CAIRO: Mohamed Fouad, 35, is contesting elections in the Omraneya and Boulaq constituency. But unlike what others would expect from the younger, tech-savvy candidates, Fouad has brushed aside social media, relying instead on traditional campaigning strategies.
The American University in Cairo graduate and Ph.D. holder takes to the streets to meet potential voters, shaking their hands and organizing rallies to introduce his program.
“We use different methods including ‘popular nobodies’ who have strong networks in the area, through which they introduce my candidate to voters of all demographics,” said Foaud’s campaign manager Amr Hussein.
Social media is at the very bottom of their list, he added.
Often credited by analysts for assisting in galvanizing support for the protests that swept the country in January and February, social media was expected to play a significant role in the first parliamentary elections since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak.
Indeed, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts were set up in the past couple of weeks promoting mainly young candidates and their programs. Most of the older presidential hopefuls have done the same over the past months in a bid to access younger audiences.
In addition to reach potential, internet and social media provide a cheaper tool. The “Revolution Continues” alliance, whose leaders have reportedly complained about lack of funding for their youth- and revolutionary-dominated electoral lists, has set up a website explaining its program and promoting its candidates.
Yet, the increase in the number of youth contesting the elections hasn’t had the expected impact on campaigning strategies, with many still utilizing conventional tools.
To maximize his outreach, Fouad meets with community leaders with influence on the residents. If a candidate gains their support, he or she would have guaranteed the area’s votes.
Mahmoud Salem, an activist who has for years blogged under the alias Sandmonkey, is contesting elections with limited use of social media in his campaign.
He explained that any campaign that only exists online or through forms of media will fail. “It might give name recognition but it will also let people identify a candidate with their own perspective,” he added.
"On the street, it is a totally different game. It feels good to have their support."
Comparing the online and real worlds, Salem said there is more awareness on the street, with people finding practical solutions to their problems.
“In campaigning, there is no media tool that should not be used, and certainly one tool cannot replace others [in reaching out to] target audiences,” said Dr Farag El-Kamel, head of the Center for Development Communication and Chairman of the English department at Cairo University’s faculty of mass communication.
The keyword here is “target audience,” El-Kamel noted, while underlining the importance of “audience segmentations.”
Potential voters, he continued, include young and old, men and women, and those with varying socioeconomic backgrounds; which implies different media habits and certainly varying degrees of social media usage.
Hussein said call centers are part of the campaign. “We call the man of the house and introduce him to our candidate. We try to build this voter’s trust by paying visits, organizing conferences and street campaigning. But we are also aware that there are youth who need to be reached which is somehow through social media.”
In Heliopolis, Salem approaches potential voters through backgammon competitions at cafés. Conversations flow from problems people are facing to the man organizing the competition and his electoral program.
On the other hand, activists who have long utilized online tools to spread messages and mobilize, stress the importance of social media — as opposed to traditional media for example — in reaching out to youth. Features that combine video, photos and text in one medium make the task easier.
“I think social media will maximize voters’ knowledge,” says renowned blogger who writes under the alias Zeinobia.
She pointed out several online initiatives, including one exposing members of the disbanded National Democratic Parties contesting the 2011 elections and other awareness campaigns explaining the electoral and political systems “like Qabila TV which creates awareness through short cartoon clips.”
Activist Evronia Azer, however, noted the challenges of internet accessibility. “Not everyone uses the internet,” she said. “So there has to be TV ads, street campaigns, rallies and so on. Voters need to interact with campaigners and see them in person.”
Zeinobia agrees with the limitations of social media, especially with the high illiteracy rate and relatively low internet accessibility rates.
“Indeed [social media] lessens chances, especially when we are not only talking about Cairo in the elections; we are talking about areas like in the countryside and Upper Egypt with less access to the internet, let alone social media,” she explained.
This year, regulations allow candidates televised ads. Ten minutes of broadcast will be given to political parties for free to campaign on state TV channels including Channel 1 and Nile TV, while independent candidates will be allowed five minutes of free broadcast on their local TV and radio channels, the Supreme Electoral Commission stipulated in its media guidelines.
Thirty minutes of paid broadcast will be given to political parties and 10 to independent candidates in each phase of the elections, it added.
Yet, the decline in the popularity of state TV and the notorious reputation it has acquired in terms of credibility mean that privately-owned channels are a better alternative, albeit an expensive one.
El-Kamel suggested that private TV channels should also donate free air time to all candidates. This would help those institutions regain some credibility with their viewers, at least for the time being.
“In my opinion, TV could be the most decisive medium in these campaigns, if used well,” he said.
Another campaign strategy is presence through banners, with some candidates using up to 1,000 street banners. “It gives the feeling that the candidate is there,” Hussein said.
For Hussein, as a campaign manager, it is a “complete package.”
“You need internet, call centers, and field visits, which are the most important. … In a place like Omraneya where people know each other well, word of mouth is the most important strategy,” he added.
“One medium cannot substitute all others, and a successful campaign will need to use the right mix of media that is suitable for the target audience,” El-Kamel said.
Furthermore, issues of messages, visuals and appeal will continue to be crucial to the effective presentation of any particular candidate or party, regardless of the medium used, he added.