In Egypt, the hosts of political talk shows have become the arbiters of public discussion and debate. But do they know how to wield their newfound power?
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.
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.
After the revolution, new talk shows proliferated, sparking off a fierce battle among presenters and channels for the hearts and minds of Egyptians. The new breed of shows provides news as well as offering lively forums for debate. They appeal to audiences by couching their content in an informal, easily accessible style -- though they rarely manage to produce serious investigative reporting or reports from the field.
Tamer Amin, a prominent former presenter on state TV who moved to the private sector after the revolution, believes that good television hosts should aim to "make news, not just deliver it." He says that TV journalists "can propose solutions to current problems, thus urging decision makers to respond."
He's as good as his word. As Egyptians anxiously awaited the outcome of the second round of the presidential race, Amir offered ample "guidance" to both candidates and voters. In one of his show's opening monologues, which he uses to comment on the hottest news of the day, Amin, known for his pro-establishment views before the revolution, criticized Ahmed Shafiq, the candidate of the old regime, for making unrealistic campaign promises. "You said that you would restore security within 24 hours if you were elected president," Amin said. "This is easier said than done. I call upon you voters to question candidates who are luring them with unrealistic promises."
The political prominence of talk show hosts ran in parallel with the revolution of January 2011 that led to the downfall of Mubarak's regime. Many moderators pushed the boundaries, some openly supporting the revolution, risking retaliation if the uprising were to fail. But many openly supported the Mubarak regime, and then faced the challenge of finding new places for themselves in the post-revolutionary era. Some subsequently forged careers as figures in the so-called fuloul ("remnants") media camp.
The role of the talk shows has risen as Egyptian national TV channels have grown in importance as sources of news for the public. Before Mubarak's downfall, most Egyptians got their news from regional Arab satellite TV channels, such as Al Jazeera. Now, however, Egyptian audiences want to get their news from their own channels, says Hazem Ghourab, director of Misr 25. His channel, one of the many pro-Islamist media outlets launched after the revolution, represents the views of the Muslim Brothers. According to Ghourab, the channel is funded by a company owned by a number of Muslim Brotherhood members.
Meanwhile, though, still other TV talk shows have become known for sharply criticizing the country's new Islamic leadership, albeit with highly questionable editorial standards. The government has responded, in some cases, by resorting to the same measures practiced in the Mubarak years: muzzling the media, suspending TV programs and channels, and prosecuting journalists. In August, talk show host Tawfik Okasha, a fierce opponent of the Muslim Brotherhood government, was suspended from his job, while his channel (al-Faraeen) was closed on charges that it was inciting viewers to murder President Morsy as well as of supporting a military coup d'état. (Okasha's trial has been adjourned until 7 November.)
While critics of the government's crackdown acknowledge the channel's editorial shortcomings, they point out that the same government demonstrates remarkable tolerance when it comes to the Islamic channels that treat political topics in equally controversial ways. Khaled Abdallah's Al-Nas channel -- which has repeatedly run slanderous campaigns against secular political figures and members of Egypt's Coptic Christan minority -- is a case in point.
In one of his most notorious programs, widely disseminated across the Web, Abdallah threatened to behead a Christian viewer who sent him an email insulting Islam. When I asked him whether his program was guilty of fueling hatred between Muslim and Copts, he responded: "We are merely demonstrating the mistakes committed by Copts. When we commit similar mistakes, we are labeled extremists; but when they do so, their actions are just dismissed as simple mistakes."
Maria, the latest addition to the group of Islamic TV platforms, was launched in July 2012, during the Ramadan holiday. Where the channel's financing comes from remains a mystery; according to its owner, Maria is supported by voluntary contributions from workers. A similar lack of transparency in the ownership of many of the new broadcasting outlets is fueling doubt about their agendas and editorial standards. Some of these media kingdoms are owned by businessmen known for being closely tied to the former regime, such as Hassan Rateb, the owner of Al-Mihwar TV, and Mohammed el-Amin, who owns the Cairo Broadcasting Channel (CBC). The new Islamist rulers of the country also want their share of the media cake, a trend demonstrated by the burgeoning number of pro-Islamic media outlets, which also claim to be funded by businessmen who are entirely independent of the new government.
Maria, uniquely, is run by fully veiled women. The network's director, Abu Islam Ahmed Abdallah, says that the channel's management has set itself the challenge of finding enough veiled women to host its talk shows. According to Hanaa Abdul Wahab, one of the station's newsreaders, the goal is to achieve a sense of normality for women wearing the niqab (full veil), especially in view of the fact that they are not allowed on secular channels (though they are allowed to wear a hijab on state channels.) When asked how audiences would be able to differentiate between one presenter and another, Abdallah responds, "Why do you need to know the difference between the two women?"
Egyptian TV platforms have thus been transformed into a battlefield of rival ideas and agendas. In this environment, assuming neutrality is widely understood to be an act of treason, especially by talk show hosts who identify themselves as servants of a cause and sociopolitical mentors for their audiences.
This particular situation is aptly described by Reem Maged, a talk show host on the private channel ONTV who, along with some of the channel's other presenters, acquired notoriety after openly supporting the revolution from day one. "I have struggled between my professional and human identities," she says. "I would like to go to the streets to report on the daily problems of ordinary people, but I am unable to let go of my talk show program. It is a powerful weapon. I will not renounce it in the service of my cause, especially while others are still using their programs in the service of theirs."
Thus, Egyptian talk shows are playing a pivotal role in introducing a culture of popular debate as well as vulgarizing an information medium that was long restricted to the elite. The lack of professional news programs has transformed the talk shows into a main conduit of popular information. There is no question that the new talk shows will remain an essential daily ritual for Egyptian viewers. The question now is how to reconcile professional standards with politically engaged rhetoric.
Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images