. In the feisty sort of rhetoric that usually accompanies democratic elections, Nour says that if the president really does manage to create the 400,000 jobs he has promised, even he will vote for him.

But it is Mubarak's campaign that has attracted the most attention. Even though he is practically guaranteed of winning, the incumbent is running his campaign in a manner that would have people believe that Nour and Gomaa, if not the other seven candidates, are serious competition. Mubarak is out there on a daily basis, while not kissing babies, at least meeting constituencies in different parts of the country, shaking hands and cracking jokes while trying to focus on an ambitious list of campaign promises.

Mubarak's campaign team have come up with a slick logo, a new more casual look for the president, and most importantly -- in the eyes of some -- a presidential website called "The website is meant to show us," says procurement supervisor Wael Hassan, "that the president is very much with the times. He knows what people are saying about how long he's been in power, and he wants to show that, despite that, he's still able to drive this country's modernisation process forward." Mubarak's slogan is "Mubarak 2005: Leadership and crossing to the future".

In an interesting dichotomy that somehow reflects this bid to attract, rather than force, the public's vote, Mubarak has chosen not to wear a tie in most of his campaign appearances while his two closest competitors, Gomaa and Nour, seem to always be wearing them -- almost as if they are trying to look more serious while Mubarak is trying to appear more relaxed. There are plenty of other pop culture connections in the president's campaign. The media mogul who manages the hip Nile FM radio stations, Emadeddin Adib, is said to be the campaign's mastermind. The 15-minute Mubarak promotional film being shown on TV is the work of Marwan Hamid, the under-30 director of the much anticipated film version of the highly popular (and controversial) novel The Yaqoubian Building.

Mubarak's slick campaign is playing all the right notes, showing how the president has built thousands of schools and factories during his time in office, and plans to build more over the next six years. There is no mention, of course, of all the gripes about how poor the nation's education, health and economy sectors might really be.

And that is where this year's campaign veers sharply away from well-known concepts of impartial electioneering. Despite the endless repetition of the mantra that the state-run media will be fair in its coverage, even the most cursory glance at the major dailies reveals their strong pro- Mubarak leanings. So despite that fact that Al-Ahram, the highest circulation daily, is profiling all the candidates, and their respective wives, "the message," says procurement supervisor Hassan, "has consistently been: look at all these other guys, they are definitely not fit to be president."

In another major divergence from what would be considered standard election procedures, there will be no public debate. Much to the chagrin of Nour, the NDP has ruled that idea out, citing logistic difficulties. Some in Egypt's increasingly active, but mostly anonymous, blogging community think it has more to do with the government's fears of what a debate would reveal. A young blogger named Sandmonkey writes, "it would really have tickled my fancy to see Mubarak up there defending his record [in a televised public debate]... to bring down the view of the president from demi-god to public servant. He would be just a man, standing next to men who do not agree with him, and who think they can do a better job than he is doing... It's hard to explain this to a reader who lives in a democracy, and who is used to such a debate," he writes, "but over here, the psychological impact of such an image would be huge. Egyptians would never look at the president of Egypt that same way again."

Other bloggers think the mere fact that a multi-candidate election is taking place has already resulted in "chinks in the imperial presidency... Direct presidential elections are not a magnanimous nor 'astute' gesture by Mubarak," thinks the popular blogger named Baheya, "but a huge, reluctant concession, one whose long- term consequences neither he nor his successors can anticipate or control. Most unwillingly, Mubarak is actually abetting the rapid deterioration of the mystique surrounding the Egyptian president. And that's a very good thing."

In a clear example of this, when blogger Big Pharaoh saw Noaman Gomaa's ad, his "eyes literally popped out, since he was just not used to seeing any political ads except those praising the achievements of Mubarak."

Even though blogging may still be the prerogative of a select few Egyptians, the country as a whole -- thanks to the increasing prevalence of the Internet, satellite TV, and other forms of non-state- controlled contact with the outside world -- have a clearer idea than ever about the basic functioning of the world outside their borders. And when it comes to elections, says marketing manager Kamelia Hamed, that means "they have been exposed to the concepts of real candidates, opinion polls and opposition parties. They've seen how these things work outside Egypt on TV and the Internet."

In many ways, the current election is about "official" or "political" Egypt catching up to the rapidly changing mentalities of most Egyptians, no matter what their social strata. Just watch how one doctor on a state-run Channel One daytime TV talk show hesitantly delivers her message about how fathers should be more involved in the bringing up of their young babies. "Maybe," she says, "the father can, just once or twice, feed the baby, or change him, so that there's more balance when they grow up." The scene is unique not just because the doctor's message would seem to fly in the face of a paternalistic society's concept of child rearing, but because it is accompanied by a small, but highly noticeable, waving Egyptian flag logo and the words Elections 2005 on the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

Both the message about fathers taking on a bigger role in bringing up babies, and the election logo, are part of the same trend: the powers that be seem to have finally realised that they can't ignore where the public has already gone.

So while columnist Mehanna wonders whether "voters will be able to distinguish the truth in the midst of the thousands of warped messages that they are receiving," potential voters like Hassan are taking aim at the details of the candidate's promises. "I heard one of them say he was going to turn the entire desert into fertile land. What kind of silly thing to say is that?" Hassan asks. "They're not talking about real solutions."

Even though others, as Mehanna suggests, may not be able to distinguish messages, at least they're being exposed to them in the first place. And that's a far cry from the dynamic -- the virtually non-existence of attempts to involve people in politics over the past few decades -- that has resulted in 93 per cent of young people not belonging to a political party, and 90 per cent being completely uninterested in politics, as recent studies have shown.

The logo that has now become a permanent fixture on channels One and Two, as well as Nile News and Nile TV, may change things. Intentional or not, the flag immediately attracts young children. "What is that?" they ask their parents. The typical response would probably be much like what Kamelia Hamed told her son when he asked, that the flag is part of the election campaign, which is a process by which the public chooses their leader from among several candidates.

In that simple exchange, a revolution of sorts has already occurred. These children will grow up with a radically different concept of presidential politics than their elders had. It's these kinds of debates that -- although by default limited by the superficial nature of the campaign this time -- may mean 2005 is just a dress rehearsal for a more real election next time, in 2011. So while everyone seems to think this stage-managed show is being done for the benefit of the outside world, could it also be to the local audience's benefit as well?

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