I knew the Arab International Public Relations Conference being held in Egypt wouldn’t be your typical public relations gathering when organizers decided to move the meeting to Sharm El Sheikh from Cairo because of fears the proceedings might be disrupted by protests. However, the change of venue to this beautiful resort city on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula didn’t change the tenor. From the opening gavel, attendees could feel the tension in the room. The subtext of every discussion—even on a benign issue in public relations—was in the context of the political environment across the entire Arab world and Egypt in particular.
The date had something to do with it; the event was being held only days before the one-year anniversary of Mohamed Morsi’s election as president of Egypt, and as it turned out, only days before he would be ousted. And the atmosphere inside the conference was a reflection of what was happening all over the country. There were surprising levels of disgust and dismay with Morsi, an open defiance and negativity that let you know the president’s days might be numbered. Delegates discussed government censorship and the general repression of free speech and press. Others expressed concerns ranging from long waits for food, gasoline, electricity and other resources to the continuing decline of the Egyptian economy, the government’s overwhelming favoritism of Morsi’s political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and the manner of Islamic rule of law being imposed on the country.
Although initially I proposed discussing the need for a free press and transparency, I ended up focusing on the authenticity gap that exists for many organizations, including governments—where the expectations of stakeholders don’t live up to their actual experiences. And if there was ever a country suffering from a huge authenticity gap, it’s Egypt. Following the end of President Hosni Mubarak’s rule in 2011 and the first democratically held presidential election in 2012, the citizens of Egypt set their expectations on a government that stayed true to the will of the people. Unfortunately, it appears for the majority of Egyptians these expectations have yet to be realized.
Today, Egypt stands at a fork in the road. One path may lead to a long-term civil war that would cripple the country. The other direction has the potential for a second chance at achieving democracy. The latter is what we all hope lies in Egypt’s future, but we also know it won’t be an easy road.
An election isn’t necessarily where any society wants to start. There’s spadework that needs to be done, particularly in a culture without a long legacy of democratic rule. Egypt needs to first build the institutions of democracy—viable and effective political parties, a strong free press and respect for freedom of speech, and a bureaucracy less plagued with favoritism and more trusted by the public. The ousted Muslim Brotherhood needs to be brought back to the table (perhaps kicking and screaming) so it can have its rightful voice in the future of the country.
In my brief stay, I had an opportunity to hear from dozens of individuals who are hungry for democracy and don’t want to settle for anything less. Their passion came across in both their words and actions. At one point, the conference erupted when a police official from Dubai suggested that a survey he conducted showed 90 percent of Arabic people favored the censorship of social media. There was literally pounding on tables and pronouncements that social media could not and should not be contained. It is this passion that has given Egypt a second chance at democracy. And even with all of the challenges that lie in the way, the strength and resolve of the Egyptian people have left me optimistic about the future of their country.