Sunday, May 6, 2012

Politics and Puppets

Political ads are largely a new phenomenon in Egypt. In the Mubarak days, state television itself was an ad for the regime, and opposition parties and individuals were never able to get thirty-second spots to criticize the regime. During the parliamentary elections, a few commercials used the stock images and music that anyone, anywhere around the world would loosely associate with a “better future”: the uplifting music, the farmers in the fields, the family sitting and eating together.

A new crop of ads has begun to appear ahead of the presidential election. The one thing that I, as an American, noticed immediately is that none of them are negative or attacking in the way that has become so familiar in the U.S. Every message is positive and affirming, and nobody mentions other candidates at all. I asked several political science students at Cairo University about this. One told me, “In Egypt, attacking somebody’s reputation is frowned upon. It seems like you don’t know anything about the real issues if all you do is attack the other guy.”

Another disagreed, “This is the first time we’ve had ads like this, so nobody has figured that out yet. It will come soon enough.”

The first exciting and memorable campaign ad came out today. It is for the campaign of Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood member who broke away from the organization when they said last year that they would not field presidential candidates. Now, they are fielding one, so Aboul Fotouh seems completely independent. He was arrested and imprisoned on and off through the 80’s and 90’s and was once the Secretary-General of the Arab Medical Union.

More Egyptians than I can count have told me that they support Aboul Fotouh, and he is undeniably a front-runner now that many other well-known candidates have been barred from running. Aboul Fotouh has also managed to bridge a divide that not long ago seemed impossible to cross: He has been endorsed by the ultraconservative Salafi parties and is widely seen as liberal, moderate, and aligned with the revolution’s ideals.

Here is the ad:

Puppets have a long lineage in Egypt. Some people take it back to Ancient times. I attended a show at the National Puppet Theater recently, and the weeknight audience was packed with eager children and their parents. One puppet play called ‘The Big Night’, by the famous poet Salah Jahin, depicts all-night celebrations during Ramadan and is a veritable part of the Egyptian national canon, as beloved as any movie, novel, or TV show. One of the songs from 'The Big Night' has been re-worded to provide the music for Aboul Fotouh's ad above.

But in addition to the historical and cultural antecedents in Egypt, this has also been a year of puppets in politics around the Arab world. In November, a group of very clever Syrian puppeteers began a web series of skits that poke fun at Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Watching the silly presentation and then reading the news from Syria produces a disconcerting effect, but you can’t help but feel that reducing al-Assad to an undignified caricature on a twitching finger is a novel form of public shaming. It might be frowned upon in a real election, as the Cairo University student explained. When it’s a dictatorship, however, public shaming appears to be fair game. 

Photo: Aboul Fotouh campaign posters in Aswan

1 comment:

  1. Hamdeen al Sabbahi on ONTV- a great interview that won me over to him-spoke so positively about Abul Fetouh that Youssri asked him if he was campaigning for his rival!