Embedded in the Mubarak Campaign:
A Reporter’s Experience on the Front Lines of the 2005 Egyptian Elections

By Vivian Salama

(Editor’s 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.)

In Egypt, the summer of 2005 found the nation’s political parties on the front lines of a battle for reform, as President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, under pressure both at home and abroad to democratize, staged its first ever multi-party presidential elections. Under the blistering late-summer heat, political veterans fired accusations and critiques back and forth, while the opposition struggled to agree on a unified strategy to face the incumbent, a 77-year-old ruler who was going for his fifth, six-year term in office. And of course, as on any major battlefront in this globalized world, there also were the journalists, strategically embedded exactly when and where the government wanted them.

That’s how I spent the summer of 2005—covering the ruling National Democratic Party’s (NDP) bid to get President Hosni Mubarak reelected. Actually, it could hardly be termed a reelection, considering that Mubarak had never before run for office in all his 24 years in power. Before Mubarak’s announcement in February 2005 that he would support amending the constitution to allow more than one candidate to run for president, Egyptians had simply voted yes-or-no in a nationwide referendum every six years. Having only been in Egypt about a year and a half at that point, it was tough not to get swept up in the excitement and the buzz about the possibilities of coming change. Was an Arab Spring dawning? Was I witnessing it unfold?

I knew there were two kinds of journalists in Egypt: government and nongovernmental. Reports by the government-controlled media outlets tended to perform a song-and-dance routine of praise for the man who has ruled Egypt virtually uncontested for nearly a quarter century. Privately-owned and party newspapers tended to do the exact opposite—in recent years, the independent and opposition press had grown bolder, criticizing Mubarak more directly and vocally than ever. As for the ruling party, they were pretty good at photo-ops, but only when dealing with Al Ahram newspaper or Egyptian National Television, whose reporters, I tend to speculate, have rooms in the presidential mansion.

But for foreign media to catch a glimpse of the man behind the curtain, they’d probably have to sacrifice their first born—and this, only if they possessed the exclusive presidential press pass, which is almost as hard to get than an invite to the Oscars. That’s just the way it was, the way it always had been. No one complained and there was little to be done about it. I walked into this story feeling extremely disconnected, knowing the facts on paper, but nothing more. Sure, I have my thoughts on the matter. If you ask me, I’d say 24 years is a long time for anyone anywhere to lead a nation. At the same time, for as many people as I had spoken to prior to the campaign, there were as many who criticized the ruling party as there were those who supported it. I had no reason not to be objective.

It’s fair to say that we were all caught off guard the day we assembled at the new, state-of-the-art campaign headquarters; wallpapered in photos of “commoners” who looked suspiciously like models, each posing exultantly under the campaign’s logo, “Mubarak 2005: Leadership and crossing into the future.” In the background loomed a giant campaign photo of the new, relaxed, open-collared Hosni Mubarak, man of the people. And miracle of miracles, the notoriously un-transparent ruling party’s headquarters even boasted a press room where reporters were served cold beverages, given Internet access and provided with telephones and televisions to carry out their business.

The Golden Ticket

While everyone knew the results of this unprecedented election were predetermined, the hype and novelty of the 19-day campaign period seemed to provide a glimpse of a nation in transition. Through it all, the ruling NDP sought to offer the world a fresh look at a party reforming from within. A major sign of this reform seemed to be manifest in the greater accessibility offered to the media.

In an electoral exercise that the whole world was watching, image counted. Even before Mubarak officially announced his candidacy for the 2005 election, the NDP was hard at work formulating a nonpartisan media and public relations team. Headed by Mohamed Kamal, a young member of the policies secretariat for the NDP who gleaned much of his political exposure through work with the US Congress and European Union, the team aimed to facilitate easy-access, two-way flow of information between the media and the ruling party.

Gone are the days, the party proclaimed, where politicians dodge questions, act aloof and brush off the need for responses. The scheme was simple—a journalist who needed a quote, a response, or any information concerning the NDP would get all he/she needed with a simple phone call. Then came the temporary abolishment of the exclusive presidential press pass, suddenly transforming presidential coverage into a free-for-all.

And talk about accessibility! Members of the NDP campaign team would provide daily press releases, and weekly press conferences to address all issues concerning the campaign and answer reporter questions (with translators on-hand for the foreign press). Every afternoon, some of the junior members of the media team would ring us up with a briefing on the following day’s events. It was a major change for a regime known for its impenetrable lack of transparency. But in some ways, this was just the same-run around, just friendlier and more suave.

“So… we can just call you and get a quote?” I asked Kamal skeptically as he handed me his business card, his mobile number inked on. The next day, he called me to compliment—and criticize—a story I had written for my newspaper, The Daily Star Egypt. One point of contention Kamal had with the story was that I had written that “a request by the Daily Star Egypt to meet with someone on the advertising team was denied.” “I didn’t deny you a meeting with him,” Kamal told me politely. “I went to his office and he was not there.”

“Yes, you certainly did,” I retorted. “But only after refusing my request five times, and ultimately refusing to give me the guy’s name and number.” We barked a bit, laughed a bit, and all was forgotten.

Boys on the Bus

If I ever see the dawn in Egypt again, it will be too soon. Morning after morning, groggy and sleep-deprived, we reporters would drag ourselves to campaign headquarters in predawn Heliopolis to get bused—and in one instance flown—to campaign stops from Assuit to Alexandria and everywhere in between, all the while battling the grueling August heat, long waits, hefty security, and piercing hunger pains. On one occasion, I found myself rationing four peanut butter cookies. The next day, the campaign responded to reporters’ complaints about the long trips without food or drink and supplied bagged meals of cheese sandwiches and juice boxes from the Egyptian fast-food chain Mo’min. But food was not the only handout. Reporters also were offered campaign paraphernalia, be it pins or signs, as they traveled. Many of us accepted them as souvenirs; others wore them, probably just to be on the safe side, as showing support for the ruling party never hurt anyone!

Over the course of the campaign, the system changed slightly during press conferences, where English-speaking journalists were given an exclusive chance to ask their questions following a session with the Arabic-speaking press. My colleagues and I began to speculate. Was it a time management issue? Was it special treatment? Were party officials isolating local journalists from certain subject matters that might have come up with the foreign press? Regardless of the answer, the campaign staff was generous in their time with both groups, though the phrase “off the record” was in far-too-common use.

The “off the record” comments lacked what I call the “wow factor.” They had no substance, they were not of great interest to the public, and they weren’t even that interesting to the journalists, who find almost anything interesting. They were usually sarcastic or snide remarks from the younger members of the campaign, few of whom were actually party members to begin with. Actually, the “off the record” comments were generally no big deal at all, but it was clear the staff was rather jumpy and extremely careful about what they said to the press. Image control was in high gear.

Perhaps the biggest “off the record” get for foreign journalists, however, was an interview with the head of the NDP campaign on the eve of Election Day. Gamal Mubarak, the president’s son, whom many speculate will succeed his elderly father, granted an audience to a handful of reporters, foreigners only. He answered questions that ultimately would remain off record. The meeting, which followed the denial of dozens of requests for interviews with either Gamal or his father by local and foreign media, came as a surprise to all of us who learned of the meeting a mere hour in advance -- several of us arriving without a clue as to why we were even there.

In fact, the role of Gamal was the real untold story of this campaign. I say untold in part because the NDP was obsessively paranoid about anything touching on Mubarak’s politically active elder son, even though it was common knowledge he was running the campaign. At Abdeen Palace, the day President Mubarak gave a speech for the campaign finale, Gamal stood unaccompanied on stage anticipating his father’s arrival. Stunned that he was alone and vulnerable to vulture journalists like myself, I approached the younger Mubarak requesting a statement on the campaign, whereby he politely asked that we save it for after the speech. I nodded appreciatively, interpreting his response as a clear “no.” As I returned to my seat, however, I was intercepted by senior members of the campaign. “That is inappropriate,” one of them said to me, firmly, all the while dragging me away by the arm. “Why?” I snapped, feeling disenfranchised. “It just is,” was the response. There was no question I’d crossed an invisible red line. Despite the new-fangled “American-style” campaign—Kamal once joked with journalist that he’d gotten some ideas for it from watching West Wing on TV—some things clearly had not changed.

My editors say, “You got your story, now get over it.” Discouraging as this final episode was, when asked by anyone my opinion of the campaign, I tell them simply, “It’s a phenomenal step.” It was. Still, while journalists are taught to disconnect in order to remain unbiased, it is difficult not to warm up to any group with whom you spend so much time. And so, as I sat through the hot and sticky speeches at factories or farms or Cairo palaces, the truth is, I wanted to believe that maybe this is a new NDP. I have heard the criticisms over and again from colleagues and friends and taxi drivers alike. I’ve been to the opposition rallies and heard the speeches of those challenging Mubarak. Still it was the NDP I was with day in and day out and so it was natural to warm up to the faces -- at least some -- behind the NDP. It was at Abdeen Palace, the final day of the campaign as the elderly president’s voice echoed across the square while 15,000 supporters bellowed songs and chants promising to sacrifice themselves for Mubarak, that I recall turning to a fellow journalist and saying, with genuine concern, “The president looks tired tonight.”

When you put so much time and effort into something, it is natural to want to believe in it. Besides—old political party turns new, dictator becomes democrat—what a great story that would be. The bottom line is journalists love to speculate. So if there is even a hint of doubt, be it from a string of “off-the-record” comments, or inaccessibility to even one person (especially when that person is Gamal or Mubarak himself), it’s going to raise some questions.

Mohamed Kamal proclaimed prior to the start of the campaign, “We have designed a different kind of campaign for a different kind of election.” I believe the NDP accomplished this—so much so, in fact, that two weeks after the president claimed victory, my colleagues and I covering the NDP convention bemoaned the return to business as usual and admitted we very much missed the organizational tactics and media-savvy of Kamal and his team. They had admitted early on that there would be imperfections on this maiden run. There were. But there is no doubt in my mind that the young members of the campaign were paying very close attention to detail as they tried to present “the new face” of the NDP. The obvious question that lingers is whether the new look was only cosmetic or instead represents a more substantial shift within the party as Gamal and the new generation of technocrats assert themselves. No doubt it takes more than catchy slogans and staged photo ops to initiate true reform. We’ll see what happens the next time.


Vivian Salama is a senior correspondent for the Egyptian Daily Star. She also freelances as a field producer for the Associated Press Television Network (APTN). Until December 2003, Vivian was the producer for NBC News. Before NBC, she worked for WPRI-TV in Providence, Rhode Island as a producer and reporter. She started her career as an assistant producer for CBS News Documentary Unit and as a freelancer for her hometown newspaper. Vivian is a graduate of Rutgers University in New Jersey with a Bachelors degree in Journalism and Theatre.


 

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Within days of his death, commercials were broadcast incessantly calling out to children to "Drop your toys. Pick up rocks." One commercial featured a child actor playing the role of El-Dura. It aired images of the boy in “child heaven,” telling young viewers, “I wave to you not to say goodbye but to say follow me.”

“It was a message of horror,” Marcus insists. “It was a massive brainwash telling children they should be out fighting.” The commercial sparked sharp criticism from the West. US Senator and former First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke out during a senate hearing on the ramifications of using violent propaganda on Palestinian national television. “How can you think about building a better future, no matter what your political views, if you indoctrinate your children to a culture of death,” she was quoted by the Jerusalem Post as saying in November 2003.

Many Palestinians saw the issue differently. “How do you objectively report Israelis shooting and killing children?” questions independent parliamentarian Abu Amr, angrily. “Yes, there are certain things that go beyond the definition of national struggle, but ultimately, this is a conflict. People are killing each other. People are exercising aggressive measures. What do you expect a people under occupation to do?”

As the back-and-forth attacks continued, Israeli forces retaliated against the voice of the people—the Palestinian media. Even in the early days of the Intifada, the PBC was the site of several attacks by Israeli forces. In October 2000, PBC officials allege Israeli soldiers broke into their Ramallah headquarters, stealing files and equipment and placing explosives in the building. The station, as a result, was blown off the air for a day in October 2000. Two months later, the network was incapacitated for one month following a shelling by an Israeli Apatchi.

On January 18, 2002, Al Aqsa Martyrs Bridages, the military wing of Fatah, claimed responsibility for a deadly massacre on Jewish guests at a Bat Mitzvah in Hadera that left six people dead and more than 30 wounded. The next day, Israeli soldiers once again left retaliatory explosives in the PBC headquarters, destroying several floors of the building. For one week, the PBC was once again off the air. On February 26, PBC’s deputy coordinator Maher Al-Rayyes was the first to broadcast a message during experimental transmissions. “Sons of Arafat know very well how to start from nothing; no one will mute the Palestinian voice,” he said.

It was not until mid-2004 that the Palestinian media toned down the messages of militancy and began to air programs having nothing to do with the conflict with Israel. By early 2005, networks had resumed regularly scheduled broadcasts. For Palestinians, it was a time to rebuild. So much had been lost during the years of the Second Intifada and just as the media was a tool in the struggle, it now had to rise to the challenge of being a tool for the future.

Changing Tides

No one really knew for sure whether the Palestinian people would actually get to vote in the first parliamentary elections in a decade, scheduled for January 25, 2006. For starters, Israel’s then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had fallen deathly ill from complications from an earlier stroke. His incapacitation cast a cloud of uncertainty on a number of issues, including the future of the Palestinians. Having orchestrated the withdrawal from Gaza only months earlier, the only party expected to carry out Sharon’s vision was the centrist Kadima party, headed by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

Consequently, the issue of voting in East Jerusalem remained a concern for Israeli authorities until the last minute. President Mahmoud Abbas had vowed to postpone the elections so long as Palestinians living in East Jerusalem were excluded. In an eleventh hour decision, members of the Knesset chose to permit Palestinians to vote in the old city’s Arab quarter at a post office alongside the historic Damascus gate on the condition that Hamas could not campaign in Jerusalem. All the while, more than a dozen political parties battled it out in the West Bank and Gaza for a place in Palestine’s newly established 132-seat parliament.

Each political party was allotted 30 minutes per night during the campaign period to present their case to people living in the war-torn territories although Fatah and its biggest rival, the Hamas Islamic Resistance Movement, were the predetermined favorites among the people. Still, as incumbents, Fatah officials admit they had an advantage. “There was no direct Fatah propaganda except during the allotted half hour,” Shaath affirms. “Whether we like it or not, however, some of the speakers invited to speak on different shows were Fatah, so I wouldn’t say it was a 100 percent disappearance of Fatah.” Kabha confirms: “The elections were a good opportunity for politicizing the image of Palestine, but official television showed all issues through the image of Fatah.”

Election Day created a media frenzy not just for the domestic networks – which at that point had sprung up all across the two territories – but for the international media community as well. The death of Yasser Arafat more than a year earlier combined with the withdrawal from Gaza and the political participation of Hamas had sparked newfound international interest in the Palestinian cause. Yet the frenzy would not really begin until the announcement that Hamas would walk away with more than half the seats in parliament. Suddenly, a story that had grown into monotonous back-and-forth negotiations between the Fatah-run PA and the Israeli government formalized into a diplomatic rivalry between neighbors.

Palestinian Television in the Hamas Age

“The question now is will Hamas make positive changes for TV?” says Kabha. “Before, there was so much corruption, no transparency. The people saw this and decided for themselves.”

With Hamas earning an unprecedented 56 percent of the reformatted parliament, the people of Palestine are bracing for drastic changes. After assuming an official role in government, Hamas was immediately forced to make a decision regarding its stance toward Israel. So long as the group promoted messages of anger and armed resistance via its airwaves against the Jewish state, it could risk hurling any future of a permanent Palestinian state into permanent limbo.

“We’ve seen a rise in violent clips—clips with a little more hatred in the messages being broadcast in the past few months,” says Marcus. “By the time of the elections, Palestinian television was showing more variety—children’s programs, sports. Now so-called education programs dealing with ‘historical’ programs are bringing academics talking about why Israel has no right to the land, about the delegitimization of Israel.”

Despite its militant reputation, Hamas’ commitment to civic responsibility over the years – particularly in Gaza – has paid off in the form of overwhelming support in the last election. Officials with the new government say the Palestinian media will serve as a mouthpiece, reflecting a side of Hamas not commonly known to the outside world. “It is not to our advantage to broadcast messages against Israel or America,” notes Youssef Rezqa, Palestine’s new Minister of Information under Hamas. “We want to correct the international image of Hamas through the media. There is so much about Hamas that has been forgotten because of this political panic.”

Freedom of the press remains a concern – though by no means does this make the Palestinian territories an exception in the region. About one month after Hamas officially took office, the Palestinian Journalists’ Union reported alleged death threats to seven Gaza-based journalists. The threats – received by telephone, email and fax – were said to have been signed by Hamas. Several Palestinian reporters have been beaten over coverage of the Fatah government in the past, and a journalist who ran a government-funded magazine was killed in 2004. Regional impediment to free speech and reporting is frequent and journalists across the region often suffer disciplinary action with regard to negative coverage of ruling regimes – regardless of whether or not it is true.

Meanwhile, as noted at the beginning of the article, Hamas enticed international audiences with the debut of its own official channel, Al Aqsa just prior to the January elections. In 2003, the Fatah-run Palestinian Authority had granted Hamas a broadcasting license for radio and television in Gaza. The Voice of Al Aqsa, as it was called, would quickly become the most popular radio station in the Gaza strip. It took another two years for the group to establish its television network. Modeled after Hezbollah’s Al Manar satellite network in Lebanon, Al Aqsa broadcasts from a secret location in Gaza to homes in the two territories. Israeli satellites do not show the Hamas-run network.

Prior to its cancellation, Al Aqsa served as a window into a world Hamas supporters say is greatly misunderstood. Children’s programs featured dancing actors in larger than life fuzzy animal costumes, singings songs that would appeal to children anywhere. The network featured cultural and “historical” programs which served as a mouthpiece for a group that has been suppressed even by the Palestinian government under Fatah. After Hamas’s stunning victory in January’s election, Al Aqsa has begun experimental transmissions, according to Rezqa, but remains limited to an extent since the media is still under the auspice of the president.

Hamas says it is the responsibility of the new government to establish guidelines for “appropriate” programming as based on the conservative demands of society. “Some foreign music videos, for example, we feel are against our morals,” explains Ghazi Hamed, editor in chief of Hamas’s El Rasala (the Message) newspaper and spokesman for the Islamic party. “We want to put a frame that the media is not just for entertainment but to educate the people. It’s a cultural weapon. It talks of our morals, of our national struggle against Israel.”

Under Palestinian law, the President remains the highest authority over the public media. Fatah officials are concerned, however, that when President Mahmoud Abbas goes through parliament to pass any legislation related to the media, his minority faction will not get a word in edgewise. “There will probably be a struggle,” admits Shaath. “I think Hamas will try to take over the radio and television from the president. Even when the president tries to implement laws, they will be stopped by parliament if Hamas doesn’t like them.”

As for funding, the PA’s largest donor—the European Union—has granted emergency funds as the United States threatens to freeze financial transfers to the Hamas-run PA. In theory, the money will go directly to support welfare issues, particularly to those in Gaza who are in dire need of assistance. Shaath says that funding to the media in recent years has come directly from the Palestinian authority. Not so, say Hamas authorities, who claim they will turn to the other Arab nations for help. “It is shameful for the Palestinians to submit. Our morals and values are more important than money,” says Hamed. “If we get assistance, great, but it doesn’t mean we should obey their demands. I think we can recruit money from other sources, from the other Arab and Muslim countries.”

Regardless of the source of funding, Hamas now has the opportunity to present itself in a new light. If their televised messages reflect their hostility, it could jeopardize progress that has been made in the struggle for peace. Says Kabha: All in due time. “I think we will see changes step by step.”

Vivian Salama is a freelance journalist based in Cairo. She also freelances as a field producer for the Associated Press Television Network (APTN). She has reported for Newsweek Magazine, The International Herald Tribune, The Daily Star, The Jerusalem Post and Al Ahram Weekly. She has aslo appeared as a commentator on BBC World, Egyptian Television and South African Broadcasting Corporation. Until December 2003, Vivian was the producer for NBC News.

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