Democracy Lab

In Post-Revolution Egypt, Talk Shows Redefine the Political Landscape

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

Democracy Lab

Chavez Rides Again

Make no mistake: Hugo Chávez's victory in Sunday's election marks another step in the erosion of Venezuela's democratic institutions.

Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez pulled off an electoral coup on Sunday, besting his energetic opponent Henrique Capriles with 55 percent of the vote (compared to 44 percent for Capriles). The victory was yet another notch in the belt for Chávez. He has won an impressive four presidential elections, survived a recall referendum, and built a powerful new political party that has come to dominate the parliament and a majority of Venezuelan states. His re-election will mean that he will have spent twenty years in office by the time his new term ends.

With the renewal of his mandate in the Palacio de Miraflores, Chávez is promising a deepening of his self-styled "twenty-first century socialism." The most immediate result is likely to be an even greater role of the state in the economy. The nationalization of key sectors of the economy is sure to continue, particularly in the agricultural, industrial, and utility sectors. Chávez's re-election also presages the expansion of a wide range of social programs targeted at poorer Venezuelans. This comes as welcome news for Chávez's supporters -- a record eight million of whom flocked to the polls on October 7 -- and some laud it as evidence of democratic progress.

Since his first election in 1998, Chávez has tapped the vast resources of Venezuela's state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) to finance a series of social "missions" through one of the largest social funds administered in Latin America. It is the distribution of billions of dollars via these funds that has been a hallmark of Chávez's presidency, and which has created a powerful personal connection between him and many of the country's poor. The social missions have helped millions of Venezuelans in poverty by providing low-cost health care and education, subsidized food, housing, jobs, and access to land. These programs have won Chávez loyalty and popular support among recipients, and will remain a centerpiece of his administration.

Yet the policies that Chávez has pursued to achieve these transformative changes have come at a steadily rising cost -- and the bill is sure to come due at some point. The sequential nationalizations and confiscations of private companies and property have reduced foreign investment in key sectors and increased public debt. They have also stoked inflationary pressures and contributed to the black market for foreign currency. Uncertainty over property rights in rural areas, along with increased land squatting and expropriations as part of the expanding land reform program, has squeezed the already anemic agricultural sector. And despite production regulations and price controls for staples, food prices are soaring. This hits hardest many of the same poor that ardently support Chávez.

To strengthen his hand in implementing reform, Chávez has a history of pushing through controversial political changes -- changes that will surely influence political competition in the future. His detractors charge him with eviscerating a system of checks and balances by stacking the courts in his favor, eliminating the upper house of Congress via a constitutional change, and weakening freedom of the press through harassment and the revocation of operating licenses. And both sides speak of ventajismo, the advantages of incumbency Chávez gains simply by controlling the national airwaves, the bureaucracy, and a glut of public funds for social programs not subject to congressional oversight.

The administration of social programs is particularly noteworthy since it is designed not only to aid those individuals who are enrolled, but also to bolster Chávez's election prospects in a way that leaves the democratic playing field uneven. Many beneficiaries feel compelled to vote for Chávez and show their support publicly through attending rallies and party events. Those who do not often fear they may lose their benefits. These fears are not without reason. Widespread allegations of political punishment arose when the names of millions of registered voters in Venezuela were made public after they signed a petition to recall Chávez from office in a 2004 referendum.

Research I have conducted provides substantial evidence that Chávez funnels land grants from his controversial large-scale land reform program to his closest supporters. And given that the publicly available recall list as well as the work of Chávez's densely organized political network enable his party to make good guesses about individuals' likely partisan affiliation, there is little reason to believe that he limits the political targeting of benefits to the land reform program. Indeed, there is evidence that high school education programs for poor adults and discount food stores are more readily accessible in pro-Chávez municipalities.

These programs have strengthened Chávez at the polls and enabled him to consolidate his political power. The most recent change strengthened the executive through a constitutional amendment that eliminated term limits. This modification set the stage for the October 7 vote that extended Chávez's mandate another six years.

Some argue that the opposition's robust showing, despite the loss, implies that they will play an ever-more prominent position in Venezuela's political landscape in the years ahead. Yet it is increasingly difficult to envision how the opposition could beat Chávez at the polls absent an extreme event such as plunging oil prices or runaway inflation. And while the opposition may make limited inroads in upcoming regional elections and the 2015 parliamentary elections, the same realities of recent political competition -- Chavez's well-oiled patronage machine, state domination of the media, severe gerrymandering, and selective harassment of the opposition -- will hobble their ability to effect sweeping change. Instead, Chavez will likely use his new term to deepen the radical changes he has already made at the expense of Venezuela's hard-won democratic institutions.

On top of everything else, Chavez's success has an impact beyond Venezuela's borders. Chávez's success at modifying Venezuela's constitution to extend term limits is exercising an ominous influence on other politicians in the region. While the former Colombian president Álvaro Uribe's similar attempts were foiled by the Constitutional Court and Brazil's Lula da  Silva willingly stepped down despite the popularity to enable a third term, leaders such as Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have successfully pushed through constitutional changes or won court cases to extend their tenure in office. And the supporters of Argentina's Cristina Kirchner are now pushing for constitution reform to allow her to run for a third term in 2015. These changes are typically implemented under the guise of meeting the people's popular demands to stay in office. As U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt's famous court-packing scheme demonstrates, however, few politicians can resist aggrandizing their power in the face of resistance when their electoral mandates can be renewed repeatedly.

For democracy to function well, the incumbent must play by the same rules as the political parties and politicians in the opposition. These standards have slipped to the brink in Venezuela. With Chávez's re-election, he is pledging to further his "Bolivarian Revolution" against the oligarchy in the spirit of Venezuela's national hero, Simón Bolívar. But Chávez should heed one of the often-overlooked lessons of Bolivar's legacy that stained his reputation long before being resuscitated by Latin American nationalists: for all his accomplishments, Bolívar could never quite come to terms with leaving power.

Photo by JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images