Awakening: Dream Drops Top Talkers
By Ahmed Osman
the phenomenon of the surprising disappearance from f Dream
TV, Egypt's only private TV channel, of its trade-mark presenters,
viewers were astonished to be informed in the first week of
March 2004 of the sudden cancellation of veteran presenter Hamdy
Kandil's weekly political talk show Ra'is al-Tahrir ("Editor-in-Chief").
sudden disappearance, following rumors of his having crossed
"red lines" in many previous episodes of the show,
in which he demonstrated his famously harsh criticism of the
Egyptian government and gave voice to the frustration Egyptians
are experiencing, came after a similar dismissal of Ibrahim
Eissa, host of the popular program 'Ala l-Qahwa ("In
the Café") in December 2003. Eissa had also tried
to break taboos by using sarcasm to tackle many of the Egyptian
has raised questions about Dream's commitment to maintaining
an acceptable amount of liberalism when dealing with serious
issues. Last September; millions of Dream's viewers were astonished
when waiting for the farewell appearance of Hassanein Heikal,
the celebrated Nasser-era editor-in-chief of Egypt's leading
newspaper Al-Ahram, and a political commentator. Heikal, who
had decided to quit the field on reaching eighty years of age,
was on the event's custom-built set at the studio when Ahmed
Bahgat, owner of Dream, was called away to receive a call on
his mobile, only to return and explain to Heikal that permission
to air the episode had been refused by certain authorities.
Rumors spread indicating that Heikal had intended to deal with
certain domestic conflicts that it was considered inappropriate
to tackle in public. Bahgat, however, denied this afterwards
in a televised interview, proclaiming "that Heikal harshly
criticized the policies of the late Egyptian president Anwar
El Sadat; and it was supposed to be just a farewell episode."
Many viewers rejected this assessment in the light of previous
problems caused by Heikal on Dream TV, as when Heikal, accepting
Dream's offer to comment on the recent Middle East crisis, had
hinted at the failures of the Arab regimes (an uncrossable red
line), or when the station broadcast his American University
in Cairo symposium in October 2002 and went into a brutal assessment
of the current regime, and raising the issue of the "hereditary
succession" in Egypt. Many deduced from this that the government
had felt compelled to intervene vigorously in the contents and
level of freedoms of many of the privately owned Egyptian TV
During a recent interview Sanaa Mansour, Dream TV's new manager
rejected the accusation that any sort of censorship is applied
to the programs. "We have no taboos[the only material
we reject] is whatever may be in conflict with religion, adversely
affect national security, or lead to sectarian strife."
Mansour refused to comment on the Heikal and Eissa issues, noting
that these events had taken place before her assumption of the
management. Regarding the disappearance of the Ra'is al-Tahrir
show, she denied that censorship had played any role in the
program: "Kandil had the authority to say whatever he wanted.
He signed a contract and everything was going as usual; but
suddenly he excused himself from shooting for several reasons-once
with a medical excuse, another time because he was traveling.
Till now, he has not informed us why he left. All we have heard
are some vague rumors about his rejection of the television
business." Mansour insists that Dream TV is still on track
in its normal programming, programming marked by a combination
of entertainment and seriousness.
TBS also interviewed Dr Hala Sarhan, one the Arab World's most
prominent media celebrities, and in many ways the power behind
the throne for the launch of Dream TV in 2001. Sarhan believes
that she was also a victim of the abortion of Dream's experiment
with liberal broadcasting and that reactionary forces succeeded
in killing serious attempts to develop an independent liberal
channel capable of discussing controversial issues inside Egypt.
Forced to quit in the summer of 2003, Sarhan declares that cowardice
can never create objective media. "My last episode discussed
a hot topic, religious discourse. This was intolerable for them,
it was too much. Their decision came after an accumulation of
episodes on different issues. Of course, they never forgot that
I was the one who pushed for Heikal's appearance on Dream."
Sarhan believes that the problem of the government and Dream
TV boils down to one thing. They were hesitating whether "to
open the door or to close it. In the end they decided to close
it." Hala Sarhan remarked that the problem lies in the
fact that all the privately owned TV statians work with the
assistance of the government. Hence they will never succeed
in being objective. They will always be dependent and always
seeking approval. Dream is a clear case in point.
Ibrahim Eissa, who claims to be depressed by the interference
of the government in the media, says that he has lost hope.
"When I signed for Dream, I had my conditions: to be allowed
to express myself freely and present what people are feeling,
under a liberal-minded management like that of Hala Sirhan.
Things were going perfectly, but after great success and marvelous
reactions, their eyes were opened and the scissors of the editors
had to start." Eissa says that it was easy to avoid censors
by depending on the audience's intelligence in making sense
of his indirect remarks; he always managed to deliver his message.
"But when the prime minister himself insists on canceling
my program in order to support Ahmed Bahgat in this financial
troubles, this is really a question mark," said Eissa.
Eissa, however, believes that Bahgat himself is a victim, a
victim of his dream: he had aimed to establish the first private
non-government TV station, a station based on liberal formulas
and agendas and providing wider space for comment and criticism.
Reality, however, sometimes destroys dreams.
Dream TV, launched in November 2001, succeeded at first in attracting
viewership by reaching out to people with simplicity and a new
spirit, but this vision came into collision with reality. Perhaps
it is still too early to have a private channel in the Western
image and it was inevitable that it would eventually fall back
on a diet of light programming and videoclips. This is why many
Egyptians were not overly surprised by the disappearance of
Dream's prominent and well-loved presenters. Maybe they had
already switched from the once popular channel to watch the
latest Nancy Agram video clip. TBS
Osman is a producer with Al-Arabiya's Cairo bureau.