Issandr El Amrani
fall of 2005, the Egyptian press has speculated giddily about
the fate of the state-owned broadcasting service, which is laden
with debt, haunted by corruption scandals and grappling with
over-employment and other inefficiencies. Since the 1990s, there
media specialists, government officials and foreign aid agencies
have discussed how to reform public broadcasting, but only now
does there appear to be serious movement on the part of the
government to implement a new legislative framework over the
next year. The reforms currently being envisaged could be the
most important overhaul of Egypt’s public audiovisual
sector in decades. Their precise shape, however, still is uncertain.
Despite a new willingness to change, the government is ambivalent
about reform in what it considers a strategic area, and public
debate on the question has spotlighted fears that reforms could
chiefly benefit the Egyptian regime’s allies in the private
sector instead of serving freedom of speech.
Experience of Print Media
of reforming the Egyptian media has surfaced periodically for
more than a decade, but real structural change has yet to take
place. So far, the most significant reforms have not occurred
in broadcasting, but in the print media, which has grown more
independent since the late 1970s, when the regimes of Anwar
Sadat and then Hosni Mubarak relaxed restrictions on what publications
could be imported into the country or printed domestically.
A major change came in 1977 with the introduction of a multi-party
system that allows each political party to have its own publications.
This has enabled not only parties to disseminate their own views,
but also to provide others with ready-made printing licenses.
For example, Al Wafd, the daily of the liberal nationalist
party of the same name, has long covered corruption stories
that the state press tends to ignore. Over the past two years,
Al Arabi, a weekly mouthpiece for the Nasserist party,
has become the most outspokenly anti-Mubarak publication and
a platform for not only Nasserists but also Trotskyists and
other members of the far left. Since the 1980s, Al Afaq Al Arabiya,
under license from the Labor Party, has acted as a mouthpiece
for the Muslim Brotherhood, while its banned sister newspaper
Al Shaab continues to spread its populist-Islamist
license still is the easiest way to get newspapers published
and it is not rare to hear of publishers trying to "buy"
licenses from Egypt's many small and politically insignificant
parties. Aware of these problems, the state used a law intended
to reform political parties passed in July 2005 to restrict
the number of publication licenses a party can hold to no more
than two. Kamal Al Shazli, a top ruling party whip, justified
this provision as necessary in order to prevent parties from
renting or selling their previously unlimited licenses to “banned
organizations”—a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood.
independent newspapers play an increasingly important role.
While Egyptian press law makes it relatively simple in theory
to start a newspaper, in practice obtaining a license is a long
and onerous process that awaits the approval of the Higher Press
Committee of the Shura Council, the upper house of parliament.
in the past two years the state has proved more willing to loosen
control over the press, permitting a number of new publications
to emerged. Some are backed by prominent businessmen, such as
Al Masry Al Youm and Nahdet Misr, two dailies
that provide in-depth domestic political coverage that rivals
and often improves on the coverage of the "big three"
state dailies, Al Ahram, Al Akhbar and Al
Gomhouriya. Other new publications are more politically
biased, but nonetheless indicate greater freedom of the press.
The rebirth of Al Destour, a feisty political weekly
that was banned in the late 1990s, is perhaps the most prominent
sign of the rapid expansion in the diversity and outspokeness
of the Egyptian press.
of press freedoms, as well as Egyptians’ growing access
to online and satellite media, is putting pressure on a sclerotic
state press. Newspapers such as Al Ahram remain essential
reading for educated Egyptians because they have a wider breadth
of regional and international coverage than their competitors,
but they face a number of problems. In most respects, they are
still run as public mobilization tools whose essential role
is to justify, explain and endorse the regime's policies. The
front pages of most of these newspapers, usually leading with
a prominent picture of President Hosni Mubarak or another high-ranking
official, contrast strikingly with the inventive and provocative
headlines and pictures featured by their competitors.(1) The
quality of the state journalism, as respected Al Ahram columnist
Salama Ahmed Salama regularly complains, is seriously lacking.
Because of over-employment (a by-product of corruption and nepotism
as well as the Nasserist legacy of promising a job to every
university graduate), state newspapers face a dual problem:
too many poorly trained journalists, and repetitive coverage
because journalists (who receive a bonus for every article they
publish) frequently cover the same issues. Al Ahram
alone employs at least 1,400 journalists, few of whom regularly
contribute quality reporting. In fact, many readers skip the
reporting (which often is vague and poorly sourced in any case)
for the editorial pages, where
state newspapers manage to retain some level of diversity and
quality. Overall, however, state newspapers suffer badly from
structural inefficiencies and widespread corruption. They are
hemorrhaging money because of the costs of maintaining a bloated
staff, widespread institutional corruption and the absence of
any obligation to cut spending or generate more income. These
problems prompted the regime to replace all of the heads of
the state-owned press groups in July 2005, some of whom had
held their post since the Sadat era.
and opposition press has taken the opportunity presented by
this “purge” of the state press to delve into the
deep-seated corruption at institutions like Al Ahram,
where former chairman and editor-in-chief Ibrahim Nafie changed
internal rules in the early 1980s so that he would receive a
10 percent commission on all advertising. Many observers hoped
the departure of Nafie and the other editors would usher in
an era of reform, but most were simply replaced with underlings
who may have to demonstrate more financial austerity than their
predecessors, but still remain ultra-loyal to the regime. Indeed,
whatever corruption scandals took place in the state press over
the last few decades, it probably involved the new editors when
they worked under their predecessors, making it unlikely that
these scandals will ever fully be uncovered.
the same problems hampering reform of Egyptian print media also
face the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), the state-run
institution that continues to have a monopoly on terrestrial
television broadcasting. In fact, the ERTU is probably even
less responsive to change than the state newspapers, which have
at least faced direct competition for over a quarter century
and have a tradition of journalism that dates from the 1880s.
Nonetheless, the experience of the print media (which in terms
of reform is still in its infancy) could serve as a model to
follow for the audiovisual media.
and its predecessors under Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime
were chiefly intended as public mobilization tools that could
reach a vastly wider audience than print media in a country
where the literacy rate still is close to 50 percent. Although
less ideological than during the Nasser era, state-run television
and radio still serves a mission of general entertainment and
public service broadcasting combined with regime support. At
times, it also has served a role in spreading the propaganda
of other countries, such as during the 1990 Gulf War when Egyptian
television generated programming critical of Saddam Hussein
under the guidance of US PSYOPS officers. It is also an important
middle-class employer, with over 35,000 people on its payroll.
monopoly over FM radio transmission was broken in 2002 with
the creation of two independent stations, Nile FM and Nogoum
FM, but so far these have played a largely restricted role.
Neither provides independent news services or other content
that could be deemed politically controversial. Instead, they
have focused on popular music and call-in shows targeted at
a young audience. There is no highbrow cultural, educational
or religious programming on these channels, unlike state-run
radio. Perhaps such limitations could partially be attributed
to financial reasons. Certainly, the new radio channels, with
their slick production values, have tapped into a lucrative
market, but there is no reason to believe that news programming
or other forms of talk radio would not be welcomed in Egypt
at a time of important political changes, as Egypt's opposition
forces recognize. In June 2005, the liberal Al Ghad (Tomorrow)
Party started broadcasting a radio station online for several
hours a day. In October 2005, the Muslim Brotherhood also launched
its own online radio. The low cost of setting up and running
Internet radio stations, combined with the Egyptian government’s
generally permissive stance towards the Internet, has allowed
these stations to be established outside of the current legal
constraints on the media, which do not cover the Internet. Although
their audience necessarily is restricted by the low rate of
Internet penetration in Egypt (estimated at less than 3 million
users, or around 4 percent of the population), the relatively
low cost of accessing the Internet—even with broadband—make
these Internet stations available to a fast-growing number of
Web-savvy, young, urban, middle-class Egyptians.
News Left Behind
a decade already, television, by far the most important information
and entertainment medium in Egypt, has been under competitive
pressure from cable and satellite channels. The rise of Al Jazeera
and other Arabic-language satellite channels has exposed both
Egypt’s regular news broadcasts and the government’s
own 24-hour network, Nile News, to criticism for the poor production
quality and news-worthiness of its coverage. According to a
study carried out by Cairo University, 70 percent of Egyptians
follow major events on Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya rather than
domestic channels.(2) Egyptian television has been particularly
weak in covering major regional events such as the Iraq war.
It also lags behind when breaking news about important domestic
events. News of the Taba bombings in October 2004, for instance,
appeared on Arab and international news networks before it did
on Egyptian channels.
an explosion of Pan-Arab news channels, the ERTU also has trouble
attracting and retaining the best talent. In 1995, an observer
of television reform in Egypt noted that the "ERTU already
is facing a problem in getting and holding on to the best available
talent as the talent gravitates toward the private Saudi networks,
which can offer higher pay and better working conditions."(3)
later, this is even truer. It is not unusual to see state television
presenters moonlight on the private Gulf channels, foregoing
the exclusivity that would attract viewers to Egyptian channels
to see specific personalities.
quality of news coverage on Egyptian television is driven partly
by political motives, as in the case of the Taba bombings, when
network executives were awaiting approval from authorities to
transmit footage of the bombing. But the problem can also be
traced to a weaker news-gathering infrastructure than channels
such as Al Jazeera. Gulf-based networks generally are better-funded,
leaner and less corrupt than those operated by the ERTU. There
are also fewer political red lines to worry about. Even when
electoral laws obliged state television to give equal air time
to candidates during the recent presidential election, opposition
figures complained that the footage that was aired was selected
to make the candidate look awkward and unappealing. (See Charles
Levinson’s article on the role of Egyptian media in the
2005 presidential campaign in this issue.) It was telling that
even after the poll, state television continued to air President
Mubarak's campaign ad, as if to celebrate his re-election.
the ERTU has tried to improve the quality of its news content.
A new director of its news division was appointed this year,
tasked with upgrading Nile News in particular. The results have
begun to be reflected on the air. The new director, Abdel Latif
Manawy, was recruited from Asharq Al Awsat, a respected
London-based, Saudi-funded newspaper. His appointment was highly
unusual for an institution that traditionally promoted its own.
"This is history in the making for Egyptian television,"
says Hussein Amin, an expert on broadcasting at the American
University in Cairo and senior editor of TBS. "People usually
go up one step at a time until they reach the top."
example of recent reform efforts within the ERTU was the appointment
in April 2005 of Hassan Aboul Ela, a former director of the
BBC's World Service Arabic bureau in Cairo, as deputy minister
of information. His mandate was to reform the ERTU. Aboul Ela's
appointment came after another sign that Egypt's information
infrastructure was changing: the replacement of Information
Minister Mamdouh Al Beltagui, an aging regime apparatchik whose
career began in the security services, by Anas Al Fiqi, one
of the youngest members of the cabinet who is believed to be
close to the reformist wing of the National Democratic Party
(NDP) led by the president’s son Gamal Mubarak.
say that the aim is to make Nile News more professional and
able to compete with Al Jazeera and the other Gulf-based channels,
at least when it comes to Egyptian news. This goal may be driven
as much by the regime’s concern for how Egypt is covered
in mainstream Arab news channels as a desire for greater professionalism.
The Egyptian government has complained on several occasions
about what it sees as Al Jazeera's hostile coverage of Egyptian
domestic affairs. In May 2005, several of the Qatari channel's
reporters were arrested while trying to cover a meeting of the
Egyptian Judge's Club. Al Jazeera reporters were also arrested
and beaten during the last round of parliamentary elections
in December 2005. Around the same time, rumors also arose—published
in the London-based Arab press as well as in Egypt—that
Osama Al Baz, a longstanding advisor to President Mubarak, traveled
to Qatar and threatened to reveal embarrassing information about
a Qatari prince who had sojourned in Egypt if Al Jazeera did
not tone down its coverage. While the allegation may be untrue,
it is telling of the little trust Egyptians have of their government’s
attitude towards the media.
the deputy minister of information, says that the ERTU is taking
its experiment with Nile News seriously, particularly during
September's presidential election. "We had a monitoring
committee to tell us if we were doing anything wrong,"
he says, adding that "we are doing the same for the general
(parliamentary) elections" scheduled in three rounds in
November and December 2005. "We are getting more liberal,
but this is only the beginning."
made to Nile News, for the moment, are likely to be limited
in ambition. Faced with enormous debt and a drawn-out bureaucratic
battle to fight corruption that has been compounded by political
tensions within the regime between reformists and conservatives,
the ERTU is unlikely to try to challenge the major Pan-Arab
news channels. For one thing, news programming will remain motivated
by a desire to broadcast a more positive image of Egypt than
the one shown on channels such as Al Jazeera.
battle for news programs is over," Hussein says. "It's
been won by Al Jazeera. But the one on cultural programs has
just started. The improvement in the quality of programs like
talk shows and cultural programs shows you that they know the
threat of satellite broadcasting is coming."
Coming Entertainment Wars
Egypt has been the Arab world's dominant producer of entertainment
and cultural television content. The country’s dominance
in this field is one of the reasons that most Arabs, from Morocco
to Iraq, understand the Egyptian dialect of Arabic better than
any other outside their own. In the Nasser era, when progressive
films tried to show an Egypt where class barriers were thrown
down and gender equality on the rise, cinema and television
were used to propagate the state's ideology. Although today's
programming may be less ideological, it still is both a source
of national pride and a means to make political statements encouraging
better Muslim-Christian relations or depicting the dangers of
several advantages over its Arab competitors in this domain.
Unlike news, entertainment relies on an elaborate infrastructure
and a pool of talent ready at hand. Egypt, which invested in
the 1990s in Media Production City (MPC), a state-of-the-art
production facility outside of Cairo, has both. Despite competition
from the likes of Dubai's media city, Egyptian hope the lower
costs and "all-under-one-roof" appeal of Media Production
City will win the day, especially for large productions such
as soap operas. But Egypt is facing increasing competition from
the likes of Syria, which already has a reputation for producing
the best historical dramas and has begun to expand into co-productions
with Gulf countries, the most lucrative Arab market. (See Ursula
Lindsey’s article on Ramadan soap operas in this issue.)
if Egypt maintains its position as the leading purveyor of content
for general interest Arabic television, the state-run channels
are having a tough time securing the best shows at the best
air times -- even for Egyptian productions. In recent years,
satellite channels have been able to attract audiences at the
peak time of the year, Ramadan, by offering them the most sought-after
content at prime time. In some cases, Egyptian state channels
were obliged to run the same shows at less convenient times.
Financially, they have been unable to best the Saudi channels.
This also applies for non-Arabic content, with state television
running little-known, made-for-television B-list films, while
Gulf channels acquired the rights to hit shows like Friends
and recent theatrical releases.
Privatization Really an Option?
officials proposed various means to deal with the internal problems
facing terrestrial channels and confront competition from both
local satellite competitors (such as the two Dream channels,
owned by business mogul Ahmed Bahgat) and regional competitors
that often carry programming specifically catering to Egyptians
(ART, MBC, Showtime, Orbit). Selling off some of the state's
audiovisual assets, such as the Nile "specialist"
channels (Nile Culture, Nile Sports, Nile Children etc.),(4)
was touted by some officials as an effective way to raise cash
quickly for the ERTU and introduce the private sector.
Haggag, the director of the office of Minister of Information
Anas Al Fiqi, told a local newspaper that he believed that “the
best solution was the creation of a holding company, in which
the ERTU would hold a 51 percent stake,” adding that the
state would remain in control of the main channels as well as
news channels.(5) The mere discussion of this possibility seemed
to be a major policy reversal: Officials have long denied the
possibility of selling any part of the ERTU. In 2000, for instance,
then Minister of Information Safwat Al Sherif had stated rather
dramatically that “the ERTU is the spirit of the Egyptian
people. The Egyptian media are not for sale. They belong to
society as a whole and not to a single person.”(6) Similarly,
rumors about why the tenure of Al Sherif’s successor,
Mamdouh Beltagui, only lasted six months included internal disputes
between Beltagui and other officials about privatization.
the internal disputes among the ERTU’s board and the relevant
government officials are hard to discern since they have only
recently erupted into public view, they seem to essentially
be divided into three camps: those who defend the status quo,
those who like Haggag favor some sort of privatization of the
ERTU, or a more limited reform that could include the sale of
advertising rights to private firms, but not the channels themselves.(7)
2005, the Egyptian press began to discuss the possibility of
Emad Adeeb acquiring the channels. Adeeb is the Egyptian face
of the Egyptian-Saudi consortium behind Orbit as well as the
publisher of Al Alam Al Youm, a business daily. Adeeb
produced and presented a long three-part interview with President
Mubarak in August 2005, for which he was mocked by the opposition
press for his sycophancy to the Egyptian leader. The rumors
of a possible sale—confirmed by a statement of interest
by Adeeb himself—prompted accusations that Adeeb was being
rewarded for his support of Mubarak, notably on Orbit's political
programs and in the pages of Al Alam Al Youm, whose
executive editor Lamees Al Hadidi also ran media relations for
the president's re-election campaign.
to reports in the Egyptian media, Adeeb and the ERTU were considering
handing over 49 percent of the channels' shares and management
rights for an undisclosed amount. The ERTU would retain 51 percent
of the shares. Adeeb would then use the management rights to
restructure the channels and—in particular—get rid
of the culture of nepotism that, according to one report, has
"cousins working together and a son replacing his father
when he retires." According to an employee of the ERTU
at its Downtown Cairo Maspero building, family fiefdoms have
been formed inside the bureaucratic structure of the ERTU and
have become one of the main reasons for the over-employment
there. Adeeb, many working at Maspero feared, would cause a
social crisis by simply firing most of its unnecessary staff.
over the sale of the "specialist" channels ended abruptly
when the new Minister of Information Anas Al Fiqi stated in
September 2005 that the channels would not be sold. Aboul Ela
confirmed that the restructuring of the ERTU would not involve
the sale of any of its assets. "I can assure you that the
family silver is not for sale," he told TBS. Instead of
privatization, he explained, the ERTU is contemplating a major
restructuring. Although what shape this restructuring would
take remains under negotiation, a vague outline is discernable.
An independent regulator will be created to oversee the audiovisual
sector, removing this function from the ministry of information's
prerogatives. The ERTU would be "corporatized”—i.e.
its management would be made more structurally independent from
the ministry of information and quite likely adopt the shape
of a public broadcasting service. Along with these structural
reforms would come internal ones such as dealing with corrupt
individuals and reducing over-employment through a hiring freeze
and early retirement incentives. This is a type of reform the
public sector already used with some success and minimum layoffs
in other Egyptian companies, such as Telecom Egypt and major
however, the pace and extent of these planned reforms remains
largely unknown and subject to negotiation between the individuals
and institutions that have a stake in the future of the ERTU.
Like the stalled reform process in the print media described
above, initial changes may be largely cosmetic in terms of reducing
the state’s hold on media and focused primarily on rooting
out the extravagant corruption that seriously damaged the finances
of both the state newspapers and the ERTU. While the print media
has singled out the figure of former Al Ahram editor
Ibrahim Nafie as a symbol of corruption, the opposition newspaper
Al Wafd recently has begun a campaign against Ehab
Talaat, a longtime producer at the ERTU.(8) The paper accuses
Talaat of illegally holding the post of advertising agent for
national television. Talaat allegedly was appointed because
he is close to former Minister of Information Safwat Al Sherif’s
son. The Talaat scandal, however, merely is the latest and most
important corruption scandal to have hit the ERTU in the last
few years. In July 2002, for instance, a State Security investigation
charged Mohammed Al Wakil, host of the popular morning show
Sabah Al Kheir Ya Misr (Good Morning Egypt), with demanding
and receiving bribes.
against Talaat came out shortly after a rare cabinet meeting
on the ERTU during which Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif committed
the government to help reimburse a LE 4 billion debt to local
banks. As was the case when the government replaced the heads
of the print media groups in mid-2005, the beginning of serious
reform of the ERTU has uncovered a huge -- and largely unaccounted
for—deficit in its financing. Observers close to the ERTU
say its deficit could reach over LE 5 billion. Considering Egypt’s
ballooning public deficit and the growing pressure from international
financial institutions to bring it under control, the ERTU is
unlikely to be able to continue its profligate spending policy.
Room for Privately Owned Terrestrial Channels?
not, however, mean that private terrestrial stations are out
of the question. Under a new regulatory framework that includes
an independent regulator, private companies should be able to
apply for a license to launch their own stations. But the Egyptian
experience liberalizing the print and radio media does not suggest
that just any newcomer will be able to launch a station. Newspaper
publishers, for instance, have long experienced difficulties
obtaining licenses. Although in theory a simple mechanism exists
to apply for one, in practice many publishers opt for a foreign
license. While a local one would allow them to bypass censorship,
obtaining it is a time-consuming and expensive proposal.
Egyptian government’s perspective, there are several dangers
involved with liberalizing the television sector. On 12 November
2005, after a long bout with the government, the Coptic Church
announced that it would launch a religious satellite station
called Aghapy, the Coptic word for love. The Church had first
attempted to launch the channel on the government’s NileSat
system, but ended up going with the US-owned TeleStar after
it was refused a slot on NileSat. Church officials told the
Egyptian press that government officials refused to allow Aghapy
onto NileSat because “it has a policy of not launching
any religious channels from Egypt.” Such reticence is
only likely to be strengthened on terrestrial channels, which
have a much wider Egyptian audience. The problem is not so much
the possibility of a Coptic channel, but of one controlled by
the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group,
which is often at odds with state-sanctioned Islamic institutions
such as Al Azhar.
the prospect of new, privately-owned terrestrial channels seems
limited to wealthy individuals that the state feels it can trust.
Today those people who are rumored to be interested in establishing
a private terrestrial channels are Emad Adeeb of Orbit, Naguib
Sawiris of telephony giant Orascom Telecom, Ahmed Bahgat of
satellite channels Dream 1 and Dream 2, and possibly Taher Helmy
of Cable News Egypt, a cable provider. All are influential businessmen
with close links to the regime. Adeeb helped plan the media
campaign for the Mubarak re-election campaign and thus far is
the favorite to establish a private channel, since he had been
considered for the privatization of the Nile specialty channels.
Sawiris also has publicly expressed interest in a terrestrial
channel, but he is a much more independent personality than
the others and his experience in television is thus far limited
to the Iraqi channel Iraqna. Bahgat’s Dream ventures have
been losing money since they were launched and he has not publicly
stated any ambition to enter the terrestrial spectrum. Helmy,
an influential member of the ruling NDP and a managing partner
of the local office of the international law firm Baker McKenzie,
also has kept a low profile, despite his interest in the broadcasting
these early candidates are likely to upset the regime with politically
provocative programming. But even beyond that, another problem
presents itself: Is there room for new channels on Egypt’s
terrestrial spectrum, and if so, what kind? The AUC’s
Amin does not believe there is much room left for general interest
channels, as attested by Dream’s failure to make money
five years after its launch. “If you do another general
channel, like Channel One, you’re not going to make any
money. It depends on the kinds of products you are offering,”
Amin says, suggesting that niche channels focusing on topics
like crime news or shopping could be the answer. What is unlikely,
however, is that a homegrown information channel—an Egyptian
Al Jazeera or FOX News—will see the light of day.
El Amrani is a Moroccan-American Cairo-based
freelance journalist. His work has appeared in The Times,
San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Salon.com, Bidoun, The
Daily Star, Middle East International and elsewhere. He
is the former editor of the Cairo Times and managing
editor of Cairo magazine.
1. Al Arabi and Al Destour in particular are
known for their punchy headlines. For instance, a recent headline
of the former on parliamentary elections ran as “No political
reform under the shadow of the Mubarak regime,” while
the latter mocked the heavily airbrushed Mubarak presidential
campaign billboards with the playful “Have you seen the
president’s new look? You’d think he’s 70
rather than 77!”
Al Maghrabi, “La télé entre ouverture et
Ahram Hebdo, 4 June 2005.
J. Napoli, Hussein Y. Amin, and Luanne R. Napoli,
“Privatization of The Egyptian media,” in Journal
of South Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. XVIII,
No. 4, Summer 1995.
channels began as satellite-only channels but now are also broadcast
on terrestrial frequencies
Al-Maghrabi, ”Vents de réforme sur Maspero,”
Al Ahram Hebdo, 14 September 2005.
Al-Gamal, “La privatization n’est plus un tabou,”
Al Ahram Hebdo, 19 January 2000.
Al-Maghrabi, ”Vents de réforme sur Maspero,”
Al Ahram Hebdo, 14 September 2005.
Al Wafd for the first two weeks of November 2006, notably
the front-page article “Media Production City owes most
of its debts to Ehab Talaat”, Al Wafd of 7 November