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The best democracy money can buy: Funding Egypt's presidential campaigns

How far will money go in determining Egypt's next president? The law seems to be too flexible, but political orientation plays a major role in approaches adopted

Ahmed Feteha, Saturday 31 Mar 2012
Hazem Salah Abu Ismail
Hazem Salah Abu Ismail's presidential campaign (Photo: Mai Shaheen)

Like anything else, democracy can be costly.

The United States of America, the self proclaimed leader of the ‘free world’, is the prime example of financial extravagance in politics. Together with other competitors for the 2012 White House race, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have managed to raise a little over $330 million for campaign spending to date. In 2008, unprecedented worldwide media hype and $388 million had put the first black man inside the white house.

Egypt had its first taste of democracy last November with the first rigging-free parliamentary elections since the 1950s.

The main test, however, will come on 23 May with the elections to choose a successor to Mubarak. A LE10 million spending cap has been set for campaigns by the law governing the elections. Candidates who meet the nomination requirements are mandated to open bank accounts in any of three state owned banks to collect donations. In the run-off round, they may not spend more than LE2 million on campaigning.

While the LE10 million (approx. $1.7million) might seem like a huge amount to many of Egypt’s 85 million citizens, it shrinks in front of the reality of Egypt’s mass media market. "This figure is fictional," said Sami Abdel-Aziz, a professor at the faculty of mass communication at Cairo University, who was in charge of the presidential bid of a prominent Wafd Party's candidate in 2005.

"We spent LE8 million on mass media alone in Noaman Ashour's campaign; and this was seven years ago," says Abdel-Aziz.

According to Abdel Aziz, campaign activities fall into two categories: promotion in the mass media, and round-level activities including popular conferences and drives to provinces. Though the latter is relatively inexpensive, both require large amounts of funding. The average price for printing small posters (50cm x 70cm) is around LE1,000 (approx. $170) per 5,000 units — a figure that drops as the number of copies requested increases. A large billboard like the ones seen on 6 October Bridge cost around LE80,000 a month. A full page ad in a popular newspaper could reach LE500,000 or more.

For the parliamentary elections, a spending limit of LE500,000 was set for campaigning per candidate. No estimate of total spending on parliamentary elections is available. One must ask, however, what is the rationale behind setting a campaign spending limit to target 50 million Egyptians only 20 times higher than that set for targeting residents of one municipality.

“You can go just as far with volunteerism. Professional work is far more effective but is also very costly,” Abdel Aziz explains. "A proper media campaign requires at least ten times the LE10 million set by law." Yet the campaigners of some of Egypt’s potential presidential candidates disagree. They say such a figure is not only hard to collect but also potentially corrupting as it gives money a large role in the political process,"," added Abdel Aziz.

"This is very extravagant; Egypt is a country suffering from a poverty problem; and LE10 million is not a small amount," Adel Wasily, the media speaker for the campaign of the socialist-oriented candidate Khaled Ali told Ahram Online. Khaled Ali is running under a socialist agenda relying on the support of lower-income and working classes. Wasily indicated that Ali’s bid, judging from the social classes it represents, cannot afford even to aim at collecting such funds.

"We are a poor campaign and we don’t expect to be able to raise a figure even close to the LE10 million limit," Wasily said. Setting such a “high ceiling”, he believes, means only those who are financially capable will stand a chance in the race.

And it is the political orientation of a candidate that apparently determines their campaigners’ stance on spending. Surrounded by controversy, Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail is the frontrunner Salafist candidate in the race. Apart from his hardline religious views and sometimes shocking social agenda, he strictly believes in the Islamic notion of the free market, which is more or less identical to its Western counterpart.

Abu-Ismail’s campaign does not see difficulty in collecting the LE10 million needed. As a matter of fact they agree with Abdel Aziz’s conclusion that this amount is far from adequate to finance an effective media campaign.

“In terms of duration of the campaign, this amount of money is barely sufficient,” Hany Hafez, one of the Abu-Ismail campaign media coordinators says, referring to the 21 days officially allocated for campaigning.

“In terms of geography, we have 27 governorates in Egypt to cover and 50 million people to reach; which requires much more money. We can spend the LE10 million just on flyers.”

Posters have indeed apparently become a source of living for some Egyptians who capitalise on the hype surrounding the bearded sheikh. They are sold in front of certain mosques for LE0.5 a piece. Abu Ismail's campaign denies any connection to such sales, comparing the sheikh to the famous footballer Mohamed Abou-Treika. "When someone sells a T-shirt with Abu Treika's name printed on it, does it necessarily mean that Abou-Treika knows about it?" Hafez asked. "We let people use Sheikh Abu-Ismail’s name and picture to make a living,"

But in terms of spending, Hafez indicated that the campaign has only paid the bare minimum so far. Abu-Ismail’s campaign relies on the broad support it has among conservative Muslims in Egypt and maybe aims to replicate the experience of the Salafist Nour Party, which surprised everyone by winning some thirty per cent of parliamentary seats.

During the elections Nour Party showed high levels of organisational and marketing acumen, not to mention generous campaign spending. The vibes of confidence coming from this camp suggests that the Salafist organisational and finance machine could work once more in favour of their presidential candidate. Hafez indicated that they do not expect to face any problems in raising the LE10 million.

That is not to mention that the law puts a LE200,000 limit on single-person donations whether in cash or inking. Candidates are strictly forbidden from obtaining foreign funding for campaign spending. No regulations regarding corporate donations were laid out; but almost all campaign officials of the more prominent candidates said they have no problems in accepting funds from companies. 

Campaigning should officially start on 30 April or after a final list of candidates is announced on 26 April. It will last till 20 May, giving candidates 21 days to demonstrate that they are fit to be in Mubarak’s shoes. In spite of the supposed campaigning silence, promotional material for some candidates could be seen around Cairo; there is extensive internet activity by others.

Ahram Online has inquired about such activity from campaign officials, who unanimously responded that such activity is done on a voluntary, individual basis with with next no funding. Yet some campaigning activities that are currently undertaken appear to be very costly to be separate initiatives by scattered individual supporters of candidates. Posters of Abu-Ismail have sporadically invaded walls, public buses and even the backs of private cars swarming the capital.

Similarly, the campaign of ex-Muslim brotherhood leader, Abdel-Moneim Abul-Fotouh has set up a five digit hotline for inquiries from voters. His widespread publications and campaign drives across Egypt has made the news over the past few weeks. Those responsible for his official campaign refused to disclose the source of their funding or the amounts that have been spent to date. While monitoring individual campaigning efforts is practically impossible for candidates, they may be responsible for the more apparent one.

“If a candidate is informed about certain illegal campaign activities, like out-of-budget billboards, he should denounce it or he will be legally liable,” human rights lawyer Hassan Youssef explains. “In case of the candidate not reporting an illegal campaigning act he could be considered an accomplice in that act because it involves him directly,” Youssef adds. “Then again, it is a matter of proving that the candidate was aware of the promotional foul play.”

For his part Sami Abdel-Aziz believes that candidates will inevitably spend more than the designated cap driven by the designation of the low spending limit. He adds that it will be hard to track violations. "It seems that whoever set this law wanted people to go around it."

Officials from the Egypt Central Authority (CAO), the body responsible for monitoring campaign spending, were not available to comment on their plans for overseeing presidential candidates.

Campaigning will continue until the end of 20 May, or 48 hours before election day on 23 May. Anyone breaching these dates will be prosecuted.

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