Al-Ahram Weekly Online   23 - 29 February 2011
Issue No. 1086
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Working for a would-be president

Amira Howeidy meets the campaigners on whom the success or otherwise of presidential candidates depends

Click to view caption
Clockwise from top left: Moussa's new Heliopolis headquarters; El-Awwa's campaign headquarters in Nasr City; Shafik and Abu Ismail's online campaign posters; "Abul-Fotouh for president 2012" flyer
See also: The melting pot

When Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa resigned his post early last year to run for Egypt's presidency he asked his chef de cabinet, Hisham Youssef, to get ready to run his campaign.

"But I don't know anything about this business," Youssef confessed.

"You think anyone else does?" replied Moussa.

Ten months later and Youssef, along with his counterparts in other presidential campaigns, finds the historic event looming ever closer. Nominations for the presidency open on 10 March. While no firm date has been set for the elections, they are expected to be held at the end of May, according to official statements last week. Accordingly, campaigning is likely to start in April. But before Egypt's billboards are filled with publicity for the contenders, campaigners lobbying for their candidates will have spent long hours strategising, planning and improvising. Many began preparing for the epoch making elections last summer.

Forget Hosni Mubarak's staged 2005 election campaign: this will be the first time the Egyptian public has had a chance to choose its president. And it is happening in the wake of a people's revolution that a year after ousting Mubarak is till struggling to change the system. Such a backdrop poses obvious questions. What kind of leader do Egyptians want at such a juncture? A revolutionary? A former statesman? A military figure? An Islamist? It would be foolhardy to predict what factors will weigh heaviest on voters as they select the next president. That, in the end, is the job of the armies of volunteers and paid professionals who staff the presidential campaigns. But who are they?

THE PLAYERS: The people selected to run the campaigns of presidential hopefuls can tell us a lot about the candidates who chose them. It is no surprise that the most talked about teams resemble their candidates.

Moussa's campaign is still run by Youssef, 52, who describes himself as a "centrist". Speaking in his elegant office at the Moussa campaign's headquarters in a spacious villa in Dokki, he says he supports a free market economy, but not without "constraints" because in Egypt one can't be anything but "prejudiced" towards the poor who make up half the population. The campaign includes diplomats, marketing experts, businessmen and, according to Youssef, "intellectuals", though he refuses to reveal their names. Some are volunteers, others on the payroll. Beyond this Youssef does not elaborate.

Mohamed El-Shahawi, 40, heads the campaign of ex-Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leader Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh. He is the country manager of an international company specialising in technology and, like his candidate, an ex-Brotherhood member. While ex-Brothers constitute the backbone of Abul-Fotouh's campaign, his political adviser is Rabab El-Mahdi, a Marxist who teaches political science at the American University in Cairo (AUC). His economic adviser, Samer Atallah, a left leaning Copt, is also an assistant professor at AUC, while the campaign's media adviser is Ali El-Bahnasawi, a liberal journalist.

Islamist-leaning intellectual and lawyer Mohamed Selim El-Awwa's campaign is headed by millionaire Mohamed Mo'men, the 46 year-old CEO of Mo'men Group, a food company with regional presence. Mo'men, who resigned from his post to volunteer for El-Awwa, refused to disclose the names of the campaign advisers he describes as strategists, political scientists, and economic and education experts who have rallied as volunteers behind El-Awwa because they consider him a leading light of centrist political Islam.

Mo'men knew El-Awwa before the revolution but only cast aside his political apathy on 28 January last year, joining the nationwide demonstrations that eventually toppled Mubarak. Mo'men says he began to think about a "political role" after he survived the deadly 2 February attacks on Tahrir Square by armed plain-clothed policemen. He remembers telling his wife, who also joined the protests, that the revolution must succeed. If that doesn't happen "there's no place for us in this country".

"We were given an opportunity to reclaim Egypt and I will continue till the very end, no matter what."

Former air force commander Ahmed Shafik, who officially announced his candidacy last week in a presser held at a five-star hotel, has appointed production company owner Mahmoud Baraka to run his campaign. Attempts by Al-Ahram Weekly to contact Baraka were unsuccessful.

Salafi presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu Ismail doesn't have a centralised campaign, preferring instead to allow disparate volunteer groups to lobby for him. His campaign "supervisor" is Hani Hafez, a 39-year-old automation engineer who left the Muslim Brotherhood three years ago.

STRUCTURE: How these campaigns function differs in the details though with the exception of Abu Ismail all have a central "core" team. These hierarchal structures place senior aides -- ie those who interact most closely with their candidates -- at the helm of the campaign. Most have established committees with designated mandates -- compiling manifestos, marketing, media, field work, administration and so forth. All the campaigns solicit external volunteer and, Abu Ismail excepted, paid expert services. In most cases it is the core group that produces the campaign's content on which the rest work.

"It's all about good management," says Said Zaatar, governorate fieldwork coordinator for Moussa's campaign. "If you know how to manage you don't have a problem."

A former police officer turned businessman, Zaatar, 49, was inspired by the revolution to become politically active. Already a board member of a car company, he is offering his services to the campaign as a volunteer while still running his business interests.

Work began early last May though the campaign's "structure" solidified in July. Visits to the country's governorates followed, starting off with Upper Egypt. Part of Zaatar's task has been to enable campaign volunteers and Moussa's supporters nationwide, including in remote hamlets, to promote their candidate and refute negative perceptions. The heads of the campaign in various governorates have been given training in how to do this. Zaatar has also compiled precious data gleaned from fieldwork that has been fed into the campaign's database to help formulate Moussa's platform.

Abul-Fotouh's campaign began work on their candidate's platform last October, utilising participatory rapid appraisals from selected communities across the country, run by volunteers who asked people to set their own priorities. The technique guided Abul-Fotouh's programme, which is politically biased towards the revolution and the underprivileged, says his political adviser Rabab El-Mahdi.

Moussa's campaign, which boasts one of the largest teams, has 97 election offices nationwide though the core team consists of just 36 people, according to Mohamed Madkour, a senior adviser. The campaign is getting attention, mainly from pundits, partly because independent opinion polls conducted both in October and last week placed Moussa in the lead. The campaign's own surveys, run by professional PR company Rada Research and Public Relations, also show Moussa leading the pack of 17 candidates.

TAKING POLLS SERIOUSLY? Although Madkour feels the survey results are evidence that Moussa's campaign is "doing well", others point out that an earlier survey by Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies (ACPSS) showed Moussa with a commanding 44 per cent of the vote in August, before the campaign had any impact. It begs the question of just how effective expensive election campaigns are in influencing public opinion.

It might be true that Moussa's popularity was high in the summer, says Youssef, "but maintaining that lead is a result of the campaign".

It's a far cry from the "decentralised" campaign of Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, popular in online polls which see him level pegging with Abul-Fotouh, while Moussa garners limited support. Although online polling is not taken seriously, surveys conducted by PR companies point to serious competition between Moussa and Abu Ismail, who is trailing only slightly. It is a scenario many observers find plausible in light of the results of the parliamentary elections in which Islamists won 65 per cent of the seats. ACPSS Director Diaa Rashwan expects "Abu Ismail to enter run offs against Moussa in second position".

Abu Ismail's campaign supervisor, Hani Hafez, explains that his candidate has deliberately adopted a strategy of encouraging supporters nationwide to lobby for him independently, wherever and however they choose. This has helped in spreading the word, he says, though he points out that like other candidates Abu Ismail's most potent tool has been the media: online and frequent TV appearances. Because of limited financial resources -- Hafez says only volunteers staff the campaign and there is no payroll -- Abu Ismail's novel approach to campaigning is the only realistic option. "Our support base is among the oppressed, the underdogs. They can't afford to make large donations," says Hafez.

FUNDING: Which leads to the neglected issue of campaign expenditure and the absence of transparency. Under the presidential election law issued by the ruling military council on 19 January, days before the newly elected parliament convened for its first session, nominees are allowed to fundraise and manage their campaign finances through a specified bank, under the supervision of a presidential election committee that has yet to be formed. Given that most campaigns started working months ago, no funding has undergone an official audit. It is a situation that has led to endless speculation. Rumours are rife about the affluent Lebanese politician who donated billions to one contender, the wealthy Muslim cleric who funded another and the "remnants" of Mubarak's regime, the tycoons who want to maintain their business interests, generously backing a third presidential hopeful.

Ask campaign managers where the money is coming from and their answers vary in vagueness. Youssef says the financing is coming from Moussa, his family and friends who have offered help in kind. But how much has been spent on the campaign?

"I really don't have an accurate figure," says Youssef. "Banners and organising events in different governorates are donated by supporters. We will have to start accounting for expenditures in accordance with the law once the official campaign starts."

In addition to the villa in Dokki, Moussa's campaign now has a second Cairo headquarters in Heliopolis.

El-Shahawi, who runs Abul-Fotouh's campaign, provided a few more details. Thirty people in the campaign are on the payroll, the rest are volunteers, he says. But he doesn't cite actual sums. Eighty per cent of the funding is in kind, including the campaign's headquarters, an apartment in Garden City. The remaining 20 per cent is provided by Abul-Fotouh's relatives -- his brother owns a print house which prints campaign material for free -- and friends. El-Awwa's campaign, says Mo'men, is financed from his own pocket, supplemented by donations from businessmen and friends. The campaign's headquarters in Nasr City is rented till July.

Few expect the presidential elections to be perfect. But given the volatility of the past year, replete with unexpected turning points that seem to take their toll on everyone involved, it's likely that most Egyptians will put up with a violation or two for the sake of electing Egypt's first civilian president.

Presidential candidates polled

There is an absence of reliable opinion polls on presidential candidates. Thus far only two qualify as scientific and can serve as relative indicators of a public mood which could easily change once the registration of candidates begins on 10 March. Registration will be followed by an "official" campaigning period the duration of which has yet to be announced.

On 16 February 2011 Gallup conducted a poll on presidential candidates. Later, in October 2011, Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies cooperated with the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute to conduct a poll which included a section on candidates.


February 2012

Question: If the presidential elections were being held today who would you vote for? (Open-ended)

Amr Moussa -- 17 per cent

Omar Suleiman -- 3 per cent

Mohamed Selim El-Awwa -- 3 per cent

Mohamed Hussein Tantawi -- 2 per cent

Ahmed Zewail -- 2 per cent

Don't know -- 55 per cent

Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies

October 2011

Electoral support for presidential candidates

Amr Moussa -- 38.91 per cent

Army officer -- 13.9 per cent

Ahmed Shafik -- 8.5 per cent

Omar Suleiman -- 6.6 per cent

Hazem Salah Abu Ismail -- 5.7 per cent

Mohamed Selim El-Awwa -- 5.7 per cent

Hamdeen Sabahi -- 4 per cent

Ayman Nour -- 3.2 per cent

Mohamed El-Baradei -- 2.9 per cent

Hisham El-Bastawisi -- 2.1 per cent

Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh -- 1.5 per cent

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