Belly dancers, billboards, and Egypt's military propaganda machine.
- By Bel TrewBel Trew is broadcast and print journalist based in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter at @beltrew.
CAIRO — "We will say yes; we will say yes twice," sings one of Egypt’s most famous belly dancers, as she seductively sashays across the television screen. Clad in an Egyptian flag dress, Sama el-Masry outlines the finer points of the country’s new constitution, which Egyptians voted on in a referendum on Tuesday, Jan. 14.
In case one happens to be focusing on gyrating hips and misses any of these finer points, no matter; the commercial is broadcast every 15 minutes on the celebrity’s new TV channel. And it’s just one example of how Egypt’s military, business, and media elite have banded together to drum up support for the draft charter — and bolster the new military-backed political order in Cairo.
Egypt’s generals suspended the previous constitution, which was approved during the presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, when they overthrew the Islamist president in July 2013. Since then, the interim government has waged a bloody crackdown on the Brotherhood’s supporters, leaving hundreds dead and thousands in jail. It has also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization, blaming it for the spike in terrorist attacks that have wracked the country in recent months.
The new government has not so subtly suggested that a high turnout and an overwhelming yes vote would confer the country’s stamp of approval on Army chief Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s political road map, the next marker being elections. Sisi said over the weekend that he would run for president only if there were a popular demand for his candidacy. So, this time, he’s leaving nothing to chance.
That’s where the Department of Morale Affairs comes in. The military’s propaganda agency — responsible for managing the Egyptian Army’s public image and boosting goodwill toward troops — is waging a nonstop war on the airwaves, recently releasing a series of short music videos that contain thinly veiled calls for a "yes" vote.
"Change is in your hands; come on, continue your revolution," sings an angelic children’s choir in one video, referencing the June 30 protests against Morsi that ushered in July’s coup. "This is the most important step to start the road."
The song, which is also performed by a women’s choir and a chorus of men in other videos, was written by composer Amr Mostafa, famous for claiming that the 2011 uprising against Mubarak was "photoshopped’ and instigated by Vodafone, Pepsi, and Coca-Cola.
The use of children to deliver a pro-military message is particularly frequent. In another video, Egyptian youth — dressed in military uniforms — parade around the pyramids and Cairo’s Unknown Soldier Memorial. "Egypt needs all hands united," they sing. "A unity as strong as steel."
But unity’s a tough sell in Egypt these days. The circumstances in which the new constitution was written were contentious, though it has received some praise from human rights groups for improving the rights of women and tempering the religious language in the charter written under Morsi. The draft constitution calls for "the protection of women against all forms of violence," while the 2012 constitution only mentioned women in the context of the family. The new constitution still refers to Islamic law as the main source of legislation, but it excised a controversial article that called for a stricter interpretation of sharia and explicitly forbids the formation of political parties "on the basis of religion."
But if there’s any group that stands to really gain from approval of the new constitution, it’s the military. A yes vote would cement the military’s prerogatives in post-Morsi Egypt. If ratified, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body composed of the country’s 21 top generals, will have the power to approve who is appointed defense minister for the next president’s first two terms in office. Military trials for civilians would be permitted, and the armed forces budget would remain a secret from all but the military-dominated National Defense Council.
"[The articles of the constitution] have walled the military off from any effective civilian oversight," said Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian military and a recently retired professor of national security affairs at the U.S.-based Naval Postgraduate School.
When Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, the Department of Morale Affairs countered, stepping up its production of pro-military material. Its aim was to airbrush the military’s image after a difficult transition year after dictator Hosni Mubarak’s fall. One of the first videos it produced was a 30-minute documentary portraying Sisi as a devout defense minister. Since the military government seized power, it has fanned the flames of a growing cult of personality around Sisi. It’s not unusual in Cairo to find the Army chief’s face on cupcakes, chocolates, jewelry, even pajama tops. His portrait regularly covers the front pages of newspapers, while supporters glowingly compare him to former military presidents Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser.
"It’s one of the most important departments of the military and closely tied to military investigations department," said a former officer with ties to the film industry. The department, little known before the 2011 revolution, relies on film school students conscripted into the Army, he said.
But while the Department of Morale Affairs might be enjoying its increased profile, it also benefits from multimillion-dollar campaigns run by Egypt’s businessmen, whose financial and political interests have propelled them to join in the propaganda party.
Even before the draft of the constitution was completed, several pro-government businessmen launched a massive campaign calling for a yes vote, billboards for which plaster the streets of Cairo. For many, it’s déjà vu all over again: Tarek Nour, who runs the country’s largest advertising company, was also behind billboards for Mubarak’s 2005 presidential campaign. This time around it’s the new constitution.
Business tycoon and politician Naguib Sawiris and his Free Egyptians Party have also poured millions of dollars into print and TV commercials. Sawiris — whose family fortune grew from military contracts in the 1970s, according to Springborg — admitted last year to supporting the Tamarod campaign that organized protests calling for Morsi’s ouster.
"Our ads are trying to tell the people to continue your revolution; please go out again," Free Egyptians spokesperson Shehab Wagih said.
On the other side of the political spectrum, the silence is deafening. Not a single column in Egypt’s mainstream newspapers called for a no vote or a boycott of the referendum — a stark contrast to the fierce debates that characterized the vote over the 2012 constitution. In fact, even campaigning for a no vote could land you in jail: At least six members of the moderately Islamist Strong Egypt Party, which tentatively supported the military’s ouster of Morsi, were arrested for attempting to hang posters asking Egyptians to vote down the new constitution.
At the press conference for the High Elections Commission, the body that runs polls in Egypt, on Monday, Jan. 13, the day before the vote, officials dodged questions about the arrests, saying it wasn’t in their remit to comment.
Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, the founder of the Strong Egypt Party, said his group would boycott the election. In doing so, they joined the Morsi supporters and the Brotherhood-led "Anti-Coup Alliance," which in a Jan. 13 statement denounced the "sham referendum held by coup leaders on the Egyptians’ blood."
"The fact that there is no visible campaign for ‘no’ now is telling," human rights lawyer Ragia Omran said. "There are people who want to say no; people should be allowed to say their opinions."
Of course, there’s little room for dissent in the halls of the Department of Morale Affairs. As Masry croons in her tricolored dress, "Our position is strong and good, and whoever is going to vote no, tell him, ‘Get out of our country.’"