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Propaganda is hitting the mark, but ultimately doomed to failure, say experts

As political uncertainty continues to grip the nation, many Egyptians are continuing to express their apprehension over the ongoing circumstances with statements that appear at first glance counter-intuitive, perhaps even illogical.

Many, for example, share a longing for the days before the uprising, despite being in favor of the revolt at the time.

Mahmoud al-Abedy, a Cairo taxi driver, states: “Now we have intense traffic and crime. None of these things really existed before.”

To many, such a statement might appear odd, considering that both traffic and crime existed long before the revolution.

“I just want things to go back to how they were before,” says Abedy.

Others submit to the idea of the revolution being guided by foreign influences: “Things were peaceful before forces from abroad started to manipulate our country and destroy it,” states Wael Alaa, an engineer sharing his views at a Maadi coffee shop. “Why do you think all these revolutions have the same logo [the clenched fist]?"

To many observers, the idea that Egypt was "peaceful" before the revolution, and that all the current troubles are the result of foreign meddling may seem as unlikely as the crime-and-traffic-free Egypt outlined by Abdey as the drives his taxi.

However, the phenomenon of hankering after better days during troubled times is not an uncommon one, according to some experts, and can be attributed in large part to the prevalence of counter-revolutionary propaganda. Such messages permeate communities easily due to the various antics of counter-revolutionary forces, unverified state media reports and traditions surrounding the manner in which Egyptians handle and share information.

“When people are put under times of stress and uncertainty, they start to long for past times, and even irrationally so,” states Said Sadek, a political sociologist at the American University in Cairo (AUC).

“These uncertainties are easily exploited, and then further propagated through state media. The majority of Egyptians are not learned in political ideologies and information dissection etc., and so will continue to educate themselves through secondary sources, state media and coffee shop rhetoric.

“Naturally, what you will find, is people falling victim to counter-revolutionary propaganda, which should be expected,” he says.

One theory on the application of propaganda is that it is aimed at undermining the various sources of contentment and security that people feel, as outlined by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a five-part pyramid that prioritises key human needs in ascening order: Physiological, Safety, Belonging, Esteem and Self-Actualization.

“As time goes on, counter-revolutionary efforts will move to affect more crucial aspects of people’s needs,” states Mohamed Fathy, an Egyptian doctor of political psychology from the American University in Beirut (AUB), who focuses on issues of state propaganda in Israel/Palestine.

“It’s easy to persist when the top levels are threatened, but once you start getting into basic needs like safety, that’s when things get tricky," says Fathy.

Such a process can be illustated by the place of personal security within counter-revolutionary rhetoric, particularly the notion of rampant crime on the streets after the withdrawal of security personnel during the uprising, and the state media’s portrayal of post-uprising crime.

“It’s a matter of affecting the contextual image which people live within, catalyzed by state media, that creates memory biases that associate before with good, and the present with bad,” he adds.

The lack of a visible police force on the streets has encouraged the notion that crime rates have significantly increased since the uprising. But Sadek suggests that the perception does not reflect the reality. "Crime rates are not higher than before. What’s changed is the nature of the crimes, the lack of a police force, and how these things are being sensationalized in state media,” he says.

Experts are divided on the question of whether the lack of a visible police force is the result of intentional decision-making on the part of the authorities.

“Of course it’s intentional,” states Sadek. “There’s 1.5million police personnel in Egypt who are employees that follow orders. The reason why they’re not out on the street is because they are not receiving the orders. The question is, why?”

However, Manar Shorbagy, professor of political science at AUC, is not so sure.

“It is difficult to say what is intentional and what is not intentional… All we can do is try to work with what information we receive, and what you can see before you,” says Manar.

Another popular idea deterring confidence in Egypt’s uprising is the notion that the revolution is the result of foreign influences conspiring, often for unknown reasons, to overthrow dictators and disturb political norms.

“If you look at history, this is the standard counter-revolutionary response in authoritarian regimes,” says Sadek. “Even during the Iranian revolution, it was blamed for years as being masterminded by the KGB.”

Experts further suggest that the notion of blaming foreign forces for instigating uprisings is an exploitation of the xenophobic attitudes that are frequently instilled by authoritarian regimes.

“The problem now is that ideas are getting propagated very quickly through the state media with zero accountability. Words and accusations and theories are thrown all over the place in between accurate news, pictures and live footage. And the majority of illiterate, non-critical Egyptians are still dependent on these sources for their information,” he adds.

The themes of rising crime and foreign meddling are just two examples from a wide array of topics favored by propagandists in post-uprising Egypt. However, despite concerns of misleading information being spread throughout the nation, some experts are confident that time will eventually sap counter-revolutionary propaganda of its strength.

“During the early stages of a revolution, counter-revolutionary forces will aggressively rely on propagandist tactics,” states Fathy. “We are still in the early stages, and things may get worse. But eventually, as with any static method of governance, persuasion devices will erode and ultimately reveal themselves, even to the most state-dependent citizens.”

Sadek adds that there is a certain innevitability about the reactions of citizens to the revolution, by which so many appear to idealize the pre-revolutionary condition. This, he says, is all part of the development process of any nation undergoing revolutionary upheaval.

“Egypt was a failed state, so the revolution will take its course – but naturally, in a three-steps-forward, two-steps-backward manner,” he concludes.

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