Egypt’s embattled regime launches charm offensive


CAIRO – Egypt’s increasingly isolated regime, once disdainful of the media, has launched a charm offensive in a bid to sap the momentum of massive protests calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s overthrow.
Ministers are speaking to the press far more often, their remarks are more conciliatory, and the state-run media has belatedly started to use positive terms to refer to the “Revolution of January 25.” The government is “making an enormous effort to communicate,” political analyst Issandr al-Amrani said.
Until recently ministers rarely agreed to interviews and even official spokespeople were difficult to track down. But as tens of thousands of protesters have hit the streets over the last two weeks, Egypt’s newly-appointed Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq has taken to the airwaves, giving a series of interviews, some of them relaxed and informal.
The extremely unpopular interior ministry, blamed for decades of police brutality and harsh crackdowns on dissidents, has meanwhile taken to using SMS messages to try to win its way back into Egyptians’ good graces. “Our behavior from today on will be based on honesty, trust and the rule of law,” one such message says. “The police are in the service of the people to protect them,” says another.
The main state-run Al-Ahram daily has meanwhile adopted a kinder tone towards the youth who have led the protests demanding the end of Mubarak’s 30-year-reign, going so far as to praise the “nobility” of the movement. State media outlets have also finally begun to refer to the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s oldest and most powerful opposition movement, by its name, rather than as the “banned Brotherhood.”
State-run television treated viewers to several long close-ups of senior Brotherhood leader Mohammed Mursi during talks held between Mubarak’s newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman and a opposition and protest leaders. The official coverage of the Islamist group — during unprecedented talks between the Brotherhood and the government that has repressed it for decades — was unprecedented.
But for Hisham Kassem, a political analyst and former independent newspaper publisher, the media blitz amounts to little more than a “regime tactic” to try to show that it is in touch with sentiment on the streets. “They are obliged to follow. They do this in spite of themselves,” he said. The government has faced renewed pressure as the protests have swelled in recent days, with hundreds of thousands of people pouring into Cairo’s Tahrir Square on Tuesday in the largest rally since the uprising began.
“The regime is trying to co-opt the desire for change and appropriate it. They are saying: ‘We are all in agreement about the need for change’,” Amrani, a Cairo-based analyst, said. “They want to defuse the revolution to make way for evolution,” he said. The new role could be a challenge for many in Mubarak’s newly appointed government, which is largely made up of veteran military commanders who have spent their careers far from the public eye.
“They are used to barking orders. They don’t like it when they are asked questions, and they are not used to talking to the media,” Amrani said. “They are also trying to pass on intimidating messages, as when the vice president talked about a conspiracy.”