Most Egyptians had never heard of Innocence of Muslims until talk show host Khaled Abdallah got hold of the film. Few had noticed the incendiary film when it was just another YouTube video. But Abdallah's show, broadcast on a channel run by ultraconservative Salafi Islamists, isn't afraid to tackle hot topics. Once he aired clips from the film on September 8, showing how the movie depicts the Prophet Mohammed in a less than flattering light, Egyptians could no longer ignore it. The next day several hundred thousand of them viewed the trailer on YouTube, and the resulting indignation led straight to the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo on September 11.
For most of Hosni Mubarak's rule, TV journalists danced to the government's tune. But this has changed dramatically in post-revolution Egypt, where talk show moderators -- ranging from the Islamist Abdallah to his secular counterparts -- have become outsized arbiters of public opinion. Few politicians or officials can compete with the prominence of the new talkmasters when it comes to shaping political discourse. At the same time, the new Muslim Brotherhood-dominated government's intolerance of critical talk shows is fuelling fears that the Islamists might re-impose tight control over the media.
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Mahmoud Saad, the highest-paid talk show host in Egypt today, offers a good example of the power of these new TV journalists. "Some people prefer to offer an opinion implicitly," he says. "I choose to express my opinions clearly." Saad, a familiar face to Egyptian audiences, defines himself as a "columnist" who happens to work for television. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm not a simple presenter. I'm a journalist and I've been used to expressing my opinions from an early age." He is entirely unapologetic about his ostentatious support for Mohamed Morsy, the Muslim Brotherhood's candidate in the epochal presidential election earlier this year. "I didn't hide it," says Saad. Morsy won the election.
TV has long been the most important media outlet in Egypt, where about one third of the population remains illiterate. But the rise of these popular political TV shows really began only in the last years of the old regime, when Mubarak's government began to loosen up its control of television and other media. Their appearance coincided with the relative opening up of the political landscape, including the appearance of civil society opposition groups (such as Kefaya, the most prominent movement for change and reform). Before the revolution, political talk shows provided a place where touchy topics could be broached without crossing established "red lines," above all direct criticism of the president and his family.
The most popular of these programs, "el Beit Beitak" ("My Home Is Your Home"), which was launched by state television, rapidly became a hit with Egyptian audiences thanks to its high production values and innovative content. It tackled controversial issues without contravening strict taboos, and its presenters pushed the boundaries by lightly criticizing government policies and balancing them with contrasting views. This program attracted a huge audience, boosting the popularity of state TV and quickly becoming the nation's key show.