Early this Ramadan, veteran actor, TV host and producer Isaad Younis appeared in an enigmatic TV ad, walking through a mirrored room in a black beaded robe as if starring in a music video, saying strange things about her relationship with herself. She had felt as though she were split into two contradictory personalities. It was confusing and disorienting. Then, she says, she had an enlightening revelation that helped her: the “Egyptian product.” She wanted to acquaint people with it, because once they know, they will understand and recognize their responsibility. As her voice fades out, a commentator matter-of-factly declares: “Inside every one of us, there are two people going in opposite directions, because neither of them knows the truth.” The ad ends with a slogan about the “right to knowledge.”
This was followed by another ad starring Ibrahim Eissa, whose TV show was banned by the government last year, sitting in a cozy chair in the same setting, his image reflected a dozen times in the mirrors, his words followed by a magnifying echo. ِEissa also talks about his split personality: “One voice tells me to believe, and another tells me not to; one voice says ‘Come on, Ibrahim, don’t be so peevish,’ and another outraged voice tells me not to turn a blind eye.” But he’s a journalist, after all, who has decided to “work for this country.” He addresses the authorities: “Enlighten me, give me knowledge, don’t leave me information-less” — because when we know, we recognize our responsibility. Again, the wise commentator’s voice asserts that we are all torn apart.
As strange as both ads were, they were not atypical of Egyptian TV. Both Younis and Eissa are TV stars who claim to be enlightened and cultivated, so it was no surprise to hear meditative speeches from them. But in a third ad, goalkeeper Essam El-Hadary walks determinedly, in a suit through the mirrored room, with a solemnly lowered head, to dramatic music. He, too, is torn into “two Hadarys.” One urges him to quit, while the other says: “You still have a long way ahead.” And because he followed the advice of his optimistic side and decided to do something for the country, God rewarded him in the African Cup tournament, to the joy of many young Egyptians, whom he now addresses: “You should know what you want and where you’re heading.” He reiterates “You should know” with the magnifying echo effect.
A few days later, we learned that these philosophical musings were teasers for a campaign aimed at whitewashing the state’s image using comedian Ahmed Fahmy’s self-proclaimed wit. Through ‘realistic’ discussions from the heart of society, like café or Facebook conversations, we learn that people who ‘are talking to themselves’ must listen to reason and logic, beyond the exaggerations of ‘cheerleaders’ and ‘belittlers.’ In each ad, dissident Fahmy rages at the performance of a certain ministry, grumbling about bad conditions and cursing his life. Then, out of the blue, the other Fahmy — state-supporter Fahmy — jumps out of a mirror to dissuade the first Fahmy by recounting fictitious government achievements that his cousin or nephew, who works in the ministry, told him about. All this in a humorous manner. The commentator then informs us that neither of them is right, and starts to list the ministry’s actual massive, unverifiable achievements.
The cheerleader’s language is exaggerated, like a cartoon character existing only to support the punchline. The belittler, on the other hand, uses reasonable arguments that do exist among opposition groups, which can be taken more seriously. But the aim of the “objective” commentator is to obliterate the viewers’ empathy with the belittler.
A conflicted good citizen kills their dissident self with their own hands
The “Right to Knowledge” series tries to rationalize the case of state supporters, portraying the government (one which has always played on emotions and rallying citizens to its side) as a composed, reasonable one that knows what it’s doing, thinks methodologically, and talks only in facts and numbers. This is achieved through information and a sensible, nonpartisan referee. Each ministry has its own ad: the Ministry of Housing, of Transportation, of Electricity. Education has the funniest. Its final segment, where the facts and figures are revealed, claims that the Ministry of Education is currently “establishing the Egyptian Knowledge Bank, comprising scientific content surpassing the Library of Congress.”
The ads demand that we rely on information as reference and arbiter. Ironically, it coincided with the government’s unprecedented campaign to block dozens of news websites attempting to provide information. But for the ads’ makers there is no irony, because the objective is to get the citizen to stop complaining, stop sharing concerns, and stop speaking to other people. Instead, we should go quietly to our rooms, look in the mirror and talk to ourselves.
The idea of the mirror and the intrinsic schism was also used in the state’s “Administrative Control Authority” ads. These featured two singers from different social backgrounds singing the same words to different melodies: shaabi star Hakim and Shady Hamza, a little-known thirty-something singer, sing about the importance of being proactive and starting with oneself. Both songs can be endured up to a point, like any trash on TV, but the ads end nightmarishly with Isaad Yunis yelling: “If we look in the mirror, that would be the beginning!” These ads demonstrate examples of corrupt, negligent citizens, like a teacher who skimps on explaining lessons in class, forcing students to take private lessons, and a government employee who fails to serve citizens unless he’s bribed. They prompt these bad examples to look in the mirror and be ashamed, and encourages other citizens to report them through the government’s anti-corruption hotline.
A good citizen shouldn’t burden the state: The early days
These campaigns were the first to directly defend the state, and the most audaciously manipulative, but guilt-tripping citizens has long been a core technique of state ad campaigns. The tone has sharpened with time, however, developing a clearer definition of the good citizen. At first they mildly asked citizens to be less of a burden, making it clear that a good citizen is an undemanding guest who doesn’t have many children for whom the state must provide education and health services, and doesn’t bathe in canals, get bilharzia and end up in hospital.
For instance, family planning campaigns in Egypt started in the 1960s with humorous animated ads by the Moheeb brothers, advising married couples to use contraception. It initially didn’t only address women but also men, encouraging them to use condoms. Family planning campaigns have many alternating faces and slogans, the most famous of which probably was the series “A man isn’t all talk” starring actor Ahmed Maher, and “Ask, consult.” The latest was launched in 2015 under the slogan “Your right to choose, your responsibility to decide.”
Other Ministry of Health awareness campaigns appeared around the same time, such as “Turn your back to the canal,” starring actors Mohamed Reda and Abdel Salam Mohamed, against bilharzia, and the national campaign to end dehydration, in which actor Karima Mokhtar addressed mothers.
This was when Egyptian state TV enjoyed absolute hegemony, before the rise of satellite channels. Ads simply asked citizens not to exhaust the government and to work on becoming ‘urbanized’ because they were causing too much trouble. They also sought to polish the state’s image as enlightened and civilized — Suzanne Mubarak’s omnipresence in public affairs pertained specifically to this purpose. Appointing herself pioneer of the feminist struggle and women’s freedoms, she initiated several campaigns addressing women’s causes, such as the UN-funded anti-FGM campaigns starting in the mid-2000s.
A good citizen pays the state without a fuss: Post-2000 and pre-revolution
Following that era of relative docility, in the last years of Hosni Mubarak’s rule state ads adopted a sharper tone and adamantly promoted new legislation, such as traffic and tax laws. The tax campaign was big and long-running, warning against tax evasion and fighting greedy retailers. In one ad, Abd al-Kawi is a “wise-ass” retailer who doesn’t keep records or give receipts. It also employed several actors, including Mohamed Shoman and Hisham Ismail in a famous series dubbed “Taxes… Your interest comes first.” The tax ads stopped for a while before reappearing this Ramadan with actor Hamdi al-Mirghany, promoting the value-added tax (VAT) under a new slogan with the same meaning: “No matter how you add it up, it’s in your interest.”
A good citizen trusts the state: Post-2011 and military rule
A strange campaign was put forth by the state amid the confusion following Mubarak’s ouster and the fracturing of the Ministry of Interior, which came up with a song titled Ittamen (Don’t Worry), in an attempt to restore its revered image and remind us of its important role. It illustrates a ‘policeman’s duty’ in the style of a children’s book: he arrests criminals, organizes traffic, saves us from fires, and so on. The year 2012, meanwhile, saw a particularly ludicrous series warning against foreigners spying among us, known as the ‘Really!’ campaign. In one ad, young men sit in a coffee shop, complaining about the situation and looking upset. A foreigner then joins them and listens with interest before taking out his phone to report what he’s heard to his superiors. A voiceover warn us against the grave consequences of complaining about the government: “Who are you complaining to? Why expose your country to them?”
A good citizen accepts the status quo and doesn’t create headaches: Sisi’s rule
When political momentum receded and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi came to power with the 2014 elections, state ads became more ferocious than ever, sternly implying that citizens were to blame for the economic collapse. In Ramadan 2014, as a power outage crisis persisted, the “Within Reason” campaign was launched by the Egyptian Initiative to Preserve Energy — a collaborative entity including the ministries of electricity, petroleum, and environment, together with private-sector companies such as Shell, P&G Egypt, and GDF Suez. It encouraged reducing electricity consumption by careful use of household appliances such as TVs and washing machines, and getting power-saving lightbulbs. Implying that such behaviors would end the crisis, they threw the ball into citizens’ court.
In 2016, the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (EGAS) came aboard with the campaign “Save it for you,” a series in which actor Bayoumi Fouad is constantly surprised at rising prices, each time blaming a fictional person, like Umm Kuki, who used too many lights for her son’s birthday party, causing an increase in the need to import natural gas, which is used in many industries, leading in turn to an increase in the value of foreign currency and thus in the prices of other products. The ads wrap up with advertising tycoon Tarek Nour’s voice saying: “It all has to do with saving energy… Save it for you.”
As the dollar price crisis started that year, we were met with another series of ads by Nour, sponsored by the Egyptian National Bank. It ridicules people’s outrage at the increasing prices of imported goods, suggesting that the solution lies in supporting Egyptian products and that citizens’ inferiority complex made them prefer foreign ones. It asks citizens to lose the negativity and help the state out by buying the products with the seal “Proudly made in Egypt,” which would be added to all high quality Egyptian goods.
Isaad Younis, increasingly pushed forward over the past few years as a sort of “voice of the state,” dedicated several episodes of her show “Sahibat al-Sa’ada” to advertise ‘the Egyptian product,’ hosting factory managers like General Hani Medhat, CEO of the Qaha Company. Following suit, host Amr Adib designated part of his show to promoting products made by military factories, arguing that we grew up using them and wondering why we complain about prices when such high quality is available.
That campaign continued this year with the addition of ‘Proudly made in Egypt’ to several ads, most of which, oddly, belong to international franchises, such as Coca Cola, Nissan, and Nestle. But blessings were also given to a few big Egyptian companies, like Ezz Steel and El Sewedy Cement.
A good citizen is a businessperson, under any government
Besides these direct campaigns, state-affiliated banks have prompted us to take our minds off the state and start small businesses instead of being idle. National Bank of Egypt and Banque Misr began creating successive campaigns with this message toward the end of Mubarak’s rule. In 2010, for example, Banque Misr launched TV ads announcing its willingness to help young people fund their small businesses. In this ad, a depressed young man receives the happy news, heads to the bank and meets welcoming employees who praise his idea and give him a loan. In 2012, the National Bank of Egypt hired Nour for a campaign suggesting that citizens should quit jobs they don’t enjoy to start small businesses in their favorite field. This continued in 2016 with a series saying that trading in the little things is good money.
This year, before Ramadan, anonymous billboards appeared all over Cairo announcing that “Talaat Harb is back,” referring to the economist who founded Banque Misr in 1920. It transpired that this was an ad campaign by Banque Misr, also about funding small businesses, but this time with a dry, threatening attitude. Optimistic encouragement was replaced with: “It’s your fault you’re poor. Why don’t you start a pasta factory?” One ad presents cousins in similar situations, Hassanein and Mohamadein. While Hassanein takes the wrong path of illegal migration (the ad actually includes real footage of a sinking migrant boat), Mohamedein does the right thing by going Banque Misr, which has open doors for everyone. He easily takes out a loan and starts a pasta factory, becoming more and more successful, while Hassanein washes dishes in Europe.
The ‘Hassanein and Mohamedein’ example isn’t new; comparing burdensome citizens with good citizens who cause the state no trouble has long been one of the government’s favored themes. The names Hassanein and Mohamedein were once featured in a song by Fatma Eid about family planning, commissioned by the Ministry of Health and Population. It compares Hassanein, who has many children and constantly suffers, with Mohamedein, who has only two children and therefore leads a happy life.
Apart from strategic ads that promote banking services, some state bank ads are mere patriotic songs revolving around the importance of positivity, as Amr Mostafa says in the main theme for the Talaat Harb returns campaign: “Get moving, take a step forward, don’t surrender to circumstance.”
Accusing people of laziness and apathy, and urging them to work and produce, is one of the state’s favorite defense mechanisms against attack. “It’s your fault,” said an 1980s campaign by Moheeb Studio, where pop star Mohamed Mounir performs a song criticizing the attitude of lazy Egyptians who find joy in saying words that hinder “our march,” such as “maalesh” (never mind) and “zayy baado” (whatever): “If the people want to advance, they have to destroy the word ‘maalesh’.”
The order to just do something is in fact the mainstay of Egyptian state propaganda. What thing? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that you find a way to deal with it yourself, because the state can’t afford to worry about you.
Translated by Amira Elmasry