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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.