Whose Voice? Nasser, the Arabs, and 'Sawt al-Arab' Radio
By Laura M. James

On July 4, 1953, Cairo Radio first broadcast a half-hour radio programme called The Voice of the Arabs. It included a short statement by the ostensible leader of Egypt’s recent July Revolution, General Mohammed Naguib, garnished with a great deal of anti-colonialist rhetoric.(1) The new programme was perfectly timed to take advantage of a critical moment in the history of transnational broadcasting. Newly inexpensive transistor radios were being acquired by the illiterate poor in cities and villages across the Arabic speaking countries. The Voice of the Arabs was instantly popular, and expanded rapidly. It used highly emotive rhetoric, combined with music from such iconic singers as Umm Kalthoum, to draw in its listeners. “People used to have their ears glued to the radio,” remembered the Nasserist Abdullah Sennawi, “particularly when Arab nationalist songs were broadcast calling Arabs to raise their heads and defend their dignity and land from occupation.”(2)

In very short order, The Voice of the Arabs became a major radio station in its own right, broadcasting the revolutionary opinions of the Cairo regime for 18 hours each day across the Arab world. Arabic, in the words of Douglas Boyd, came to stand “second only to English as an international broadcasting language.”(3) The radio station reached across national borders, helping to break down the distinction between domestic and regional politics in many of the states that had been created from the shards of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of the First World War.(4) Above all, it deliberately created a sense of national identity that had previously existed in, at most, a latent form. It created that identity, moreover, in a particular image, dissociating Arabism from Islam even as it bound the new ideology together with strands of socialism and anti-colonialism.

This particular slice of history is worth reviewing in an age when the idea of the Arab countries as a unified entity—in spiritual, if not in political terms—appears to be undergoing a revival. There is a clear analogy between the far-flung effects of The Voice of the Arabs and the way in which the Arab world is once more being brought together by new transnational media based on new technology, ranging from satellite television to the internet. Phrases such as ‘the Arab street’ are again becoming commonplace, as changing structures of communication allow a shared language and a reawakened sense of common identity to translate into a collective stance on the issues of the day. Marwan Kraidy has argued that stakes have been raised for Arab regimes in the wake of September 11 to the extent that the history of the Nasser era, when critical political issues were played out on the level of transnational media, “provides the willing contemporary observer with important insights on the current situation”.(5)

It is true that the comparison is far from perfect. Islamism, in all its variety of forms, represents an important driving force behind the current revival of Arabism. Nasserist Arab nationalism, by contrast, was generally secular.(6) More importantly, satellite television channels such as Al Jazeera, although they have sometimes been accused of a biased political agenda, pride themselves on their precision concerning matters of fact and their criticism of corrupt Arab rulers.(7) The Voice of the Arabs, on the other hand, was an overt vehicle for Egyptian state influence and often ridiculously inaccurate. There was an ongoing tension between its avowed raison d’être as the forger of Arab unity and the unedifying squabbles it ignited within the Middle East as a result of its habit of addressing Arab populations over the heads of their established rulers. It was a weapon wielded by the Nasser regime, rather than a genuinely collective voice. In the end, however, the weapon was as fatal to its makers as to their enemies.

To sustain this argument, it is necessary to delve more deeply into the original plans and purposes of The Voice of the Arabs. It was, according to Mohammed Fayek, who later became Minister of National Guidance, “a nationalist project aimed at helping Arabs turn the page of colonial occupation and division of their nation into small entities and build a better common future.”(8) Ahmed al-Said, the radio station’s best–known presenter and general manager, remembers that their mandate of promoting Arab unity was laid out quite clearly in the original plans and studies made in early 1953. Addressing the Arab people in their own language for the first time, the station would explain to them the ideals of the July Revolution, making them aware of the many plots they faced. The main aims of The Voice of the Arabs, therefore, were to liberate the Arab people; to unite the Arab countries; to liberate Arab resources from imperialism’s grasp; and to encourage the use of those resources for the development of Arab civilisation, science and culture.(9) It was an agenda perfectly aligned with the modernist, post-colonialist, nationalist ideologies flourishing throughout the Third World in the 1950s. But it called on the people of a state that did not exist–yet.

Throughout his life, the revolutionary Egyptian leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, opposed a consistent triumvirate of enemies: namely, "imperialism," "Zionism," and Arab "reaction." When he approved the plans for The Voice of the Arabs in 1953, however, he still applied the third term principally to hostile groups within Egypt. The programme concentrated initially on the fight against imperialism in the Arab world—most particularly, of course, supporting the struggle of the fida‘iyun against British troops in the Canal Zone and opposing British machinations in the Sudan, both of which were viewed as direct encroachments upon Egyptian sovereignty. The Voice of the Arabs first raised its voice against developments in the wider region on August 20, 1953, just a month and a half after its initial broadcast, protesting the French authorities’ deportation of the Moroccan sultan. On that very day, Nasser himself announced his manifesto in Cairo’s central Midan al-Tahrir:

We must follow the policy of a total war—the people’s war. The enemy is now fighting us with money, hostile propaganda and the agitation of minds. This is the cold war between us and imperialism. (10)

Anti-imperialism was to remain a major theme—perhaps the major theme—of the radio station over the years that followed. In the early to mid-1960s, it railed particularly against the ongoing British presence in the Gulf. No scandal was too small. When the British Governor of Aden passed through Cairo Airport in November 1961 without making a statement, he was accused of being unable to face press questions on the iniquities of British imperialism. “What would he tell these journalists about the federal union which Britain wants to establish there against the Arab people’s will?” The Voice of the Arabs demanded. “What would he tell them about the British plots in Aden and the Protectorates?”(11) Minor revolutionaries from Aden were feted in Cairo; trivial victories such as the removal of the pro-British Principal of Aden Girls’ College provoked sustained gloating across the airwaves.(12) In September 1962, when the British finally forced through an agreement for Aden’s accession to their new creation, the South Arabian Federation, furious protests on The Voice of the Arabs’ “Arab Gulf and South” programme were blamed in London for provoking serious rioting in Aden. When the presenter, Ahmed al-Said, visited the UK, British newspapers dubbed him "Mr Hate." (13)

By that point, a number of Arab leaders might have agreed with the sentiment. Ahmed al-Said acknowledges that another part of The Voice of the Arabs’ mandate was to inform Arabs of their own governments’ sins. This function first became apparent with a concerted attack on the effective ruler of Iraq, Nuri al-Said, in 1954-55, over his support for the pro-British Baghdad Pact. Nuri, with the subtlety for which he was known, initially responded only indirectly, intimating to the Egyptian Minister of Guidance, Salah Salem, that he found the whole programme far too lowbrow. Salem, known as “the Dancing Major” and the butt of many a joke, hurried home to demand that the great Egyptian author Taha Hussein be put on the air immediately. It had to be gently explained to him that Nuri was in fact resentful of the massive popularity of The Voice of the Arabs, seeing it as a threat to his position.(14) He was quite right. In late 1958, an Arab nationalist coup d’état in Baghdad would force Nuri to flee disguised as a woman. He was discovered and killed, his body torn apart by the mob.(15)

Similarly, the Imam of Yemen was overthrown in late September 1962 following a sustained campaign on The Voice of the Arabs, most notably a series called “The Secrets of the Yemen” that had begun two months previously, presented by “the Yemeni revolutionary, Dr Abdel Rahman al-Baydani.” Baydani accused the Imam Ahmed of drug addiction, rapaciousness and allowing his harem to interfere in politics.(16) The Imam’s son, Crown Prince Badr, was condemned as having “no principles,” and when he succeeded his father on September 19, the tone remained unyielding:

Free sons, the sins of the past are still those of the present. Even the people who served the departed Imam are the same that serve the new Imam … The people will break all bonds and shackles and will impose themselves for the building of the future of Yemen. (17)

Baydani even claims that his final radio announcement, on September 26, 1962, contained the secret code words—referring to a well-known Yemeni story—that signalled the start of the revolution: “Friday is Friday, the sermon is the sermon.”(18)

Moreover, in the wake of the Yemeni revolution, King Saud and Crown Prince Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who had already suffered from round condemnation of their personal lives and policies on The Voice of the Arabs “Enemies of God” programme throughout much of 1962, became the targets of even more insurrectionist propaganda. The “Committee of Free Princes,” led by the exiled Prince Talal, was permitted to call for reform on Voice of the Arabs; and King Saud was explicitly told that he was the next target after the Imam.(19) Later, when Saud himself had been deposed by his brother, his own hostile broadcasts from Cairo were carried on the same radio station. Indeed, Boyd argues that Saudi broadcasting developed largely in order to balance such attacks.(20)

The Voice of the Arabs, in other words, was in most respects the voice of the Nasser regime. “We cannot separate the policies of Nasser from the broadcasting,” says Ahmed al-Said. From the outset, it had strong links with Egyptian Intelligence, which had, indeed, come up with the concept of such a radio station in the first place. Both institutions, in a sense, performed the same job: They prepared the citizens of the Arab countries for revolution. As a result, they routinely shared information. Representatives of The Voice of the Arabs used to contact members of pro-Egyptian organisations in other Arab countries, whereupon mukhabarat officers, sometimes disguised as students doing doctoral research, would call upon the trustworthy ones for situational reports. The mukhabarat, in their turn would provide the presenters with feedback on the Arab people’s response to their broadcasts, advising them to raise or lower the tempo, as necessary.(21)

The Voice of the Arabs had been very carefully designed to become a regional phenomenon. Following the establishment of the new Egyptian intelligence service in March 1953, the Interior Minister, Zakaria Mohieddin, and intelligence officer Fathi al-Dib had formulated an Arab nationalist action plan, which included the development of a radio show as well as funding for Arab nationalist writers and students to study in Egypt. Nasser heartily approved the project, and hurried it along. “Why are you only just starting?” he asked, when Ahmed al-Said recorded an interview with him at the end of June. Nasser allowed them just a week to complete their audience assessment studies and broadcast the first programme.(22) Like Cairo Radio, The Voice of the Arabs was a strictly controlled government mouthpiece.(23) It became a key foreign policy tool, enabling Nasser to tailor his words precisely to a Pan-Arab audience. In March 1956, for example, the Egyptian leader made a speech to the British Observer newspaper which was broadcast on both Cairo Radio and The Voice of the Arabs. The latter, however, was careful to omit such conciliatory phrases as “there are many interests which the British and the Arabs have in common.”(24)

It was this very tailoring of sentiments for a radical audience, however, that ultimately made the radio station a constraint on the Nasser regime. Ahmed al-Said goes so far as to argue that this was intentional. “If Nasser’s government did something wrong, we had to mention it. And this happened. And he signed it.” Thus The Voice of the Arabs was, according to Said, “the voice of Nasser and the voice of the Arab people at the same time.” On the other hand, Said also states that the people and Nasser only ever disagreed over one issue—the timing of the liberation of Palestine. The Arab people pressed Nasser toward liberation, but he felt impelled to delay due to international circumstances, specifically the consistent Western support for Israel that apparently convinced him that he must leave the problem to another generation.(25)

There is absolutely no supporting evidence for the contention that Nasser intended to allow The Voice of the Arabs to criticise his own regime. However, it is true that Cairo’s deliberate escalation of pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist rhetoric in order to mobilise the Arab masses eventually turned into a trap from which Egypt could not escape. As early as August 31,1955, Ahmed al-Said broadcast a poem that began: “O Israel! Weep as much as you like, wail over your ill fortune, morning and night, and await your end at any time now.” Then came the much-repeated, ominous chorus: “The Arabs of Egypt have found their way to Tel Aviv.”(26) By the time of the pre-war crisis of May 1967, such ideas had become so commonplace that they were believed even by many high-level Egyptian insiders.(27) The Voice of the Arabs, meanwhile, boundless in its confidence, had moved on to bigger game. “We challenge you, Israel,” it announced, before changing its mind. “No, in fact, we do not address the challenge to you, Israel, because you are unworthy of our challenge. But we challenge you, America.”(28)

The Voice of the Arabs radio station began preparing for a war on May 20,1967, when the regime ordered staff to “heat it up.” Five days later, Nasser’s military chief, Marshal Abdel Hakim Amer, allegedly told Ahmed al-Said that an Egyptian first strike was imminent, so they needed to be prepared to relocate if their transmitters were targeted. The radio station’s military liaison officer informed Said two hours before the planned strike on May 27 that it had been called off, on Soviet orders. Once the war actually began, following the Israeli attack at dawn on June 5, the military continued to keep The Voice of the Arabs updated on the number of Israeli planes shot down, and other useful—if fictitious—morsels of information.(29) While the Egyptian air force lay in ruins on its runways, and Arab armies retreated on every front, The Voice of the Arabs clung to the fantasy world it had created so painstakingly over fourteen years. It continued to boast of great victories even after Western media had made the scale of the disaster—Israel rapidly took the Sinai Peninsula, Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Golan Heights—quite apparent. Its credibility would never recover.(30)

Ahmed al-Said emphasises that his exaggeration of the number of planes shot down was based on information provided by policy-makers whose numbers added up wrong. It was, he says, his duty to follow orders in time of war, and to assist the army by issuing propaganda to deceive the enemy. Not to do so would have been traitorous, an offence against Egyptian criminal law, punishable by death.(31) But by so doing, he put himself out of a job. The “setback” of 1967 fatally injured the legitimacy of secular Arabism, facilitating the rise of the Islamist alternative in the 1970s. It also damaged the Nasser regime, although the President himself managed to remain in power by a piece of very fancy footwork. He resigned before his loyal people fully realised the scale of the defeat, only to be called back by popular demonstrations. His radio station, however, had been convicted of deceit out of its own mouth, and could only be disavowed quietly. Once its emotive exhortations and pronouncements had finally been shown to be empty, Sawt al-Arab could no longer be the Voice of the Arab people, nor even the Voice of Nasser. It was no more than the mellifluous, discredited voice of Ahmed al-Said.

Laura James monitors Egypt, Sudan, Kuwait and Oman for the Economist Intelligence Unit, based in London. She completed her doctorate at the University of Oxford, where she was a college Lecturer at St. Edward's Hall teaching. Middle East Politics and International Relations to undergraduates. She has also worked as a consultant for a UN agency in Rome. Her book, Nasser at War: Arab Images of the Enemy, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in October 2006.

NOTES

1. BBC Summary of World Broadcasts [BBC-SWB]:378, 10/7/53.
2. Quoted in Labidi, K. “The Voice of the Arabs is Speechless at 50”, The Daily Star, 7/10/03.
3. Boyd, D.A. Broadcasting in the Arab World: A Survey of the Electronic Media in the Middle East (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1999). See also Amin, H.Y. “Social Engineering: Transnational Broadcasting and Its Impact on Peace in the Middle East”, Global Media Journal 3.4 (2004).
4. For details, see Barnett, M. N. Dialogues in Arab Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998); Kerr, M. H. The Arab Cold War (Oxford University Press, 1971).
5. Kraidy, M.M. “Arab Satellite Television Between Regionalization and Globalization,” Global Media Journal 1.1 (2002).
6. Indeed, Islamism is often said to have been divorced from Arabism in Nasser’s prison camps. See Sivan, E. Radical Islam (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985); Kepel, G. Muslim Extremism in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).
7. See Miles, H. Al Jazeera (London: Abacus, 2005).
8. Quoted in Labidi, “The Voice of the Arabs is Speechless.”
9. Author interview with Ahmed al-Said: Cairo, 20/12/04, Arabic.
10. BBC-SWB:391, 25/8/53.
11. BBC-SWB:ME794, 14/11/61.
12. BBC-SWB:ME1024, 18/8/62; BBC-SWB:ME987, 5/7/62.
13. Said interview.
14. Ibid.
15. See Stephens, R. Nasser: A Political Biography (London: Penguin, 1971).
16. BBC-SWB:ME1011, 2/8/62.
17. BBC-SWB:ME1014, 7/8/62; BBC-SWB:ME1056, 25/9/62.
18. Author interview with Abdel Rahman al-Baydani: Cairo, 8/4/04, English. Partially confirmed in Said interview.
19. 20/8/62, BBC-SWB:ME1027; Noman, A. and Almadhagi, K. Yemen and the United States: A Study of a Small Power and Super-State Relationship 1962-1994 (London: Tauris Academic Studies, 1996).
20. Boyd, Broadcasting in the Arab World.
21. Said interview
22. Ibid.
23. See Ayubi, S. Nasser and Sadat: Decision-making and Foreign Policy (Washington, DC: University Press of America, 1994); Kraidy, “Arab Satellite Television.”
24. BBC-SWB:659, 30/3/56.
25. Said interview. Partially confirmed in Mohsen Abdel Khalek interview, Brian Lapping Associates, Interview Transcripts, The Fifty Years War: Israel and the Arabs [FYW]: Private Papers Collection, Middle East Centre, St Antony’s College, Oxford.
26. BBC-SWB:601, 6/9/55.
27. Author interview with Abdel Magid Farid: London, 14/6/04, English; Sadat, A. In Search of Identity (London: Collins, 1978); Riad, M. The Struggle for Peace in the Middle East (London: Quartet Books, 1981); Salah Bassiouny interview, FYW.
28. BBC-SWB:ME2473, 22/5/67.
29. Said interview; Al-Bayan (UAE), 2/8/03.
30. See Amin, “Social Engineering,” Boyd, Broadcasting in the Arab World; Stephens, Nasser; Labidi, “The Voice of the Arabs is Speechless.”
31. Said interview.