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Electioneering Egypt style: Social media and street banners

Political campaigning techniques have been changing fast in Egypt’s elections, but they have still left some key components almost untouched

Dina Ezzat , Friday 23 Oct 2020
Banners will remain a fixture of Egypt’s elections for many years to come
Banners will remain a fixture of Egypt’s elections for many years to come photo: Sherif Sonbol
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In 2020, Mahmoud Ibrahim, an ambitious young man with a political experience of some 10 years, opted to establish a campaign consultancy in Egypt. His plan was impossible to execute, however, because there was no reference in either the elections laws or those regulating the operation of private firms to allow for this kind of business.

“It was just that it was not there. I could not have a licence for a business that is not acknowledged by the law. I was asked if I wanted to have a licence for events planning or for a PR agency, but this was not what I wanted to do — I wanted to do political campaigning,” Ibrahim said.

His “only choice” was to pursue private consultancy work, he said. This was something that he had already been doing on an ad hoc basis since he had first gone into politics as a member of the then ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

Ibrahim’s “passion for the game of elections” was also prior to his interest in politics. It first started when a relative was running for election in one of Cairo’s social clubs. As part of his campaign, this relative was giving away free tickets to the cinema and amusement park. Ibrahim, then a young man, got a few of the tickets.

Ibrahim’s interest in politics came later when he entered Alexandria University to study law. For law students in most Egyptian universities, politics was an almost inevitable attraction. And like for all men of his age who attended universities in the mid-1990s, there were essentially two ways to get involved in politics: either the ruling NDP or the Muslim Brotherhood. The latter was still then outlawed as it had been for decades, but it was allowed to operate, especially in the universities.

Ibrahim has always had an aversion to anything Islamist, even if remotely, and he thus opted for the NDP. While the NDP’s pursuit of the two houses of the Egyptian parliament at the time, or for that matter the municipal councils, allowed competition in limited electoral circles, within the university there was considerable space to play the electoral game.

Ibrahim was also ready to join it. Later, as the NDP pursued a political face-lift with the beginning of the new millennium, Ibrahim joined in the party’s electoral game. “Things were changing, and the regime was trying to allow for some real political life. The electoral game was part of this context,” he recalled. With the introduction of social media towards the end of the first decade of the new millennium, Ibrahim, despite on and off quarrels with the NDP, was on board with the promotion of the NDP and its ideas on social media.

In all the elections that have taken place since the January 2011 Revolution, which Ibrahim essentially attributes to very poorly managed parliamentary elections in 2010 that failed to match the new vibes of political life at the time, he was there helping with one campaign or another, more often than not depending on what he called the “huge and almost invincible machinery of the NDP”.

“Campaigning is a very dynamic exercise, and it is also very contextual. In the case of Upper Egypt, for example, it was not possible to campaign for anything or anyone without resorting to the networks of the big families. This is why Upper Egypt has traditionally been mostly on the side of whoever rules because it is the families that decide, and the families decide in their interests,” Ibrahim argued.

“When smaller parties were complaining in the elections and referendums that took place after the 25 January Revolution about the limited competition between either the NDP or the Brotherhood, I always tried to remind them that it was because these two bodies knew how to work at grassroots level and that this is the essence of campaigning,” he said.

Those who managed to secure themselves a place in the elections that took place right after the 25 January Revolution, he added, were essentially people who had some grassroots connections. “By then, social media, which was essential in the 25 January Revolution, was becoming vocal at the grassroots as well,” he added.

Today, as he offers his consultancy work to several candidates in the elections for the House of Representatives that start their first round for overseas voters on 21 October and local voters on 23 October, Ibrahim has been advising a mix of direct campaigning designed to benefit a consolidated popular base and a wider outreach through social media.

ELECTIONS

In this year’s legislative elections, voters will elect 584 candidates, half of them running on closed slates, the most prominent of which is the one led by the pro-government Mostaqbal Watan Party. The other half are independent candidates, with close to 50 candidates competing for a single seat in some cases.

This, Ibrahim said, would make the competition very tough for candidates resorting to older or newer ways of winning the support of voters.

“It is true that things are changing and that they are changing fast, but if we are talking about elections, we are definitely talking about rallying supporters and not just sending them Facebook messages. The one is not enough without the other,” he said. This, he added, was especially the case in a context where the voters’ faith in the electoral process has often been challenged.

Sahar Al-Gheriani is running for the House of Representatives in one of the electoral districts in Alexandria, one of 14 governorates that fall in the first phase of the two-stage legislative elections.

Running as an independent despite recent membership of the Adl Party, Al-Gheriani has long been associated with political groupings including Tamarod that worked in 2013 to garner public backing for the ouster of Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood elected president. With this experience, Al-Gheriani, a middle-aged PR expert, has managed to establish strong in-roads within her communities, especially with younger men and women. She has consolidated such contacts through social initiatives to help young people find job opportunities.

A previous attempt by the Tamarod leaders to encourage Al-Gheriani to run for election in the first parliament that came after the political change in the summer of 2013 did not manage to help her overcome her reluctance to run a campaign. The “huge financial resources” required for campaigning were never within her means, and she preferred to pursue social rather than political work.

This year, however, Al-Gheriani has decided she could run a campaign that would depend initially on an outreach scheme she has been working on with “an all-volunteer team” of the young men and women she had built contacts with and who have been putting her political message across “very firmly and strongly through social media and the distribution of flyers”.

Given the “large size of the electoral districts this year”, Al-Gheriani said that she was also depending on a team of young men and women to organise electoral tours.

Speaking from Alexandria on Saturday, hours before the electoral silence was due to go into effect on Sunday 18 October for the governorates in the first phase of the elections, Al-Gheriani said that “the determination of the young people” in her team was only one tool to counter the large budgets that some of the other candidates running for independent seats had access to.

“They talk, they argue, and they persuade and convince voters who could be influenced by pre-electoral financial incentives that it is best to vote for an MP who can secure them permanent rights rather than just a one-off gift to vote for one particular candidate,” Al-Gheriani said.

HARD WORK

In Kafr Al-Dawar in Beheira governorate, also part of the first phase of the legislative elections, candidate Ayman Heiba is also counting on the hard work of a young campaigning team to attract the attention of overseas voters to cast their ballots.

“Social media is important, of course, but if we are talking about a mostly rural context, we cannot be just talking about social media. We have to think of direct communication and the lobbying of leading figures,” Heiba said.

Originally a member of a traditionally Wafdist family, Heiba realised in the early years of the 2000s that the Wafd Party of the early 20th century “had lost a significant part of its base and name”. He chose to move to the then ruling NDP instead, which “was making itself a lot more heard and a lot more known for obvious reasons of access to the media”.

After 2011, Heiba decided to join the Ghad Party, but soon defected. This year, he is running for parliament as an independent.

Campaigning for elections, Heiba argued, was never something that started with the electoral race, but rather was something of an on-going nature. “People need to know a candidate, at least to an extent, and this is where family and village networks come in useful,” he argued.

Since he registered his name for the elections in the third week of September, and towards the voting in the first phase of the elections that covers his Beheira governorate, Heiba has been “conducting meetings and attending gatherings around the clock” to secure support.

To get the best support out of these meetings and gatherings, Heiba said he would not just be offering ideas and making promises, but would also be asking people about the kind of legislation they wished to see put forward.

“We live at a moment when there are new laws being made and when there are new concerns and questions. It is essential that a candidate for parliament hears out his voters on what they want out of that parliament,” he said.

According to Mohamed Fouad, who is running in one of the electoral districts in Giza, also part of phase one of the legislative elections, the campaigning of a candidate who has previously been elected as an MP cannot be based on outreach or legislative promises alone. For a second-timer, Fouad said, the campaign has to be a performance assessment.

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photo: Sherif Sonbol


“It is not enough for me today to say that I was the 2012 frontrunner who managed to overcome a then popular Brotherhood candidate. It is also not enough for me to say that I proposed or supported any particular piece of legislation, because when all is said and done an MP in the view of the Egyptian voter, especially if we are talking about the challenged economic sectors, is essentially about being able to help,” Fouad said.

He added that when he was doing his rounds, “stopping at this café or meeting with a group of people here or there”, it was essential that people sitting at the gathering would associate his name “with some sort of help”.

“People need so many things all the time, and they don’t know who to go to, so they have to go to their MP to get a job for a son, or a visa to go to perform the pilgrimage, or to help get a relative admitted into a subsidised hospital, or whatever,” he said.

SECOND-TIMER 

In the Heliopolis-Nasr City electoral district of Cairo, part of phase two of the elections that start overseas voting on 5 November and local voting on 7 November, candidate Tamer Al-Shahawi is also a second-timer.

Al-Shahawi’s name is associated in the minds of his mostly middle and upper middle-class voters with social legislation. However, as he knows, the voters will be mostly thinking of him as the MP who was there when the district went through changes that prompted resident unease, including the increase in road lanes and the construction of a series of connecting flyovers that were meant to overcome severe traffic circulation problems, but that altered the visual look of many of the main roads and made it less easy for pedestrians to move around comfortably and safely.   

So, as he goes campaigning as a second-timer Al-Shahawy knows that a crucial part of his campaign will be to answer questions on things that happened where he could not step in. In his case, he said, the answers have had to come from a series of meetings with the officials concerned ahead of the campaign.

“I had to have the information in order to tell people that there was a specific schedule for pedestrian crossings and to impose speed limits and have them electronically monitored,” he said.

Moreover, for his campaign, Al-Shahawi added, he had needed to have a list of the wishes of his district’s voters and a clear working plan on what could be done in the next five years of the new parliament. “For this, I am counting a lot on the communication I have been having on a regular basis through social media and through the regular meetings that I have made a point of doing over the past five years,” he said.

It is upon building a joint plan of action that Tamer Sehab, who is running for the first time in the Nozha/New Cairo districts in Cairo, has based his scheme. “It is very important that people feel that I am running on their behalf and that I am offering answers to the questions they have. It is important that those answers come from me,” Sehab said.

In an electoral process marked by a huge number of candidates, varied financial capacities that make the LE2 million maximum campaigning budget too little for some and too much for others, and considerable voter apathy, Sehab has found putting together a successful campaign a consuming exercise.

Having been in public work for close to 20 of his 41 years, Sehab has his networks. Having been part of the launch of one of the post-2011 political parties, Masr Al-Horreya, he also has political experience. However, with a very low-budget campaign, he has had to be creative.

“I had to have a campaign that attracts reluctant voters and speaks to people’s minds and hearts and addresses quite a diverse socio-economic range. I have to do all this with limited financial resources,” he said.

Sehab has opted for a highly interactive campaign. He collects questions from his electoral districts and then he goes online or does rounds to answer these questions. He might pursue a group of people in a specific location in order to answer their specific questions. “It has all been going quite well,” he said.

However, he added, when all is said and done, it is also essential to have a few banners. “Campaigns now are not fully dependent on street banners, but one still has to have a few with the name, slogan, and electoral symbol,” he said.

BANNERS

It is early evening on 5 October, and Ezzat Gohari, a Cairo banner-maker, is calling his suppliers to confirm purchases for making electoral posters for East Cairo candidates running in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

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photo: Sherif Sonbol


Since 1995, Gohari, whose workshop is in the East Cairo district of Ain Shams, has been making electoral banners. He went through many parliamentary elections before and after the 25 January Revolution, but this year’s Senate and House of Representatives elections “are somehow different”.

“Previously, there were fixed candidates who would nominate themselves over and over again for each district. The divisions of the electoral districts were also smaller, which allowed for more candidates. The latter were also very clear about the messages they were putting on their banners,” he said.

“This time round, the electoral zones have been made bigger, and there is not that much diversity in the political messaging on the banners. It seemed to me that some candidates were not sure whether they would end up on the final lists or not,” Gohari added.

The techniques used and the time required to make banners “in the old days were very different from the ways we make banners now. We used to draw every word and to wait for the colours to dry. Sometimes, they would get smudged. Now things are more or less mechanical, but of course also a lot more expensive.”

According to Gohari, whether big or small, banners now also do not carry “slogans that rhyme,” Instead, “they carry a political slogan and pictures of the candidate. These pictures are not as grand as they were in the 1990s either, because candidates now opt for more modern-looking pictures.”

Gohari is aware of the decline in the use of banners in elections, and he knows that some candidates will have a very small number. However, he is convinced that for at least 20 to 50 years to come, banners will continue to be part of elections in Egypt, even if campaign teams talk of new techniques like sending WhatsApp messages or leaving flyers on cars.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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