Military’s evolving media strategy shows who’s boss

Hosni Mubarak’s last act as president was to hand over control of the state to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). With that gesture, the now-deposed president brought a secretive council of 20 military men out of the backrooms and into the spotlight.

The SCAF’s first public address was made while Mubarak was still in power. General Mohsen al-Fangary issued communiqué number one, which stated that the military council had convened.

Since then, the communiqués have proliferated and members of the SCAF have held numerous press conferences and appeared on television shows. While the tone was reassuring and conciliatory at first, it has recently become biting.

In an effort to keep the public onside, the SCAF initially stressed that the military was of the people and had its best interests at heart. However, as criticism mounted of the military's handling of affairs, and particularly its rough treatment of protesters, the tone of its media voice became more scathing, culminating in fierce attacks on anyone who dared "insult" the armed forces, branding them as treacherous saboteurs.

While the consensus is that most Egyptians fully back the army, some observers have become increasingly concerned by the military's media relations strategy and the attitudes it reflects.

The Egyptian armed forces are not traditionally known for their public interactions. Last year, a young man set up a Facebook group answering queries on conscription (which is mandatory for most Egyptian males) and was handed a sentence of six months imprisonment by a military court. The message was clear: Don’t talk about the military unless you want to end up in jail.

Since then, the circumstances have changed dramatically, and the military has been forced to change tack regarding its dealings with the public as it rules the country in an official capacity. While the use of military courts to try civilians has continued, and even increased over the past months, the military now finds itself in the position of having to justify its actions, engaging in discussion with the public through the mass media. There is a steep learning curve for the generals now running Egypt, as well as for the news reporters and civilians following events.

The military's outreach has extended to Facebook, with the military creating an official page on which to issue its communiqués. It began with a message to the Egyptian people on 17 February, asserting that the great nation of Egypt caters to all opinions "that lead to the progress of the nation" and that the right of peaceful protest is sacred, so long as it does not involve sabotage or attacks and remains within "the framework of legitimacy."

The SCAF’s Facebook page also became a forum for parrying unfavorable media jabs. Communiqué 41 on 26 April, for example, refuted claims that Egypt was under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to prevent Mubarak being put on trial, and exhorted the media to be more discerning in the news it reported.

However, some analysts claim that the SCAF’s media strategies haven’t been entirely successful, and have even backfired in some cases.

“Their efforts – at least with the state media – have been crude and show a real lack of understanding of modern media,” said Naila Hamdy, a professor of mass communications at the American University in Cairo. “The communiqués are a good step in that they’re new and are an attempt to reach out to the public, but the language is a little commandeering and can be alienating to some.

“I don’t think it’s purposeful; they just don’t seem to know how to address the public,” Hamdy said. “They’re trying to have a more public face and they’re learning [as they go along].”

Since taking the reins of power in February, the military council has increasingly come under fire for the way in which it has handled the transition period. As journalists became increasingly critical, the SCAF began to take up the role of national "editor-in-chief" of public debate, attempting to direct and censor the content of Egyptian media sources.

Field Marshall Hussain Tantawi, who heads the military council, has publicly castigated the national media, saying that there are those among the press who are not doing their jobs honestly. He urged the more honest members of the Egyptian media to make more strenuous efforts to report news accurately.

Accompanying this development has been a change in the tone of public statements issued by the armed forces. As activists and advocates accused the military of cracking down on protesters – including allegations of torture – the statements became more about repudiating allegations, despite reports to the contrary.

In May, the SCAF adopted the line that certain forces wanted to cause a schism between the armed forces and the Egyptian people, a move that appeared coordinated with a series of military crackdowns on protesters.

The shift in tone seemed to be a deliberate political strategy on the part of the SCAF, aimed at maintaining popular support for its rule while discrediting its critics. At one point, the messages being communicated by the armed forces turned into accusations labeling opponents as traitors manipulated by foreign forces, a discourse they adopted from Islamists, according to Mariz Tadros, a fellow at the Institute for Development Studies.

According to Tadros, the strategy is a well-established tool for manipulating public opinion, and has resonated with many Egyptian citizens.

“When people feel that their identity is under threat, they usually respond by making clearer demarcations between themselves and the ‘other’,” she said. “This ‘othering’ is directly attributed to creating a real or imaginary identity based on difference. Since identities are fluid and constantly changing in response to contextual factors, the lines of demarcation can be based on religion, class, ethnicity or any other identity marker.”

General Fangary, who often speaks on behalf of the SCAF, was admired early on for his salute to the martyrs of 25 January. However, the general was later castigated for a televised statement in July in which he warned protesters of a heavy crackdown if they escalated their activities.

Fangary’s tone was perceived by many as aggressive, and during the televised address he wagged his finger in what was perceived as a patronizing manner. At this juncture, the military seemed exasperated with continued protests, and began alleging the involvement of foreign culprits.

One of the more contentious figures in the SCAF's media set-up is the Commander of the Central Military Zone, Major General Hassan al-Ruweiny. He has made many public comments calling into question the motives of protesters and has labeled many of them as thugs or spies. He also accused the April 6 Youth Movement of treason and said that it accepts foreign funding for its pro-democracy work. This allegation came in conjunction with Communiqué Number 69, released on Facebook, which singled out the movement as trying to drive a wedge between the military and citizens.

“We were accused in Communiqué 69 with the same things we used to get from the Mubarak regime and the State Security,” said Tarek al-Kholi, a member of the April 6 Youth Movement – Democratic Front. "Smearing the movement in this way is unacceptable, especially after the revolution and the price its members paid in it."

Some independent observers echo activists' suspicions that the SCAF has been pursuing a deliberate strategy of vilification of pro-democracy groups.

“I was taken aback by the change of tone, and I think it’s purposeful this time and has to do with political strategy. And in terms of communicating that message, it did work to the detriment of groups like April 6,” said Hamdy, the mass communications professor.

“After the revolution the army gained public support and activists are trying to highlight they are not as embracing as we’d imagine. But they don’t have the same public support they had in January, and when the army releases a communiqué like that people will take it very seriously,” said Hamdy.

This particular approach has had wide repercussions, as many regular citizens “are very trusting of the army,” according to Hamdy.

One manifestation of the SCAF's media campaign against revolutionary groups has been an outbreak of attacks on protesters in a climate saturated with suspicion against real or imagined foreign enemies. Things came to a head during a protest march headed to the Ministry of Defense on July 23 that was stopped in Abbasseya. Ruweiny has described the march as littered with protesters “and thugs,” a statement that led to an violent attack on the march by residents of the area.

On that day Amr Gharbeia, a local activist, was kidnapped by civilians who believed he was a foreign agent. Mohamed Mohsen Ahmed, a protester who was struck by a rock thrown from the top of a building that night, died from his wounds on 3 August. Activists filed a complaint against Ruweiny and the armed forces for inciting Abbasseya residents against the protesters and ultimately causing Mohsen's death.

Egyptians who marched in January to rid themselves of an authoritarian regime now find themselves living in a country under military rule. For many, the situation seems to have altered little over the past 60 years. The difference now is that there is a more public face to the power that has always been at the core of the Egyptian ruling elite. Forced to engage in open dialogue, the military has increasingly found itself obliged to assert – by way of explanations, arguments, flattery and threats – exactly where the true power lies.

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