State mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion

A majority of Egyptians sided with the military establishment and elected president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi three years after a revolutionary wave swept the country in 2011. Voters were apparently not dissuaded by Egypt’s long history of military rule, much of which lacked adequate justice and welfare, and was characterized by heavy corruption and repression. Why was this? Was it simply the result of people opting for the path of least resistance, a fear of the unknown, or because of a lack of viable alternatives?

The path of least resistance is effectively one that prioritizes making the immediate future as painless as possible, and ignores any potential consequences in the longer term. This was perhaps the case after February 2011, when protesters accepted the transfer of authority to the military council, and again in June 2013 when they again called on the military establishment to rid them of a ruler who didn’t live up to their expectations. But it is also closely tied to class and privilege, as any significant structural change requires a loss of status and power, which many among the middle and upper classes are reluctant to relinquish.

The state employed a number of mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), ranging from the famous military salute to the martyrs by Major General Mohsin al-Fangary, which was broadcast on television on February 12, along with SCAF’s declaration, “We confirm that the council is no alternative to the legitimacy acceptable to the people.” It wasn’t long before SCAF intensified this influence: “The military forces call on honorable citizens to stand against everything that hinders the return to a normal life for the sons of our great nation and to stand up to misleading rumors.” Images of a benevolent military were pervasive: a large picture of a soldier holding a child was posted in Roxy Square, along with the slogan, “The army and the people are one hand,” a naive discourse that insisted on treating citizens as passive recipients.

In the presidential elections that followed, the Muslim Brotherhood won the majority vote, and its candidate Mohamed Morsi assumed the presidency as a result of more tangible methods of persuasion, namely the Brotherhood’s well-respected and established grassroots community development projects in the absence of state welfare. Power, however, was never fully in the hands of the ruling party, but was still vested in many of the state’s institutions — the military establishment, the media, the security forces, and so on, which became a hostile front to Morsi’s government.

It was obvious from the beginning of Morsi’s presidency that there was media discourse both in support of and against the Muslim Brotherhood, with oppositional media magnifying crises to illustrate the regime’s flaws, such as electricity and fuel shortages. The media also intensified its mocking of Morsi’s speeches, rich as they were with blunders. This began to restrict the government’s ability to carry out simple presidential tasks, such as appointing a new governor in Luxor due to popular opposition, or failing to let the minister of culture enter his office due to protests.

In addition to messages about the incompetence of the Brotherhood, there were other mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion deployed to mobilize people on June 30. Messages were broadcast conveying the determination of the police and military to protect protesters from the Brotherhood, and they were backed up in practice: police forces distributed water to protesters in the streets and helicopters protected them and showered them with flowers. The promise of protection was fulfilled and the risk seemed almost non-existent.

The task was now for the state to paint a picture that the only entity capable of taking power again was the military establishment. The mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion meanwhile focused on painting a solemn, conservative image of interim president Adly Mansour. During this period a number of important political moves were also made with little resistance: laws were initiated regulating protests, the press and insulting the president.

Given this history, Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi didn’t need to use the mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion to get the masses to vote for him, rather the military establishment portrayed him as a savior who was compelled to respond to the will of the people and accept the post as head of state. “The council had no other option but to look with reverence and respect upon the desires of a wide sector of the great Egyptian people and accept the nomination to the presidency, considering it a mandate and a commitment,” the military council’s statement declared.

But keeping Sisi in this position has required the constant recycling of conspiracy theories about “higher councils that control the world,” the fight against terrorism, and the cooption of religious and moralistic discourse. Tough economic decisions have been blamed on the legacies of previous regimes, with the conclusion that Sisi had no other options available to him, and development projects like the new Suez Canal waterway were hailed as feats comparable to ancient Egyptian civilization.

There have also been attempts to make citizens feel as though they are part of the decision making process, with signs and slogans around the city reading: “With our hands we set sail,” “With daring reforms the path is shorter,” “We support our leadership and fight the battle,” along with television and radio commercials urging citizens to donate money for the sake of the nation, such as the popular “Long live Egypt” initiative, launched by the president. Other tactics have included the use of pro-regime celebrities on television talk shows.

Along with these messages has been a tokenistic nod to acknowledging the demands of oppositional groups, such as a committee formed to draw up lists for the pardoning of political prisoners, which mostly included detainees who had almost served their sentences already, such as Islam al-Beheiry.

But the state couldn’t achieve all its goals using the mechanisms of manipulation and persuasion, leading it to adopt more extreme methods of silencing and subjugation. Sisi, in one of his speeches declared, “Don’t listen to anyone else!” and concerning the government’s proposal to cede land to Saudi Arabia he said, “raising this issue is offensive,” as though the very idea of questioning the actions of the state is wrong.

The success of the regime’s attempts to manipulate and persuade citizens into complicity has not been wholly dependent on the rhetorical skill of the discourse or its authors, it has also hinged on the extent to which people are happy to permit the status quo to continue, and where they draw their red lines.

A longer version of this piece was originally published in Arabic. Translated by Assmaa Naguib.

AD
 
 
Basma Abdel Aziz