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How Egypt's state TV is trying to soothe popular anger

Egyptian state TV is running political advertisements in the hope of spreading optimism among citizens, but some argue the ads are meant to promote a second term for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Egypt’s state broadcaster is attempting to confront an uptick in popular anger, which primarily stems from rising prices. A series of TV ads have been designed to promote the accomplishments of both the government and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi over the last three years.

These ads, which are broadcast on a daily basis, have included snapshots of national projects such as the new Suez Canal. They have also highlighted images of the crises that the average Egyptian has had to overcome, such as the long lines to buy bread or the sudden cuts in electricity. They also note the return of security and stability to the streets.

These advertisements are not the first time an ad campaign has aired on Egyptian television to tout the achievements of the state. For example, on the anniversary of the June 30 Revolution that ousted former President Mohammed Morsi, various programs and dramas were interrupted with announcement breaks that included scenes from the dedication of various national projects, like the Port Said expansion project, the El Daba’a nuclear project, the digging of a new canal to expand the Suez Canal and the 1.5 million feddan agricultural project, among others.

On the two-year anniversary of Sisi assuming the presidency, Egyptian state TV broadcast a short film titled “Egypt at Two Years.” It was shown on a number of private channels, as well as state TV, along with promotional advertisements for the ruling regime’s achievements at that time. However, the question remains: Do these advertisements, which promote the state’s accomplishments, truly resonate with the ordinary citizen? Will they succeed in soothing the Egyptian street’s anger over price increases and in the midst of controversy and polls on social media and news sites about the candidacy of Sisi for another term?

Layla Abd al-Magid, former dean of the College of Media at Cairo University and a member of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union’s board of trustees, spoke to al-Monitor about this issue. “Egyptian [state] TV is not broadcasting advertisements in an attempt to promote the government’s achievements, but rather out of a desire to spread a spirit of hope and optimism among citizens and to reassure them that the economic problem is on its way to being solved,” she said, noting that the advertisements achieved this “by showing images and clips of national projects that the people’s president has succeeded in executing —rojects like the new Suez Canal, which the people participated in building by putting their trust in their president. Egypt needs media to bring Egyptians together around common goals in order to confront the challenges that the state has faced over the last few years. We have seen chaos and disorder, but the state has managed to restore stability once again.”

Abd al-Magid stressed her view that “the media must evolve into a development-oriented media that joins in nationalist projects from the very beginning. Even if Egyptian state TV is facing severe economic challenges, there are clear attempts being made at playing a development role.”

She said that other media outlets need to adopt a clear policy in cooperation with the state broadcaster. “It is true that state media has suffered a great deal in the way of abuse by many others, which has led to some of its viewers moving elsewhere. Nevertheless, television plays a role in spreading awareness to the average citizen, both economically and culturally.”

Abd al-Magid also revealed that a committee had been formed to create a media policy for television, so that it would succeed in achieving “its goals for development and supporting the country.”

Regarding the influence of the current advertisements promoting the state’s achievements, Abd al-Magid said, “Any attempt at gauging the influence of ads must adhere to a clear, scientific format in which questionnaires are submitted to the target audience. The question of judging the influence of these advertisements on the street must be decided by scientific standards — not in an arbitrary manner.”

She added, “Egyptian state TV does not have any authority over private media [so as to force them] to broadcast these advertisements, which are geared toward instilling a spirit of optimism among the citizenry, for they are owned by private businessmen with their own interests. Their [programming’s] primary motivation is profit and entertainment. However, we will attempt to coordinate with them and convince them that it is imperative to put in place a general policy aimed at serving the country and confronting the campaigns that seek to frustrate the average Egyptian citizen by focusing only on the negative.”

Meanwhile, Akram al-Alfi, an Egyptian journalist and political researcher, told Al-Monitor, “The use of advertisements in politics began in the US, and especially in American elections, such that political advertising and political propaganda have become a fundamental part of the [electoral] battle in the US. Directed political advertisement is extremely influential in countries where voters’ interest in politics is on the decline. Some American experts have said that George W. Bush succeeded in his first presidential term because of his successful advertising campaigns.”

Alfi added, “Directed political advertising in Egypt first appeared in force in the parliamentary and presidential elections of 2012. It had a powerful impact on the electoral battles in drawing voters [to the polls] and in influencing the undecided swing voters. In addition, it had a major influence on a broad swath of the middle class. Therefore, political advertising might be defined as advertising that comes in the midst of a contest, generally an electoral contest. It follows that advertisements that promote the achievements of the government and the state are not, strictly speaking, advertisements. They serve no clear goal and are invested in no clear contest."

Alfi described the advertisements promoting the government’s achievements as “part of the state bureaucracy and flattery of the ruling regime. They are not part of a public policy. Instead, they are launched by interest groups that are only seeking to declare their loyalty [to the regime], not attempting to convince the ordinary citizen of any particular accomplishments.”

He concluded by saying, “These advertisements are flattery in a vacuum. They have no value or influence, because they do not meet the standards of successful political advertising, which is part of a clearly formulated political battle. It would be a more faithful description of these advertisements that promote the government’s accomplishments to say that they are attempts at flattery, not real advertisements.”