The International Reporting (and Life) Adventures of Vivian Salama

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Egypt: Behind the scenes of the NDP’s secret weapon

Posted by vmsalama on July 31, 2005

By Vivian Salama

CAIRO:  Deep in the heart of the Heliopolis section of Cairo, a building – once the scene of business-as-usual Egyptian politics – has undergone a transformation in every sense.  No longer serene, worry-free or competition free, it is the setting of true election year hustle and bustle, where people use cliché phrases such as “get the vote out,” and “grass root effort.”  This is the headquarters of the Mubarak Camp, a new, very different concept for Egypt’s ruling party. 
            There is no doubting that reform is the buzz word on the streets of Egypt, and the National Democratic Party (NDP) is jumping on the bandwagon, seeing to it that they embark on a very different kind of campaign for this very different kind of election, at least by Egyptian standards. 
            Cue the professional, nonpartisan media and public relations team. 
            When senior members of President Hosni Mubarak’s administration last month approached Lamees Al-Hadidi, bureau chief for CNBC Arabia and executive editor-in-chief for the daily newspaper, Al-Alam al-Yawm, they urged her to lend a hand to a regime admittedly in need of a new appeal.  An outspoken critic and so-called opposition reporter, members of the NDP convinced her that the first order of business for true reform was to mobilize a true media campaign – and she was just the person to lead it. 
            “It’s very easy to do things the old way,” she explains.  “The old way is big headlines in the paper, no responses, no contact in dealing with the media, you call the NDP, nobody answers, you want a response, nobody answers.  This was the normal way. Nobody talks, everything was very ambiguous.”
            So, as with any campaign, Lamees and her diverse team of foreign and local media experts have closely studied the move of critics, both domestic and overseas – the evidence in the newspapers stacked high atop her desk.  Refuting what her peers might consider a conflict of interest, Lamees, who has taken time off as a journalist to hold this role, says it’s a chance to view operations behind the scene, and fix whatever needs fixing.  The goal, she says, is to ultimately facilitate easy-access, two-way flow of information between the media and the ruling party.  Gone are the days where politicians dodge questions, act aloof and brush off the need for responses.  The opposition is outspoken in their criticism, and the NDP plans to rebuttal just as zealously. 
            “We are not going to be silent anymore to all the attacks we are listening to,” Al-Hadidi insists.  “I hope to set a new standard in the NDP, answering people’s questions, answering people’s requests and answering people’s attacks.  This is a different phase in Egypt and we want this to succeed.”
            “This is a professional campaign which has its own entity,” explains Mohamed Kamal, a member of the policies secretariat for the NDP, in charge the campaign. “We wanted it to be a central effort, so we have a campaign headquarters, we have a very structured effort to deal with all aspects of the campaign. Media is just one part of it. Financing is another part of it.  We’re talking about ads, spending, etc.”
            For all candidates, who are to be officially announced by the electoral commission in the coming days, there is a cap set of LE 10 million for campaign expenditures.  According to Kamal, the media and public relations department will likely receive the bulk of this money.  A request by the to meet with someone on the public relations team was denied.  Detailed budgets for all departments will be disclosed by the government at a later date. 
            “The Central Accounting Office of the state is supervising [expenses], so they are looking into our sheets; they are checking our balances; they come and review that,” says Al-Hadidi.  “But we are abiding by the LE 10 million budget of the whole campaign.”
            What will not cost the candidates is access to the airwaves on state-owned radio and television.  According to Kamal, all candidates will be given an equal share of airtime as set by the Minister of Information, Anas Al-Fiqqi.  The amount of time, as well as the schedule for each party, Kamal says, is due out at some point prior to the campaign’s official kickoff on August 17.
            “I can assure you that every candidate will have equal opportunity, equal time on state owned radio and television,” Kamal insists.  “The Minister of Information is committed to that.  In any case where there is any violation of that principle, any candidate can complain before the [electoral] commission.  The NDP and the Minister of Information cannot afford to have a conflict with the commission, so I don’t think there will be many issues about that.”
            “We have full conviction that the president will win,” Al-Hadidi candidly admits. “But they want to do things the real way. They don’t want to say, ‘well, we know we are going to win, so why are we going to fake things?’ This is a way of trying to prove that democracy can work in this country – that, on this very long road ahead, we can start the first step.”
            In the end, the media and public relations team are trying to promote the President, during this campaign period, as nothing more than the incumbent candidate.
“There is a thin line here between covering [Mubarak] as a president, and covering him as a candidate,” insists Kamal.  “I think the media – print, TV and radio – should be very careful about that and they should draw the line as to what constitutes state activities, presidential activities, and what constitutes campaign efforts.”

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