Arab TV on the Campaign Trail in Egypt, Iraq, and Palestine
By Charles Levinson

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak announced in February that his country will hold its first multi-candidate presidential elections in 2005. Mubarak hopes that this "historic step," as many have deemed it, will convince outsiders and Egyptians alike that Egypt is finally leading the way to democracy in the Middle East, as US President George W. Bush has repeatedly called on Egypt to do.

Multiple candidates alone, however, will not suffice to place Egypt at the front lines of the democratic process in the Middle East. Despite security woes and the shadow of occupation, the Palestinian and Iraqi elections are likely to outpace their Egyptian counterparts. This discrepancy will perhaps be most visible in the different roles of the local and satellite media in the three countries, and the extent to which opposition candidates are able to challenge the state media monopoly to secure campaign coverage and advertising.

Egypt: Battling a Media Monopoly

Egypt's 70 million people are serviced by only two non-state controlled Egyptian television stations, both satellites. By contrast, the West Bank and Gaza's 3.7 million residents watch more than 30 private Palestinian television stations. And in the two years since the fall of Saddam Hussein, dozens of private and party-affiliated television stations have sprung up in Iraq, catering to the viewing demands of nearly every ethnic group and political faction there.

Following Mubarak's announcement, Egypt's opposition figures were quick to point out that state dominance of Egyptian media presents a major hurdle to free elections. Egyptian writer and literary critic Mahmoud Amin al-Allam said at the time, "The Egyptian television today has become monopolized by the President. So will the presidential candidates be allowed to use the media, just as President Mubarak does? Will the public spaces be opened to them?"

The answer is almost surely no. Even if the conditions approved for this fall's presidential elections meet all the opposition demands (an unlikely assumption), the dismal state of Egypt's independent press, and the state's near total monopoly over the broadcast media, present crippling obstacles to aspiring opposition political figures.

Many will take issue with the word "dismal" to describe Egypt's press. Egypt's written press does enjoy a margin of freedom that is lacking in much of the Arab world, but those papers which challenge the government, and will thus give a fair shake to opposition presidential candidates, are read by only a politically attuned elite. Though precise figures aren't available, readership remains low. With advertising revenues tied directly to circulation, and with no means of verifying claims, it is widley held that most papers exagerrate about their circulation. So while the leading independent daily Al Masry Al Youm claims to have a daily circulation of 100,000, independent analysts say it is doubtful that the number exceeds 10,000. The leading opposition paper, Nasserist weekly Al Araby, has a weekly circulation of perhaps 30,000. Meanwhile, the government-owned Al Ahram has an estimated daily circulation of over one million copies.

In a country where illiteracy rates approach 50 percent, newspapers have limited reach. Television should be the most effective means of reaching potential voters, but it is a medium that is all but closed to the opposition, illustrating the challenges faced by democratization efforts and free election campaigning in the country.

The final composition of the new election law should be known by late June. Among the provisions eagerly awaited by Egypt's opposition are the limitations placed on who can run for president, and the composition of the oversight committee. That committee will, among other things, be responsible for determining the opposition's access to state-controlled media. During past elections the president of each opposition party was granted two blocs of 20 minutes on state television following the 6 pm news.

Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif has said that he thinks that all presidential candidates should be given equal airtime on state-owned television. "I think that is a legitimate right," Nazif told Reuters. "At least on government-owned television stations, for example, that should be the case."

But even if the opposition's air time allotments are significantly increased, they are unlikely to match the time afforded to Mubarak, who sat for a carefully staged six hour, three-part interview on Egyptian television in late April.

Despite Nazif's statements, many remain skeptical. "All the programs host the NDP and the government ministers to explain their programs all the time and they ignore the opposition," said Wa'il Nuwar, a leader of the liberal Al Ghad party, the only party that has announced its intention to field a presidential candidate thus far.

Egypt has nine state-run local terrestrial television stations located in Cairo and different governorates around Egypt, in addition to two state run national terrestrial television stations. There is also an official state satellite channel, and the state-controlled Nile Series, which targets the entire Arab world. There are no private terrestrial stations, though there are rumors that mobile phone magnate Naguib Sawiris has one in the works.

Egyptian political and media analysts estimate that 90 percent of Egyptian viewers tune in to terrestrial state-owned television stations, which focus largely on entertainment and rarely broach political issues. The few political talk shows that have emerged on state television in recent years, seen largely as an attempt to imitate Al Jazeera's formula for success, have rarely given air time to opposition figures and have not fairly presented the political debates taking place in Egyptian civil society.

When the appearance of free debate is desired, state TV talk show producers bring in newspaper editors close to the government, or tamed members of the opposition, as happened on the political talk show Al Bayt Baytak, the Arabic equivalent of Make Yourself At Home, following Mubarak's announcement of multi-candidate presidential elections. To balance the opinions of NDP figureheads Fathi Surour, Kamal al-Shazli and Muhammad Kamal, the show hosted three "independent" journalists: Makram Muhammad Ahmed, editor in chief of the state-owned Al Musawwar magazine, Mustafa Bakry, editor in chief of the independent but government-friendly tabloid weekly Al Osboa, and Imad Ed Deen Adeeb, publisher of the independent daily Nahdat Misr, a paper widely viewed as allied with the Gamal Mubarak wing of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). It was Adeeb who lobbed six hours of softballs at Mubarak during his much-hyped television interview in April. The opposition's principal reservations about the amendment, repeated in every non-state controlled media outlet both inside and outside Egypt, were neglected by the supposedly independent guests.

Egypt's two private satellite channels, Dream and Al Mehwar, also have proven unable to secure their independence from state influence. Dream, the more provocative of the two, has cancelled at least two programs in recent years, after the hosts, Muhammad Hassanein Heikal and Ibrahim Eissa respectively, irritated the government (see Rude Awakening in TBS 12). The opposition is not counting on finding an adequate soapbox with either station during this fall's presidential elections.

Going for Broke: The Question of Campaign Advertising

In addition to the state media's lack of coverage of the opposition, there is the issue of advertising. The Al Ghad party was denied an advertising slot on Egypt's two national television stations in early April. But even if the government changes its policy and allows the opposition to advertise in the state-owned media, Egypt's cash-strapped opposition is unlikely to have the means to wage an effective advertising campaign. A full page ad in Al Ahram newspaper sells for approximately LE 150,000, and a 30-second spot on Egyptian Television costs between LE 5,000 and LE 10,000, and can jump to LE 50,000 a minute during important football matches. Meanwhile, Al Masry Al Yom reported on April 5 that the Nasserist Party is unable even to pay the phone and heating bills at its party headquarters.

Mubarak's NDP, on the other hand, has a bottomless checkbook which in the past has allowed it to employ pop star Ruby's music video producer, Sherif Sabri, to create commercials touting the achievements of the NDP. Rumors are circulating that a slick US public relations firm is behind Mubarak's recent flurry of appearances at various public works projects around Egypt, many of which have been covered on the front pages of the Al Ahram newspaper.

Arab Satellite TV: Dishing Up the Opposition

Arab satellite stations like Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya will play a more prominent role in the 2005 elections than they did in the last presidential referendum in Egypt in 1999. At that time Al Arabiya didn't exist and Al Jazeera hadn't yet earned the viewership and credibility that would come with the Palestinian Intifada in 2000. Al Jazeera especially has been giving extensive coverage in recent months to the opposition in Egypt, such as the Kifaya (Enough) movement. In recent months Al Jazeera has aired interviews with such controversial opposition figures as Ayman Nour, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, and a much talked about interview with Abdel Halim Qandil, the outspoken taboo-busting editor of the Nasserist Al Araby weekly. Al Jazeera is almost certainly the most widely watched news channel in Egypt today. Regardless of the restrictions of the state-owned media, opposition candidates in Egypt will have an outlet available to them.

Many ordinary Egyptians, however, continue to view Al Jazeera with suspicion, largely due to the concentrated government attacks on the station. Following the 1999 presidential elections the government mouthpiece Al Akhbar newspaper called Al Jazeera "The Zionist and dubious channel, which has no other goal than to harm the reputation of Egypt and the Arab world," reported Hugh Miles in his 2005 book on Al Jazeera. More recently, Al Masry Al Youm reported that Egyptian state television would be launching a campaign against Al Jazeera, because of an Al Jazeeua documentary critical of the Egyptian government.

"The opposition parties fear that if they resort to these satellites like Al Jazeera they will be accused of taking advantage of foreign influence to affect internal issues," said Abdel Ghafar Shokar, a Tagammu' Party leader.

Al Jazeera may have a more indirect impact as well. There is increasing pressure on state media to reform, as its credibility sinks to all time lows, and viewers increasingly turn to channels such as Al Jazeera for their news. State television was slammed by critics when it failed to cover the April 17 suicide bombing near Al Azhar. A subsequent headline in Al Masry Al Youm read "Egyptian television watched the Al Azhar incident on Al Jazeera." Al Jazeera reported the bombing first at 6:30 pm and was quick to provide analysis and commentary. State television failed to provide coverage of the bombing until 9 p.m., and then they simply rebroadcast MBC's coverage of the incident. Why the delay and the failure to cover the event? According to Al Masry Al Youm, state television's authoritarian news director had his mobile phone turned off and thus couldn't authorize the broadcast. A week later, Osama al-Ghazali Harb, editor in chief of the Al Ahram-owned quarterly journal Al Siyasa Al Dawliyya (International Policy), wrote in Al Ahram Weekly that the state media relies on one of three strategies towards covering unfavorable news: completely ignoring the event, downplaying its importance, or attacking members of the opposition.

"This strategy only serves to highlight the fact that large swathes of the official media continue to live in the 1950s, a proud example of the very worst in state-controlled, dictatorial media even as dictatorships and the absolute state are on the wane," al-Ghazali Harb wrote.

A potential wild card in Egyptian broadcast media's coverage of the 2005 presidential elections is Muhammad Farid Hassanein, an independent member of Parliament and one of the first people to announce that he would challenge Mubarak for the presidency. The outspoken Hassanein is reportedly working on an opposition satellite channel, based in Europe but to broadcast in Egypt. He said that it will be operational in time for this year's presidential elections.

In the Balance: Iraq and Palestine

If, with the 2005 presidential elections, Egypt hopes to become the beacon of democracy in the Middle East, then it will have to compare favorably with the Palestinian and Iraqi elections. At least as far as balanced media coverage is concerned, it's an unlikely prospect.

The Iraqi and Palestinian elections suffered their share of allegations concerning media coverage. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights reported a number of violations of the election law which stipulated that the Palestinian Authority "shall remain neutral throughout the different phases of the electoral process, and shall refrain from conducting any kind of activity which may benefit any candidate against others."

Violations included Palestine Radio's favored coverage of Mahmoud Abbas, Palestine Television's repeated airing of photos showing Abbas and Yasser Arafat together, and the same station's airing of a 15 minute photo montage of Abbas in December 2004.

Still, the Human Rights group concluded that despite the violations, "the official media gave equal opportunities to the candidates in their campaigns." And the presence of over 60 private television and radio stations ensured that the state media did not enjoy the same monopoly of coverage as is the case in Egypt.

Similarly, in the run-up to the Iraqi elections, no single party list enjoyed a monopoly of local media. However, many analysts, journalists, and politicians complained that the three main lists, the Kurdistan Alliance, interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's Iraqiya, and the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), received a disproportionate share of the coverage, at the expense of the 108 smaller lists. Among the principal lists, it is further alleged, Allawi made news with greater frequency than many of his opponents -- which prompted Iraq expert and Michigan Middle East Studies professor Juan Cole to complain that Allawi "was shown going here and there to various venues and making promises to constituents. He had enormous advantages of incumbency."

Many stations tended to favor whichever political entity they served. So the two Kurdish satellite stations and the local terrestrial stations in Kurdish areas gave favored coverage to the Kurdish list. Al Furat, the station owned by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) endorsed the Shiite UIA list, and this pattern was repeated elsewhere around Iraq.

However, the diversity of such stations -- Iraqi National Assemblyman Yonadam Kanna estimates that there are about 50 private and party television stations throughout Iraq -- ensured that no one party list monopolized the air waves.

Still, security concerns dictated that few candidates could run publicly until the final hours before the election. Needless to say, anonymous candidates did not receive much media attention. Candidates with deep pockets who could afford the necessary security detail weren't as cowed by security concerns, and thus enjoyed more coverage. Like elections the world over, financially well off candidates had significant advantages in Iraq. In addition to expensive security, Allawi paid for a massive advertising campaign on Al Arabiya.

The diversity of private media available in both Iraq and Palestine ensured that no single candidate succeeded in dominating the small screen. As for Egypt, without a significant relaxing of media ownership rules, a major restructuring or privatization of the state media apparatus, and an effective election law concerning media access, truly free and fair elections are unlikely.

Charles Levinson is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.


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