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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Najeeb is a graduate of the Adham Center for Television
Journalism at the American University in Cairo. He works as
researcher for Austrian TV in Cairo and is an assistant editor