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Who cares about the image in Washington?

The improvement in the Egyptian-American relations has nothing to do with public relations efforts

Mohamed Elmenshawy , Monday 4 Aug 2014

An American friend of mine works in one of the largest public relations companies in the American capital. His company in particular obtained a Saudi-financed contract for improving the image of the new Egyptian regime headed by Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and he recently complained to me about the Egyptian government's repeated disregard for the company’s advice when it came to how to go about improving its image in the US.

The verdict regarding the imprisonment of a group of Al-Jazeera journalists in what was known as the "Marriot Cell" shocked my American friend and his company. Their mission became nearly impossible in the context of such court verdicts which had an extended effect around the globe. Since the third of July last year, the Egyptian state and its Arab Gulf allies have launched fierce public relations campaigns. In addition to the efforts of the Egyptian embassy, a number of lobbying organisations and public relations companies participated in Egypt’s rebranding campaign, with the aim of altering the lens by which both the official  and unofficial Washington– the latter represented by think tanks and the mass media major companies – view the Egyptian government.

Despite the massive amounts of funding and multi-faceted approach, the regime’s efforts failed to alter a narrative telling the story of a repressive Egyptian government tightening the noose on the personal freedoms of any of its dissenters. Egypt’s rebranding campaign started prior to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi’s arrival in office, coordinating conventional visits of government officials to the US, as if there were not any sort of special circumstances. Moreover, choosing who to represent "the New Egypt,” as it was called by an Egyptian official, was disappointing for many people in American circles. Dr. Mustafa Hegazi came on a tour arranged by an organisation called "the Egyptian American Initiative,” which is a new organisation funded by Arab Gulf grants with the aim of promoting the new Egyptian regime. Although Dr. Hegazi speaks fluent American English, his knowledge of American political language and ability to debate Egyptian affairs with American media experts is extremely limited. Former Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy and Mr. Amr Moussa also failed to alter the Egyptian government’s image.

Manifestations of failed efforts to improve the country’s image appeared early in the official Washington on a number of occasions, most significantly when the American President himself addressed the situation in Egyptian during the annual dinner of White House correspondents, which is also attended by journalists, political celebrities and Hollywood stars. Obama commended journalists working in dire circumstances, specifically addressing: Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt. In addition to Obama’s statements, the White House later called El-Sisi and urged him to pardon the Al-Jazeera journalists who were sentenced to long prison terms. Secretary of State John Kerry also expressed his great dissatisfaction with these verdicts. As for failure on the unofficial side, it was evident in the kinds of questions directed to Egyptian officials and the way these questions were responded to. Questions regarding Al-Jazeera journalists' imprisonment were raised several times and the same goes for questions regarding the political exclusion of Islamist opposition, these inquiries were joined by other questions concerning the repression and defamation the Youth of 6 April movement, which is well-known in America for having played a significant role in challenging both President Mubarak and President Morsi.

The Egyptian answers focused on the total independence of the judiciary, non-interference in its politics and prosecution procedures being guaranteed for citisens regardless of their political or religious leanings. The attempts to delve into the details of court verdicts dealing with executions and correcting American information about these verdicts and reminding the American side of the meaning of separation of powers failed miserably. The Egyptian government did not gain any kind of sympathy from prominent media circles and this was quite obvious when taking stock of editorials in publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post condemning the Obama administration’s support of the new regime in Egypt. On the home front, Cairo itself was an important hub for the same efforts to enhance the country’s image, as the government imported American experts in an attempt to give them a sense for what was really happening on the ground. Many of these experts complained of conspiracy theories and the absence of any platform to accept opposing opinions.

The delivery of the ten Apache helicopters in April and release of millions of dollars in suspended American aid should not be considered as an indicator of the government’s success in its rebranding project. Receiving the Apache helicopters, which should have been received more than ten months ago, is not the byproduct of an improved image, but rather it is tied to the Egyptian army’s counterterrorism operations in Sinai. If we consider this within the context of instability in Iraq, Libya, and Syria and recent developments in Gaza, Egypt’s connection to the United States becomes less about public relations and more about regional significance. Relations between the two countries are forced to go on by default.

It is difficult to rebrand the Egyptian image amid the context of its decisions regarding civil liberties, human rights and political participation; not to mention a judiciary whose verdicts are consistently bizarre according to the standards of nearly every country on the globe. As such, Obama faces a much tougher task when attempting to normalise relations between his country and Egypt. Despite the disregard for civil liberties and human rights which have prevailed over a failed rebranding campaign, Washington is forced to do normalise because of the United States’ dependence on a politically stable Egypt for addressing the current turmoil across the region.

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