The Political Role of the Media

Egypt Table of Contents

Under Nasser the media were brought under state control and harnessed as instruments of the revolutionary government for shaping public opinion. Radio and television, in particular, began to penetrate the villages. Nasser used them to speak directly to Egyptians in their own language, and they were major factors in his rise as a charismatic leader. Radio Cairo was a link between Nasser and his pan-Arab constituency in the Arab world and was regularly used to stir up popular feeling against rival Arab leaders. In the print media, however, the government did not speak with one voice. There were identifiable differences in the government-controlled press between those on the right of the political spectrum (Al Akhbar, The News), the center (Al Ahram, The Pyramids), and the left (Ruz al Yusuf). Nasser, a voracious reader, appears to have been influenced by the views expressed in the prestigious Al Ahram, headed by Muhammad Hassanain Haikal. Criticism in the left-wing press played a role in the drift of his policies to the left in the 1960s. Thus, the press had a certain role in transmitting opinion upward.

In the post-Nasser era, the broadcast media remained government controlled. Fairly developed radio and television facilities existed. Egypt had sixty-two medium-wave (AM--amplitude modulation) radio stations, representing at least one for each major town in the country, and three short-wave transmitters that relayed programs to listeners in Egypt and overseas. Domestically, stations carried a number of national programs as well as regional programs designed for different parts of Egypt. In its foreign programs, Egypt broadcast in thirty-three languages, including the most common European languages in addition to such African languages as Amharic, Hausa, Wolof, Swahili, and Yoruba and such Asian languages as Bengali, Hindi, Indonesian, and Urdu. Egyptians were estimated to own 14 million radios in 1989 and about 3.5 million television sets. Television had two national networks, an additional channel in Cairo, and a regional "Sinai network"; programs were televised in Arabic only. The broadcast media permitted the government to blanket the country with its messages. For example, the government enjoyed a virtual monopoly at election time. To placate Muslim opinion, television programming was increasingly Islamized, and several popular preachers in alliance with the government used the electronic media to broaden their followings.

Newspapers were scarcely more autonomous: government-appointed editors were still expected to "self-censor" their product and were subject to removal when they did not. Generally, Sadat used his prerogative of editorial appointment to eject editors and journalists with left-wing views and to foster conservative voices. For example, the anti-Nasser Amin brothers, Ali and Mustafa, reappeared in the journalistic establishment, and Ibrahim Saada was permitted to turn Al Akhbar into a vehicle of anti-Soviet and anti-Arab propaganda. The fall of Haikal at Al-Ahram for allegedly trying to turn the paper into a "center of power" showed Sadat was no more willing than Nasser to tolerate a major journalistic voice at variance with his policy. On the other hand, Sadat permitted the founding of an independent opposition press that reached far fewer readers but expressed much more diverse views than the government press. Al Ahali (The Folk) spoke for the left, Al Ahrar (The Liberals) for the right, Ad Dawah (The Call) and later Al Ihtisan (Adherence) for the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ash Shaab (The People) for the center-left Labor Party. The government party published Al Mayu (May). Opposition newspapers were sometimes joined by government papers in investigative journalism that uncovered scandals embarrassing to the government. The left-wing press, in particular, carried on a campaign against the infitah and Sadat's foreign policy that led to the closing of Al Ahali.

Mubarak restored freedom to the secular press, allowed the New Wafd Party to publish Al Wafd (The Mission) and Nasserites to open Sawt al Arab (Voice of the Arabs), while repressing the Brotherhood's Ad Dawah. The rise of Islamist sentiment was nevertheless reflected in the proliferation of Islamist periodicals put out by the various parties, such as Al Liwa al Islami (The Islamic Standard) by the government party and An Nur (The Light) by the Liberal Party (Ahrar). One sign of the growing independence and influence of the press under Mubarak was the 1987 trial of police officers for torturing Islamic activists, a milestone in the protection of individual rights that resulted largely from public pressures generated by the press. But there were limits to the influence of the press: the circulation of the main government dailies did not exceed 1 million each, and except for Al Wafd, the opposition papers were all weeklies lucky to get a tenth of that figure.

More about the Government and Politics of Egypt.

Custom Search

Source: U.S. Library of Congress