Creating new perspectives since 2009

Documents reveal British soft power’s objectives in Egypt

April 20, 2024 at 1:47 pm

A view of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) Headquarters in London, United Kingdom on July 14, 2023. [Raşid Necati Aslım – Anadolu Agency]

Egypt was the main target of the British propaganda strategy in the Middle East during the early years of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s era, British documents reveal.

The documents, released to me under the Freedom of Information Act, also reveal explicitly for the first time the objectives of the British information strategy that relied on the BBC, alongside other British propaganda tools.

In its 2023 Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, the British Government planned to “seek to maximise UK soft power” in the coming years. The review considered the BBC World Service, of which the BBC Arabic is part, one of the tools of British soft power. It was decided the Government would provide additional funding of £20 million to the BBC World Service over the next two years.

It was concluded that the British national interests in Africa required “investing in long-term relationships” with Egypt, a vital country in Africa and the Middle East.

British officials never discussed the specific objectives of soft power or how it served British national interests overseas.

The documents show that trade benefits have been on the top of the priority list of six other objectives.

In a meeting held at the British Embassy in Cairo in July 1985, the diplomats were advised that the first of their chief local objectives was to “promote our trade promotion efforts.”

OPINION: ‘New crackdown’ on Arab journalists at the BBC for alleged anti-Semitism

After reviewing the outcome of their work in 1984, the meeting concluded that the local media in Egypt: “Remain on the whole well disposed towards Britain.” The discussion showed the effectiveness of the Embassy’s reach-out approach to Egyptian media.

In its annual information report on Egypt, the Embassy boasted that “much of the material which we are sent is used” by the Egyptian media, including newspapers, Radios, and TV.

The report pointed out pieces on industrial, commercial and cultural affairs sent by London to be published in the Egyptian mainstream media.

On trade promotion, the Embassy: “Distributed material in support of visiting trade missions and of British participants at the Cairo International Trade Fair (CITF).”

The report explained how the Embassy managed to promote British products at no cost in a supplement on Britain published by Al-Ahram, the then most influential newspaper in Egypt and one of the most well-known papers in the Arab world, during the CITF.

One of Al-Ashram’s common practices was to publish such supplements to generate money by attracting advertisers.

Although the supplement on Britain had difficulty attracting British advertisers, all of its articles were taken from the material provided by the Embassy. In an indication of its access and influence, the Embassy succeeded in placing captioned photographs and illustrated features on British products in the supplement without paying any fees to Al-Ahram.

Nevertheless, the Embassy warned that its success would be jeopardised if the British companies didn’t respond to the Egyptian newspapers’ requests to publish advertisements. It advised: “There is a danger that our results here (in Egypt) will decline unless we can encourage more British companies to take paid advertising.”

The second objective of the British information strategy was to influence the Egyptians to promote Britain’s policies by: “Ensuring that British views on subjects of direct concern to Britain are made known to the Egyptian Government and the general public.”

The Embassy’s report revealed that the Embassy had a “sponsored visits (to the UK) scheme” that was a means to achieve the third objective of “exposing as many influential Egyptians as possible to British influences.” The British relied on those visitors to: “Highlight in the Egyptian media the similarity of British and Egyptian interests on a wide range of matters.”

The fourth goal was to “Improve Britain’s general image in Egypt.” According to the Embassy’s assessment, the Egyptian local media: “Remain on the whole well disposed towards Britain.” In addition, Egyptian journalists are: “Readily accessible and show a lively interest in Britain.”

READ: Darkness haunts the blind in Egypt twice over

One of the indications of its success in achieving this goal was that Britain’s views and actions on the world stage: “Generate more interest than those of other European countries.” Another indication was that Margret Thatcher’s performance as British prime minister: “Is watched with particular interest albeit not always without criticism.”

In the 1980s, the Egyptian Government relied heavily on foreign economic aid when the economy suffered markedly from falling oil prices and a drop in remittances from Egyptians abroad, particularly in the Gulf oil states.

The British aid was said to be aimed at supporting the stability and prosperity in Egypt. It targeted promoting economic reforms that support the private sector, health, education, infrastructures and social sectors.

The fifth aim of the information and media activities was to “promote awareness of Britain’s aid programme” to Egypt.

The Embassy’s report predicted that the information strategy would finally help achieve the sixth aim of “improving Britain’s general image in Egypt.”

The document revealed that the British diplomats in Egypt were so influential on the media scene that they: “Were able to place the film Afghanistan: The Fifth Year with the Egyptian television.” The film was a propaganda piece that shed light on the life of Afghani people under the Soviet Union-backed Government in Kabul five years after the Soviet army invaded the central Asia country. It also showed the growing resistance against the regime and the Soviets.

In the meantime, the Egyptian newspapers, which the Embassy described as a “ready market”, welcomed material prepared in London: “All of London Press Service output is distributed and much of it appears in print.”

The Overseas Visits and Information Studies Division (OVIS), which has been part of the Central Office of Information, the core of British propaganda strategy since the Second World War, played a significant role in Egypt. OVIS’s main job was to organise and pay for visits to the UK by politicians, businesspeople and influential media figures to expose them to British influence.

An assessment of the Embassy concluded that OVIS’s service “has been of the highest standard” from 1984 to 1985. The visits by the Egyptian figures, who were not named, to the UK: “Have made a significant contribution to the British interests in Egypt.”

READ: Israel media: Netanyahu fears arrest warrants, requests assistance from UK, Germany

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) praised the performance of British propaganda in Egypt. “We were interested to hear the local media continue to be well exposed towards Britain and that you can place a good proportion of the material you receive to the Egyptian media,” said the FCO’s Information Department in a feedback dispatch to the Embassy in Cairo.

The dispatch talked in detail about the impact of the BBC World Service on these interests. In 1983, the service, including the Arabic broadcast, carried its first audience survey in Egyptian urban areas with some secondary education. The results showed that 25 per cent were listening to the Arabic service at least once a week and that this service was: “Well ahead of most other stations broadcasting in the area.” Even though there is less listening among the not-so-well-educated and those in the rural areas: “Preliminary results show that the BBC is making a considerable impact there as well.”

The ID also drew attention to the impact of Huna London (This is London), a weekly magazine issued by the BBC alongside its direct broadcasts. The dispatch confirmed the magazine circulation reached 6,500 copies per month, 5,600 of which were sent in response to listeners’ requests.

The Embassy echoed the FCO’s assessment. In its response, it said the reputation of the BBC World and BBC Arabic services: “Remains high and both services attracted large and influential audiences.” While advising that criticism about the BBC’s editorial contents is “inevitable” on some occasions, it drew attention to the fact that such criticism: “Can hardly be unique to Egypt of indeed to the Middle East.”

They concluded that Chair of the BBC Board of Governors Stuart Young’s visit to Cairo in mid-1985: “Appears to have generated enormous goodwill not only for the BBC but also for Britain.”

The Embassy also revealed the information competition among the developed and democratic countries in Egypt. The UK has considered the principal countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development “major competitors”. Despite complaining that fewer resources were available to them than other embassies, the British diplomats reiterated: “On the whole Britain still gets better than averaged coverage in most newspapers.”

While the British information officers were used to attending the meetings of their counterparts from the members of the European Community (now the European Union, which the UK is no longer a member of since early 2020), the British were reluctant to the multi-lateral cooperation. They argued: “Most of our EU colleagues view information cooperation as a means of transforming information from the larger European Embassies (UK, France and Germany) to the others.”

The British Embassy concluded: “There is little to be gained for this Embassy by pursuing actively the aim of information cooperation.”

OPINION: UNRWA not helped by wealthy Arab states during major funding crisis, British documents reveal

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.