I was too young to remember Madonna’s 1990 Public Service Announcement, in which she wrapped herself in an American flag, danced with two skinny, prancing men and declared: “If you don’t vote, you’re going to get a spanky.”
I did, however, grow up with Rock the Vote, the slick, celebrity-laden media campaign to register voters and consistently get a new generation of 18 year olds to participate in the electoral process (This was before Obama, the candidate charismatic and youthful enough to do that on his own).
What I took away from Rock the Vote is that even countries that have held open elections for decades need to continually educate every new generation on what voting is, how it works, and why its important. The first two goals are just a matter of packaging information succinctly, but the third is far more difficult. In order to galvanize people to do more than vote, to be jazzed about voting and do it meaningfully, you need big, exciting media campaigns (and having Madonna certainly doesn’t hurt, either).
This year in Egypt, I’ve been watching an entirely different set of campaigns attempt to educate voters, many of whom are illiterate, and most of whom are voting for the first time (as many stayed away from the intimidation and rigging of the Mubarak regime’s elections in 2005 and 2010). In the meantime, the High Elections Commission provides basic information (lists of candidates and parties, maps of constituencies, etc.), but little of the spark that will really drive voters to feel as though their vote counts.
So, as has happened so often in recent Egyptian history, NGO’s stepped in to fill the void. Their efforts ranged from online questionnaires that direct you to one party or another to printed flyers explaining the whole process to extensive websites.
Most of all, however, they produced short clips, aiming to reach voters who do not surf online for elections information, and boy are they creative. Here is perhaps my favorite example, in which a young Egyptian man rails against the injustices of his country. “There is no education, no dignity, no human rights, no opportunity,” he exclaims, all the while being slapped on the back of the neck by an old, corrupt fat cat of the former regime. All of a sudden, a ballot box comes crashing down on the slapper, and the young man triumphantly is told by a booming, ironically authoritarian voice, “No. There is.” He steps up on the box and the former oppressor and votes. The short clip features a melodrama, a kind of deep sadness and bold hope far more intense than anything in the U.S.
The clip was produced by “Have A Voice,” a campaign organized by a local NGO with international funding. Another campaign, which is locally funded, and apparently quite successful is called Qabila TV. My good friend and fellow Fulbrighter Ibrahim Elshamy is writing a Master’s thesis on the channel and explained to me last night how they work. Qabila TV was started in late 2010, before the Egyptian revolution, Ibrahim told me, and originally produced semi-nationalistic clips telling Egyptians “This is what Egypt has to offer,” and encouraging internal tourism.
Now, they are making videos, mostly cute cartoons, on every facet of the electoral process in order to explain to first-time voters everything from how campaigns are run to how to choose a candidate to how to proceed once they get to the polling station.
“They realize they have limitations,” Ibrahim told me, and they don’t aim to reach mass audiences. Instead, they hope to educate a small but critical portion of Egyptian society: trusted senior residents of villages, neighborhoods, or apartment buildings who learn about the electoral process from these media initiatives and then relay what they learn (with varying degrees of success) to their personal networks of family, coworkers, and neighbors. Qabila TV (which translates to tribe) has screened its short films in villages around Egypt, and have later gotten feedback that attendants have gone on to hold screenings as a spur to discussion even when the NGO itself did not send a representative.
So, although the number of viewers of any given piece of media may be small, its reach may be much greater. “People tend to say ‘so and so knows about politics. Let’s go ask him,” Ibrahim told me, and if that person is well informed by these media, then the whole neighborhood benefits.
It’s an uphill battle. Reports are constantly coming out that first-time voters know they have to vote (they are, in theory, fined a hefty 500LE or $80 if they do not), but have no idea who to vote for, so they just pick one of the many symbols that accompany candidates’ names. Ibrahim worries more about what he read in this article, the idea that “identity is driving politics.” Instead of making decisions on policy, people are choosing parties based on their professed secularism or religious nature. Of course, this happens in the U.S. all the time. American voters regularly choose a candidate because he is a Christian, he is secular, or sometimes more importantly he is not something (Kennedy’s Catholicism then, Romney’s Mormonism now). “People feel like Mubarak was liberal and secular and corrupt,” Ibrahim told me, so they say, “Let’s give the Muslim Brotherhood a chance without looking at their policies.”
Qabila TV is non-partisan in the sense that they do not support one party. They are, however, avowedly partisan in terms of advocating for a secular, civil society. In this cartoon, they compare the state to a bride, and show three possible choices the groom (the voter) can make (nobody said they were feminist). The first two, the theocratic and the military bride, do not tolerate any disagreement, and are always ready to make the groom run for cover. The civil bride, however, can always work through differences.
Apparently weddings are a common metaphor for democracy here. A month ago, I attended a lecture in which Judge Amir Ramzi told a room full of voters to encourage their family members and friends vote, and if the family members do not understand who to vote for, to tell them to “consider candidates like a groom for your daughter.”
The uphill battle here is not only about educating voters. The parliament they are electing will pick an assembly tasked to write the new constitution. In the meantime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has given little to no indication that they have any desire to be ruled by a civilian government. So, whether all of these great initiatives will translate into popular accountability, the real goal of democratic elections, is a different question altogether.