By Mohamed Selim
On Monday, 23 February 2004, and at a tempestuous conference held at the headquarter of Egypt’s Syndicate of Journalists in downtown Cairo, former president Hosni Mubarak’s longtime loyalist and propaganda apparatchik, Safwat El-Sherif, declared that he would be the country’s last minister of information (a post that he had held for 22-years). 10-years later, after two uprisings, two military takeovers, four presidential elections and six ministers of information, Egypt’s newly sworn in cabinet had scrapped the ministry that oversees the country’s broadcasting scene and formulates its narrative to its domestic and foreign audiences. Yet, the cancellation of the Ministry of Information (MoI) won’t bring the expected and direly needed freedom to the Egyptian media landscape. On the contrary, a chaotic period of shifting narratives, selfish interests and incompatible policies would still ensue.
Serving the state
As the 34-ministers cabinet took the oath before President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi at 7am on 17 June, it was clearly obvious that the Ministry of Information’s coveted top post had been vacated to adhere to the constitution’s provision (Chapter 10 on the Regulation of the Media, Articles 211 and 213) which replaces the ministry with a newly yet-to-be-formed National Media Organisation (NMO). Both the NMO and the duly expected National Press Organization (NPO) – its formation is in accordance to Article 212 of the constitution – would be administered under the supervision and following the regulations and restructuring proposed by the Supreme Council of the Regulation of Media (SCRM). And as the MoI has been countermanded, a legislative void is present due to the absence of any laws that regulate the establishment of any of the entities that the constitution promulgates. Recognising this legal limbo, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb announced on the same day of his official inauguration that, as the MoI is officially discarded, he would appoint the President of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU), Essam Al-Amir, as chargé d’affaires ad interim of the MoI with all ministerial powers until the regulations pertaining to the NMO have been written, passed and ratified by the nonexistent People’s Assembly, Egypt’s Lower House of Parliament.
Yet, and going along the long tradition of acting as the mouthpiece of the state, the debunked MoI still maintains all the financial resources, manpower (around 42-thousand employees) and outreach through its terrestrial and extraterrestrial channels in 3-languages, Arabic, English and French. Protocol news, i.e. the official sound bites and optics of routine presidential and ministerial activities, in addition to the Army’s briefings, are still and expected to remain, the front-and-center of all news-casts of the Egyptian media while scrutinising and vetting the news will be considered a red line to national security. Other news, issues and debates that aren’t congruent to the official narrative and approved rhetoric will be absent, ridiculed and blemished so as to beguile an audience with one side of the story.
Born to be a leader
“Al-Sisi was born a leader and ascended to the presidency through his unmatched qualifications,” said Al-Amir in his first interview on 21 June with the Egyptian private channel, Al-Hayah, after assuming his new post. The aforementioned quote is reminiscent of El-Sherif hailing Mubarak in May 2010 as a legend whose likes could never be seen again. The quote of Al-Amir cast the shadow of doubt of an Egyptian media system that is critical, observant and independent of a state that has its tentacles on all the branches of government. Through a tamed and defanged media system, the fourth estate will always parrot the narrative of the state, regardless of who is ruling the country.
Terrorists and dealmakers
Three-and-half-years after the toppling of Mubarak and one-year after the military junta that deposed Morsi, the country’s first-freely-elected president, the Egyptian mediascape is still in disarray. Official, semi-official, private and partisan media have been all playing the same tune, ie since August 2013, Egypt is in a defensive mode fighting terrorism. Criticism against the military and/or security establishments is considered subversive and serving the needs of the enemies of the state, (a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) and their allies). Other than the few functioning social media websites and Al Jazeera channels (prohibited from broadcasting from Egypt, and relying on Skype to reach out for Egyptian activists, while their reporters have been arrested, intimidated or forced to flee the country), the MB have been shut off from relaying their tribulations and unjust rounding up with trumped up evidence to face shambolic trials through the Egyptian media.
The role of the media system in any democracy is to treat the leaders as erring human beings that are subject to criticism and recommendations from the public for everyone’s good. Egypt doesn’t need a bureaucratic edifice directly appointed by the de-facto rule to orchestrate the media narrative and shape the official discourse. However, the country is in dire need of a nongovernmental and nonpartisan institution that regulates, restructures and oversees the ethical and professional approaches of the media channels while having the authority to sanction and reprimand the unprincipled towards a public sphere free of fledgling conspiracy theories, paranoia and xenophobia. For 62-years, the Orwellian MoI has been dutifully serving the rulers, while the interests and the news pertinent to the daily activities of the public have been always forgotten. Only an independent, autonomous, scrupulous and regulated NMO & NPO that supervise but don’t pull the strings will be the country’s recipe for inclusion, compromise and reconciliation. Egypt’s current malaise will be overcome when the public see their dysfunctional media system for what it is. Until then, an unruly mediascape will keep Egypt in the doldrums.
Mohamed Selim Khalil is a media scholar with a research emphasis on Political Communication in the Arab World, University of Osnabrück, Germany. Twitter @moselim