The Long Wait:
Reform in Egypt's State-
Owned Broadcasting Service
By Issandr El Amrani

Since the 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.

The Experience of Print Media

The question 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 message online.

A party 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.

In addition, 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.

Nonetheless, 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.

This expansion 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.

The independent 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.

Broadcasting Under Pressure

Many of 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.

The ERTU 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.

The state 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.

National News Left Behind

For over 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.

Faced with 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)

A decade 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.

The poor 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.

Recently, 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."

Another 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.

ERTU executives 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.

Aboul Ela, 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."

The improvements 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.

"The 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."

The Coming Entertainment Wars

Traditionally, 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 Islamist groups.

Egypt has 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.)

But even 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.

Is Privatization Really an Option?

Government 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.

Moustafa 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.

Although 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)

In September 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.

According 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.

Speculation 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 public banks.

For now, 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.

The allegations 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?

This does 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.

From the 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.

For now, 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 industry.

None of 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.

Issandr 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.


NOTES

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!”

2. May Al Maghrabi, “La télé entre ouverture et censure,” Al
Ahram Hebdo
, 4 June 2005.

3. James 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.

4. These channels began as satellite-only channels but now are also broadcast on terrestrial frequencies

5. May Al-Maghrabi, ”Vents de réforme sur Maspero,” Al Ahram Hebdo, 14 September 2005.

6. Khouloud Al-Gamal, “La privatization n’est plus un tabou,” Al Ahram Hebdo, 19 January 2000.

7. May Al-Maghrabi, ”Vents de réforme sur Maspero,” Al Ahram Hebdo, 14 September 2005.

8. See 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 2005.

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