“Be Merciful to Egypt, stop this Farce!” This is a slogan of one of the online campaigns against El Sobky, a major – and almost the only – movie producer in post-revolutionary Egypt. He is “the man who destroyed a whole Egyptian generation” and “more dangerous with his movies than missiles and bombs,” according to one of the campaigns. El Sobky movies are criticized for their low quality, inconveniency for public morality, and their lack of storyline.
However, they achieve significant success that keeps El Sobky on the top of the industry. His opponents claim that the content of his movies, which is dependent on belly dancing, violence and local music, is what makes them successful. This might be an important factor, but the story has more than that. The success of El Sobky is no different than the political success of the Islamists, the military, and the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. They all provide relatively controversial content that might be of low quality, but still manages to dominate the ground and win over their rivals, who are mostly liberal politicians with secular civil tendencies. So, how does this work?
The mechanism by which politics and business works is the same; it’s mainly about the resources you have. Both require money and investment decisions to make profits or gather public support. While all movie producers have shifted towards TV production, El Sobky chose to stay and take the risk of investing in a socially and politically unstable environment. His strategy is to produce low cost movies by choosing relatively new faces who are seeking quick fame. This comes along with targeting the right consumer segment which is mainly the lower social classes. They are a better target than the upper class for two reasons. First, they are less critical of the quality of the product itself. Second, they are large in numbers and concentrate their cinema attendance in specific seasons, mainly the two feasts, which makes them an easy target for profit. He translates his segmentation into a strong marketing campaign that employs all the channels of communication to his audience, regardless of its prestige or legality.
Successful players on the Egyptian political scene have been using El Sobky-style investment since the downfall of Mubarak’s regime. The players might have ups and downs, but even their temporary success is marked with using this strategy. Let’s take the Islamists as an example. They invested large sums of money and effort in gathering public support in the risky political environment during Mubarak’s time, which paid off in the post-revolution political scene.
They tended to choose novel faces to support in the elections race. Some of their candidates, especially the Salafis, were criticized for not being qualified. But so were the actors in El Sobky movies, and both proved to be successful choices. Supporting novel faces in politics is of relatively low cost especially in the list system of parliamentary elections where a strong candidate can support less popular ones on the same list. The choice of novel faces representing a certain social background gives the message that “we actually represent you”.
Moreover, Islamists targeted the lower social classes in their campaigns for the same reasons. Poor voters are larger in numbers and less educated. They are less critical of the electoral programs, and focus more on the notion of representation. They reached their targeted segment through strong public outreach programs that included talking to the villagers and donating food and clothing. Liberals, on the other hand, are depending on their well known stars and speaking in a language that is not understood by the illiterate and poorly educated majority while communicating from the TV screens. They tend to withdraw from political battles rather than fighting back and invest. Their risk aversion makes them bad investors. Unlike El Sobky rivals who shift to TV production, they shift to nowhere.
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El Sobky has a clear agenda. He does not claim producing artistic masterpieces, but he is an investor who sets profits as his main criteria for success. This helps his audience to make their choice easily and firmly. In other words, his consistency makes him “credible” in the market.
The Egyptian political scene indicated that “combo” politics does not work. Combo politics means bringing different contradicting political ideologies into one political entity in order to appeal for everyone. The success of Mohamed Morsi, Hamdeen Sabahi and Ahmed Shafik over Abdel Moneam Abol Fotouh in the presidency elections supports this argument. Morsi came as a candidate for the Islamists, Hamdeen as a leftist, and Shafik represented the old regime and so they gained voters support on these bases. Each built his campaign on absolute rejection of the other’s views, there was almost no middle ground. In contrast, Abdel Moneam Abol Fotouh portrayed himself as an Islamist with liberal views and leftist tendencies. According to political theory predictions, he should appeal to the median voter as he is on a close distance from different voters. Surprisingly, he failed to achieve good results in the elections and voters preferred the extremes rather than the middle ground. The strong polarization in the Egyptian politics is partially due to seeking credibility and the fear of having amorphous politics.
Cinema critics write in the newspapers and social media critics are confined to their pages on Facebook. Neither have access to El Sobky’s consumers. They live in a bubble and talk only to their audience and so their ideas never spread. At the end of the day, El Sobky wins.
The Islamists reach out to the poorest villages. There is a member in the military in every Egyptian family. Members of the Mubarak’s regime are still working if not controlling every public and private institution. On the other hand, liberals are still holding their talks in the clean neighborhood of Zamalek in the heart of Cairo and making political statements on Twitter. Their bubble politics isolate them from the majority of the voters.
Egyptian liberal leadership
Real liberals in Egypt are a minority in a political environment that is still largely dominated by Islamists and military rule supporters. However, they have a chance to climb the political ladder if they reformed their political strategies. They need to come out of their bubble and talk to the lower segments in the society. Their resources need to be allocated to the majority of voters rather than targeting the elite with similar mentality. They have to use clear language that elaborates their ideas, defend them rather than withdraw in frustration, and avoid sacrificing their ideology for reaching a middle ground. It might be hard for them to be the majority in the meantime, but they are definitely missing out on an opportunity of playing a bigger role.