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Teaching Campaigning in Cairo
February 01, 2012
GSPM professors teach practical skills to emerging politicians in Egypt.
By Laura Donnelly-Smith
Jason Linde, M.A. ’95, stood in a Cairo classroom in front of a group of Egyptian political party members, preparing to talk to them about managing a campaign. The students in his group were part of a class of about 80 representing more than a dozen political parties, ranging from the established far-right Al-Nour party to newly formed secular parties that had only been in existence for a few months.
“I was standing up there, thinking that a meeting like we were having here would have been illegal a year ago,” Mr. Linde said. “You couldn’t meet with more than two or three people. We were able to see a new birth of freedom, and it was an honor and a privilege.”
Mr. Linde, who is chief of staff for Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., is also an adjunct faculty member in GW’s Graduate School of Political Management. He traveled to Egypt Jan. 8-12 with four other GSPM faculty members to spend five days teaching best practices in political management to emerging Egyptian politicians and activists.
The course, called “Managing Campaigns in an Election Environment,” was originally conceived by Bill Adams, a professor in the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, who visited the American University in Cairo (AUC) last spring. Faculty members there were unaware that GW had a school specifically dedicated to political management, and when Dr. Adams told them about it, they were eager to learn more.
So Dr. Adams enlisted Christopher Arterton, a professor of political management and founding dean of GSPM, to put together a proposal for a short course in political management specifically for Egyptian political party staffers. The proposal was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in November, and AUC organized the details for the course. During GW’s winter break, the faculty members headed to Cairo.
“The students included a lot of people who had been active a year ago in bringing down the Mubarak regime,” Dr. Arterton explained. “Many had been in the streets and in Tahrir Square.”
The program’s goal was to provide the students with tools and principles that they could immediately put to use, he said. Egypt is currently about halfway through a long process of building a participatory democracy. The first step was to remove President Mubarak, and the next was to elect members to the lower house of Parliament. Currently, Egyptians are involved in electing members for the upper house of Parliament, and later this year, there will be a period of constitution writing and, eventually, presidential elections.
Most of the students were mid-level leaders in their respective parties, working hard to get their candidates elected—but without having ever had any formal training in campaign management, Dr. Arterton said. So he recruited faculty members who could provide practical skills the students could use immediately—including how to develop a campaign budget, how to write a short “stump speech” detailing a candidate’s platform, and how to design television, print and Internet political ads.
About 80 percent of the Egyptian students understood some English, and about a third were comfortable speaking it. Faculty and students used simultaneous translation headsets to facilitate communication so that participants could speak in whatever language they were most comfortable using.
Nancy Bocskor, a campaign coach and board member for Running Start, an organization that encourages young women to enter public service, taught fundraising and campaign budgeting. Veteran Democratic media consultant Peter Fenn, founder of Fenn Communications Group, taught a module on developing strong messages for political ads.
“When [a country’s political system] is just starting out, there can be a lot of personality-driven parties,” Mr. Fenn said. “We asked the students, ‘What does your party want to say? What makes it unique?’”
One of the course’s most dramatic moments came when Mr. Fenn asked the students to break into groups and design an ad campaign for a fictional “jobs and economy” focused party. The students were sitting with others from their own and like-minded parties—a table of Al-Nour party members, a table of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party members and a table of secularists. Mr. Fenn asked the students to count off and reassigned them to new groups of mixed political ideologies, even though he knew this would cause friction. In a blog posting he published on the U.S. News & World Report website, he described what happened next.
“When each of the three teams returned from their breakout groups to present their ideas, they were ecstatic,” he wrote. “‘We still are the revolution,’ they said, ‘and we must work together.’” The assignment had forced them to refocus on their similarities—the ones that had brought them together a year before—rather than the differences that had divided them since, he said.
GSPM adjunct faculty member Kathleen Schafer, founding principal of Leadership Connection, a consulting firm that teaches people to be better leaders and speakers, focused on helping the students learn what was, for most of them, an entirely new type of communication. While the students were extremely Internet-savvy and familiar with Facebook and Twitter, they’d never before been asked to present their candidates’ ideas in a succinct, face-to-face conversation, Ms. Schafer said.
“Most of the presentations they’ve heard have been in a religious context,” she explained. “So we did exercises to identify their strengths and make them feel more comfortable speaking about politics to a group. I helped them understand the idea of a stump speech—how to say, in two or three minutes, what they’re doing in a way that inspires and engages their audience.”
The students did remarkably well, considering that they weren’t even allowed to talk publicly about politics a year ago, Ms. Schafer said. And while there was initially some tension and hesitation among some of the students, they worked through it quickly.
“The camaraderie in the group was pretty incredible. There was tension, but they understood that they were all working for the same things: freedom and democracy.”
About 15 students of the 80 were women, representing many different points on the political spectrum. Several women from a conservative party wore burqas with only their eyes visible, while more moderate women covered only their heads or wore Western-style business clothing, Dr. Arterton said. Ms. Schafer said several of the women told her how much they appreciated being able to learn politics from a woman.
“It was one of the most phenomenal teaching experiences I’ve ever had, and I’ve done a lot of international teaching,” she said.
Dr. Arterton said he hopes that GSPM’s connections with Egypt and the American University in Cairo are not limited to this course. “If they’re interested, we would like to help AUC start a more permanent program,” he said. “We’ve helped institutions in Italy and Latin America start similar programs—it’s part of our mission.”
And for the Egyptian leaders who completed the course, it was a chance for both a new political beginning and new international friendships.
“I think the students were quite thrilled,” Dr. Arterton said. “They were very appreciative of us. All of the faculty members have been asked to be friends on Facebook. I have about 60 new Egyptian friends.”