Cablegate: Mepi Lessons Learned 3: Public Diplomacy

DE RUEHTU #1273/01 2620945
P 190945Z SEP 07





E.O. 12958: N/A

REF: A. TUNIS 1259
B. TUNIS 1263

TUNIS 00001273 001.2 OF 003

Sensitive but Unclassified. Handle Accordingly.


1. (SBU) Summary: Since MEPI's launch in 2002, we have
learned a great deal about public-diplomacy efforts towards
reformers in the Arab world. Building trust and name
recognition has required on-the-ground engagement by posts
and the MEPI Regional Office. The primary challenges have
been identifying our target audience, developing appropriate
tools to get the word out, and getting the "reform" message
right. To date, we have made great strides in reaching
MEPI's natural constituency - reformers - and maintaining a
relationship with them, most recently through enhanced alumni
activities. We have not, however, taken a consistent PD
approach on MEPI aimed at the general public in the region.
There are pros and cons to doing so, as well as resource
implications. Given MEPI's considerable PD potential, we
should take a country-by-country approach to exploiting this
untapped source. End Summary.

2. (U) This is the third in a series of cables by the MEPI
Regional Office in Tunis, based on three years of supporting
MEPI activities from Morocco to Lebanon. The others are:
-- Overview (ref a)
-- Addressing the challenges (ref b)
-- Small Grants: The Secret Weapon (septel)

The Audience

3. (SBU) While Public Diplomacy is not MEPI's priority
mission, we have been successful in outreach efforts to our
natural constituency: current and future reformers. Within
civil society across the region, MEPI has developed high and
generally positive name recognition. Achieving this success
has meant adapting our approach and learning as we go. Early
on we saw that overcoming skepticism about our goals would
require persistent engagement and building up trust. This
was one of the primary motivations for opening MEPI Regional
Offices (ROs) in Abu Dhabi and Tunis, to establish an
on-the-ground presence dealing full-time with reform issues
and programs.

4. (SBU) The first challenge was to identify local partners
whose reform activities we could support. This required
considerable outreach efforts by posts and the RO, as many
existing contacts turned out to be seeking funds for projects
that did not fit MEPI's objectives, such as one-off
conferences or provision of social services. Posts cast
their net wider, the RO used visits to meet new civil society
contacts and even held seminars in three countries to explain
MEPI's objectives and how to apply for a grant. Over time,
as posts became more familiar with NGOs and the NGOs with
MEPI, we have been much more effective at identifying
hundreds of individuals and groups to participate in, or
implement, MEPI programs.

The Medium

5. (SBU) The second challenge was getting the word out about
MEPI opportunities and accomplishments. In 2006, the RO
launched a website with information geared to the countries
in the region and 100% mirrored in Arabic and French -
essentially 3 parallel websites, a first for the Department.
The site ( not only provides
material on MEPI programs, but is also constantly updated
with funding opportunities, human impact stories, and
articles on democratic reform. To ensure that the website
was used, the RO began to reach out electronically to its
target audience and draw them into the website. The RO now
sends a monthly "electronic journal" to some 1,500 contacts.
Its articles and other information are linked to the website,
which results in three times as many hits in the days after
the e-journal's release than during the rest of the month.

6. (SBU) It took us two years of trial and error to reach
this point. When the RO opened three years ago, there was
very little material on MEPI and almost none of it was in
Arabic or French. In 2005, we began by developing fact
sheets and information packets in those two languages plus

TUNIS 00001273 002.2 OF 003

English to explain MEPI's broad objectives. Posts
appreciated having something to share with potential MEPI
partners and host governments, yet told us this general
information was of limited use; what was really needed to
spread the message was country-specific material. That led
us to the website, which is the most effective tool developed
so far, justifying the considerable effort required to
maintain it. The RO plans to continue making the website
more attractive and interactive.

The Message

7. (SBU) The third, and perhaps the hardest, challenge is
getting our message right. While there is clearly a growing
understanding of, and hunger for, democratic practices across
the region, they are usually not expressed in broad, sweeping
terms, but rather in more concrete ways of addressing daily
problems. In other words, "freedom, democracy or rule of
law," are harder concepts to grasp for most people than
"government corruption, equal access to jobs or fair
treatment by judges," even if the latter are just examples of
the former. Arab opponents of reform frequently deride the
term "democracy" as a Western model being imposed on Arab
society. They also usually paint USG democracy-promotion
efforts as part of a grand conspiracy linked to other
policies unpopular in the region. However specious, these
arguments have resonance with a large segment of the
population, even among liberal reformers.

8. (SBU) We have found no magic lexicon to address this
challenge. Hot-button words vary by country, as do examples
of democratic practices that have resonance. In general,
people respond well to specific examples of activities that
have an impact on the daily lives of individuals they can
relate to. The key is to find terms that reinforce the ideas
that democratic development is taking place, that it is not
being imposed from the outside but is home-grown, and that
expanding democracy ultimately leads to concepts that are
genuinely shared by our different cultures, such as justice
and security.

Reformers or General Public?

9. (SBU) When we made initial visits across the region after
opening the MEPI Regional Office three years ago, most
activists and reformers met us with skepticism - when they
met us at all. The reasons for their reticence varied:
doubts about USG sincerity on reform; objections to certain
policies; fear of being tarnished, or endangered, by
association. Our persistent engagement, with a consistent
message and concrete program support, turned that around.
It's not that the reformers now agree with all US policies,
but they have concluded that we share a common interest in
promoting democratic change. The bottom line is that a lot
of groups who avoided us in the past are now coming to us
with ideas for reform projects for which they are seeking
MEPI support.

10. (SBU) We need to consolidate existing relationships with
reformers and to continue outreach, especially outside of
capitals. Maintaining contact with participants and grantees
after their MEPI programs have ended is crucial to our
efforts. The creation of MEPI Alumni Associations in several
pilot countries should go a long way in ensuring both that
posts maintain contact with the growing list of participants
and that the alumni involved in different aspects of reform
in their country are exposed to each other.

11. (SBU) Given the success in outreach to the "reform"
community, the question remains whether MEPI PD efforts
should more consistently target the general public. The
numerous MEPI activities across the region offer great
potential to demonstrate concrete USG support for positive
change. But there are potential hazards as well.
Publicizing MEPI support of activities in politically
sensitive areas, such as the media or political parties, can
potentially undermine their impact. We have seen examples in
several countries of spurious media coverage of MEPI-funded
activities that made accusations about the
independence/loyalty of the local implementer and/or
"meddling" by the USG in internal affairs. Therefore, great
care must be taken in selecting which activities to
publicize. We should adopt a country-by-country approach
toward PD efforts related to MEPI, perhaps as part of the
democracy-strategy process. This would allow all interested

TUNIS 00001273 003.2 OF 003

parties to discuss the pros and cons, as well as the resource
implications, and decide which activities to promote. There
should be no illusions. Publicizing MEPI events will not
quickly win over the person in the street, but it will let
him or her see another facet of USG policy in the region, one
which has a positive impact on real people.

© Scoop Media

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