Thursday,18 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)
Thursday,18 April, 2019
Issue 1368, (9 - 15 November 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Lessons to be learned

Last week’s World Youth Forum in Sharm El-Sheikh deserved better international and domestic media coverage, writes Amina Khairy

Egyptians are slowly learning their lessons, though at a great and difficult price. Throughout the decades and maybe even centuries, their exposure to the world has been an easy, free and ready-made one. The country’s rich history, magnificent monuments, central geographical location, mild weather, authentic culture and natural resources have been taken for granted throughout the centuries. However, as the saying goes, “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”

Gone are the days when we regarded tourism as a natural business that would thrive without going that extra mile of marketing, renovation, awareness-raising, and so on. We thought people would continue visiting the country no matter what. But you know what? We have discovered that this is not always the case.

The case of the World Youth Forum (WYF) is one worth studying. The forum, held in Sharm El-Sheikh from 4 to 10 November, was one of the best exposure opportunities offered to Egypt by Egyptians over the past seven years. But have “we” and “they” made the best out of it? In other words, have we internally made the best out of its coverage in the media? And how did the foreign media handle the forum?

Judging by the Egyptian coverage, one could sense a clinging to “event vs security”, “high-ranking officials vs average citizens”, and “romanticism vs realism” reporting. 

Such headlines negatively affected the event. “Minister of Interior Inspects Police Patrols in Sharm El-Sheikh,” “Police Forces Spread in Streets of Sharm El-Sheikh Securing the Forum,” “2,000 Police Personnel Secure the World Youth Forum,” “Interior Minister Aide Supervises Security Forces in Sharm El-Sheikh” and hundreds of similar security oriented headlines bombarded Egyptian audiences. Securing the international event was clearly a priority. But some priorities should not constantly make it into the headlines.

There was pressure to highlight the VIPs attending the event. However, the “high-ranking officials vs average citizens” type of news does not interest readers, viewers or listeners that much. Repeating the names of presidents, ministers, officials and others can be done at the expense of the actual event. 

This youth-oriented event deserved youth-oriented coverage. Bragging about “the message of peace from the land of al-kenana” (or “quiver of arrows”, a traditional description of Egypt), or headlines such as “Doors of Peace Open Up to the World From Egypt,” or “A Message of Love From the Heart,” and similar romantic handlings of events, are simply no longer heard by the majority of people.

The latter should have been involved in the main message of the event — that “We Need to Talk”. A lot has been said about this, with some saying that it is frightening, or gives the impression that something has gone very wrong. However, this is beside the point.

The point is that Egypt and Egyptians do feel the need to engage in serious and constructive talk. We need to talk about the fact that Egypt is in bad need of properly marketing herself. Such marketing is not unheard of — courses are even given in universities on how to brand nations. 

One of these is taught by professor Daniel Lansberg-Rodriguez in Illinois in the US. His course addresses “the importance of managing country reputations and international images… and the need for governments to take pains to message diverse sets of key stakeholder groups — often with contradictory interests — including potential investors and tourists (domestic and foreign), bond markets, international watchdog NGOs, domestic elites, national populations and the global press.” Does any of this ring a bell?

My guess is that several bells are ringing here. However, the global press is a loud one. Here is what the BBC English news website had to say about the WYF. 

Under the headline “When Egypt’s World Youth Forum #WeNeedToTalk Backfires”, it wrote that “many Egyptians on social media have adopted the slogan of an upcoming state-sponsored youth conference to air grievances about the way the country is run… Activists on Twitter and Facebook have used #WeNeedToTalk to contrast Egypt’s aim of freedom of expression for youth with what they believe to be an ongoing crackdown on Egyptians’ rights and freedoms… Many of those criticising the government circulated pictures of security forces chasing or assaulting protesters. Others posted pictures of activists or detainees believed to have been detained by the police.”

Guess which pictures the BBC chose to run with this article? Pictures of the minister of interior’s supervision of police patrols in Sharm El-Sheikh? No. Receiving presidents and high-ranking officials from around the world? No. Angels of peace, love and prosperity receiving the delegates? No. 

Instead, the BBC ran pictures of a young man being chased by police officers in the street, a screen shot of a hashtag and tweet by FreeEgyptPress entitled “PressBehindBars” saying “WeNeedToTalk about Khaled Sahloub part of the AJTrial [the trial of the Al-Jazeera network journalists in Egypt] but not pardoned and in very bad health for 24 years,” screenshots of tweets by activists sharing allegations about “cracking down on the LGBT community in Egypt,” “Muslim Brothers imprisoned,” “torture and rape in [President] Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s prisons,” and of course the “repressive dictatorship” in Egypt. 

The BBC ended its story about the WYF, which emphasised that it was a social media event pointing to alleged repression and barbarity in Egypt, by saying that “one Twitter user posted the hashtag #WeNeedToTalk to say that President Al-Sisi had restored Egypt to its regional and international status.”

Among the lessons learned here is that nobody will care for you more than you care for yourself. Do we expect the global media to support Egypt and help restore what we once had? Why should they? Is Egypt’s domestic media helping to restore Egypt and its reputation? Or is it simply adding insult to injury?

The WYF was one of the best exposures of Egypt over the past seven years. These were marked by political upheavals, economic hardships, and social adversities, and the realisation that there is no such thing as a free cup of coffee in world politics. These things mean that there is every reason to re-evaluate our concepts and rebuild our lives. 

The forum, with its thousands of youthful participants from all over the world, deserved more domestic media planning and better outreach. The ambitious agenda of the forum, with issues ranging from terrorism to illegal migration to sustainable development, was worthy of more non-partisan global media coverage. 

Still, Egypt got some exposure, and life is a learning experience. But the faster we learn, the fewer opportunities we will miss and the better exposure we will get. This is why we need to talk after the forum.

The writer is a journalist at Al-Hayat newspaper.

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