Home / Opinion & Analysis / Plus ca Change: The Role of the Media in Egypt’s First Contested Presidential Elections

Plus ca Change: The Role of the Media in Egypt’s First Contested Presidential Elections

At an August press conference early on in Egypt’s landmark race for the presidency, Mohammad Kamal, the mastermind behind the smoothly crafted reelection campaign of President Hosni Mubarak, stood before a skeptical international press corps. He had not come to sell the world on his candidate. There was no need for that. Victory for the 77-year-old, four-term incumbent was assured.

Rather, the smooth-talking, meticulously dressed Kamal set out to convince Egypt and the world that a fundamental change was afoot, and that after 25 years of authoritarian rule, his president had begun an unprecedented democratic transition. In the months leading up to the campaign, experts and opposition leaders had warned repeatedly that free democratic elections would be impossible as long as the state-controlled media, the primary source of information for most Egyptians, behaved as it had for the past half century, fawning over the president, while ignoring the opposition.

And thus, to bolster his claim, Kamal pointed to the state media and specifically to state television. “This campaign is taking place in an entirely new political environment in Egypt,” Kamal said with the straight-faced earnestness of a lecturing professor. “Every candidate has equal access to the media. The television is giving equal air time to each candidate.”

The three-week-long presidential campaign in Egypt saw many firsts. But to longtime observers of Egyptian politics, the most unexpected was the makeover inside Maspiro, the 25-storey-tall government television building modeled after the Maison de Radio France in Paris. For 19 days, the government’s news producers plotted their campaign coverage with a stopwatch, carefully doling out equal air time to each of the 10 candidates. Opposition rallies were broadcast nightly on Egypt’s leading news networks, anchors explained candidates’ platforms to viewers, and even the most anti-regime presidential hopefuls appeared on state TV talk shows.

The Cairo Institute for Human Rights, which conducted the most thorough study of media coverage of the elections, declared "a considerable improvement in the performance of Egyptian mass media." The opposition Wafd Party publicly congratulated state television, and the party's vice president, Mounir Fakhry Abdel Nour, proclaimed state television "probably the best media of them all." After the elections, Ahmed Selim, office director for Information Minister Anas al-Fiqi, declared the era of "free, transparent and independent Egyptian media."

Same Old Story

It is, of course, a ridiculous claim. The presidential election saw few substantive changes to the state-media monopoly, neither on state TV, nor in the government newspapers. The cosmetic changes referred to above were just that—cosmetic. It may have a slick new appearance and some of the trappings of balanced journalism, but the state media behemoth still is serving the same master, and that master is neither fair nor impartial.

There were no institutional or systemic changes to insure that state media would operate independently of the ruling party, and would not be susceptible to political pressure. The changes that did occur at state TV during the presidential elections were a result of a political decision that the ruling National Democratic Party’s interests—foremost among them to show the world that Egypt is democratizing—would be best served by a modicum of impartiality in the state media. 

What changed with the 2005 presidential campaign was the level of sophistication of the government’s message crafters. The young, Western-educated coterie riding the ascendant coattails of presidential dauphin Gamal Mubarak know that the propaganda spewed forth by their fathers’ generation can never compete in the 21st century. Instead of continuing a virtual ban of the opposition on state TV, which would have triggered endless ridicule and served little purpose in the information age of Internet and satellite television, state TV gave each candidate a fair shake quantitatively, though not qualitatively.

State media’s failure to do what it claimed to set out to do (and was required by law to do)—to cover the presidential campaign fairly—was most evident in the coverage of Mubarak’s chief rival, the Al Ghad (Tomorrow) Party’s Ayman Nour, who ultimately would place a distant second in the voting. Nour’s defiant anti-regime posturing and his calls for a liberal, secular democracy have won him supporters both at home and in Washington. And that has made him nothing but enemies inside the Mubarak regime.

Covering Nour

The Nour camp’s problems with state TV were evident from the first day of campaigning and would continue right through Election Day. On the campaign’s opening night, Nour and Mubarak gave near simultaneous kickoff speeches on opposite sides of town. The state news channels dutifully covered and aired equal-length clips from each event, about 30 minutes for each candidate. Nightly news viewers saw Mubarak speaking to a crowd of thousands, promising to create new jobs, battle corruption and continue the process of democratization. They then saw close-up video of a frustrated Nour wiping sweat from his brow and tapping the microphone, repeating over and over, “Is this on? Is this working? The microphone isn’t working. Can someone pass me some tissues please?”

Though that first night was perhaps the most egregious example of selective editing, the Nour campaign would continue to make similar complaints throughout the race. Gemila Ismael, Nour’s wife and campaign manager, says she went to al-Fiqi, the Minister of Information, to complain about the news coverage. Ismael says that al-Fiqi asked her, “Did Ayman Nour say this, or not?” She responded, “Yes, but he said other things as well.” “Well, we have the right to air it then,” he responded curtly, according to her account. Ahmed Selim, the office director for al-Fiqi, says the Ghad Party was repeatedly invited to have a representative present in the Information Ministry, but refused. Meanwhile, the Mubarak campaign, one staffer confided, was allowed to choose and edit their footage before it aired on state TV.

Wherever the truth is, the incident highlights what is lacking in the Egyptian state media: serious journalists who take the ethics of the profession seriously. A news director trying to the best of his abilities to be fair and balanced does not air 10 minutes of a candidate struggling to get the microphone to work. It isn’t necessary to have a candidate representative present to demand that the candidate’s campaign speech be aired instead of the technical fumbling that preceded it.

The heads of news at state TV and the editors of state newspapers are government loyalists first, journalists second. Hala Hashish, the head of Nile News the government’s 24-hour news channel, is a powerful media boss inside the Ministry of Information and answers directly to the minister. She is outspoken, candid and likable, but there is no mistaking which side she’s on. “We didn’t make Ayman Nour look silly,” she scoffs. “He did that to himself.”

When Hashish defends the government she says “we” instead of “them”: “The opposition came on TV and said all these things about the government, and people wondered how we could tolerate this, but the motto of the whole government now is change,” She sees the decision to open state TV to the opposition as a magnanimous gesture, rather than a journalistic duty. “What other government in the world would have opened their arms and welcomed everyone to come and criticize the government on its own TV stations?” she asks.

Government newspapers were far worse than state TV and were “highly biased to President Mubarak,” according to the Cairo Institute for Human Rights’ (CIHR) report. The CIHR report found that between August 17 and August 23, Al Ahram devoted 57 percent of its coverage, overwhelmingly positive, to Mubarak as the presidential candidate and 14 percent to Mubarak as the president. Only 6 percent went to Ayman Nour, while 10 percent went to the Wafd Party candidate Noman Gomaa. Al Gomhurriya and Al Akhbar were even more heavily weighted in favor of Mubarak.

The independent daily Al Masry Al Youm also conducted a survey of the three main government papers, Al Akhbar, Al Gomhuriya, and Al Ahram, on August 22. The study found that 13,878 words were devoted to Mubarak, while 3,000 words were devoted to all the other candidates combined. As Sami al Sherif, a media professor at Cairo University observed, state newspapers “seemed as if they were NDP campaign flyers.”

The Independents

Since President Mubarak last appealed to voters for support, in a yes-or-no referendum in 1999, the independent and privately owned media in Egypt have blossomed. They played a prominent role in the 2005 presidential elections. In many ways, though, the privately owned print media appeared to have a degree of independence unattainable on privately owned Egyptian satellite stations like Dream.

Faced with time limits on state television, the Mubarak campaign turned to Dream TV, the four-year-old Egyptian satellite channel owned by business tycoon Ahmed Bahgat. In a two-hour meeting between Dream president Amr Khafagy and the NDP’s Ahmed Ezz, the two worked out the details of a simple deal: Dream would broadcast Mubarak’s campaign rallies, but would have the exclusive rights, and the Mubarak coverage would not have any affect on the channel’s coverage of other candidates. The deal allowed the Mubarak campaign to sidestep the troublesome requirements demanding equal time for all candidates on state owned TV, and guaranteed them coverage on one of the most-watched channels in Egypt (Khafagy says that only state TV’s Channel 1 has more viewers). Dream also benefited from the arrangement. Demand for advertising during Mubarak’s opening night campaign speech, for example, was nearly three times the average for that time slot, according to Khafagy.

But it was an unusual agreement, one that would be hard to swallow in most Western democracies, where, ideally, campaigns get access to media based on independent media outlets’ judgments about what is and what is not newsworthy. The decision has tarnished Dream’s image as an independent station. “Dream is a sellout, an NDP stronghold,” says Wafd vice president Abdel Nour.

Dream has had rocky relations with Mubarak's two principal challengers. The Wafd Party newspaper led the campaign to shut the station down in 2002 after the channel's vice president and star presenter Hala Sarhan discussed masturbation and other sensitive topics on her show. Ayman Nour had his own show on Dream in 2002, but was fired when Dream management felt he was exploiting the program to serve his political interests.

The CIHR report praised Dream for allocating more broadcast hours to covering electoral campaigns than any other station, but claimed that Mubarak took the lion's share of the coverage, 58 percent, versus 41 percent for other candidates. Khafagy disputes the CIHR numbers, Dream's independence was further smeared because the company which controls the advertising rights on Dream refused to sell advertising to any opposition candidates. That advertising agency, Egyptian Arab Media, is owned by Ahab Talaat, whose business partner is NDP powerbroker Safwat Al Sherif's son. Talaat bought the advertising rights on Dream just months before the presidential campaign began. Since the campaign, Talaat has become the focus of intense media scrutiny. The Wafd newspaper has attacked him, alleging that he has monopolized advertising on Egyptian television and that, thanks to his close relationship with Al Sherif, he has come to wield extraordinary influence inside the Information Ministry.

Khafagy maintains that advertising on Dream is totally out of his hands, and has zero affect on programming. In Dream's defense, the station has continued to air critical programs, such as Fil Momnua (In the Forbidden), a gritty and combative one-on-one interview show hosted by Al Masry Al Youm columnist Magdy Mahana. And the station's employees said they were not pressured in any way during the campaign. "We spoke freely about all the candidates, and about the election,” says Eyad Dawoud, a presenter on Shababeek, a talk show for youth. “We didn’t have to stick to praising Mubarak and there weren’t any kind of restrictions.”

With the station making backroom deals with the Mubarak campaign, however, and the station's advertising in the hands of a businessman with clear political allegiances to the ruling party, there is, at the very least, the appearance of impropriety. The experience with private satellite channels such as Dream, operating in the shadow of authoritarian regimes, cannot replace a truly independent media.

In the printed media the results were mixed. The independent daily newspapers Al Masry Al Youm and Nahdet Misr shone during the presidential election campaign, and were singled out by CIHR for their “excellent service both at the level of information and analysis” and for providing campaign coverage that was "unprecedented in over 50 years.” Al Masry Al Youm scored the first ever interview with Mubarak by an independent Egyptian newspaper, albeit under strict conditions that allowed the campaign have editorial control over the text of the interview before publication.

Elsewhere, the independent press was less impressive. The financial daily Al Alam Al Youm gave fawning reviews of Mubarak’s economic proposals. Meanwhile, the paper’s executive editor, Lamees al-Hadidi, was heading media relations for Mubarak’s campaign.

The independent yellow press, papers such as Al Mogiz, Al Islah, and Al Sharooq, which many allege are mouthpieces for state security, unleashed relentless attacks on Ayman Nour. He has since filed over 40 libel lawsuits against such papers, according to Ismail, though the prosecutor has yet to move on any of them.

Two months after Egypt’s presidential vote, as parliamentary elections got under way, the state media already had reverted to its old ways. A preliminary report by CIHR claimed 95 percent of Al Ahram had been devoted to the NDP in the run-up to the parliamentary elections. And state TV was devoting up to 66 percent of air time to NDP candidates. Egypt’s first multi-candidate presidential elections were meant to signal to the world a new era of democratic change and a symbol of that change was meant to be the state-run media. By providing fair and equal coverage to the 10 presidential candidates, Egypt hoped to show the world that it was committed to its democratic experiment. The state may have tweaked the presentation of the message, but that message is no more autonomous, independent, or fair than it was a year ago. 

About Charles Levinson

Charles Levinson is a freelance journalist who writes for The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle, USA Today, Dallas Morning News and The Guardian. He is a TBS contributing editor and the former news editor of Cairo magazine.

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