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.
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.
Battling a Media Monopoly
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
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
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.
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
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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
Awakening in TBS 12). The opposition is not counting
on finding an adequate soapbox with either station during this
fall's presidential elections.
for Broke: The Question of Campaign Advertising
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.
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.
Satellite TV: Dishing Up the Opposition
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Balance: Iraq and Palestine
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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
Levinson is a freelance journalist based in Cairo.
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