For millions of Egyptians, tuning into one of the numerous political chatshows that dominate the evening TV schedules is as habitual as eating dinner or lighting up a Cleopatra cigarette. Anchored by heavyweight stars, the high-profile programmes have played a major role in the expansion of Egypt’s vibrant independent media sector in recent years – but that could be about to change.
After a series of resignations, business bust-ups and show cancellations, the chatshow industry has been left reeling and analysts are attributing the problems to a government crackdown on dissent in the run up to November’s contentious parliamentary elections.
One of the most popular shows, “Al-Qahira Al-Yom” (“Cairo Today) has already been pulled off air following a tussle with state-owned production studios which claim they are owed money for studio rental; the show’s co-host, Ahmed Moussa, has already dismissed the legal wrangle as a fabrication, insisting that “government malice” was behind the move and warning that “someone wants to crush freedom of expression and opinion”.
Meanwhile, rival production “Baladna Bel-Masri” (“Our Country”) has just lost its famous host Ibrahim Eissa, a prominent independent newspaper editor and outspoken government critic, who suddenly quit the show mid-season with no explanation. Although the programme producers quickly insisted Eissa’s departure was not politically motivated, Eissa, himself a veteran of many a court battle with the Mubarak regime, has pointedly refused to comment on the situation.
According to Gamal Eid, executive director of the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, applying the screws to independent television is a well-worn tactic by the state. “Certainly there’s political pressure behind the latest developments,” he told Monocle. “Both shows went beyond the red lines by tackling issues of corruption and political succession, and by disrupting their production the government is ensuring that the upcoming elections can be rigged without anyone being able to talk about it.”
Soliman Gouda, a leading newspaper columnist who also hosts his own political chatshow, agrees. “How can anyone believe talk about electoral integrity when such television shows are being banned?” he wrote last month. “Everything that’s being said about the integrity of elections is just words. Nothing will be seen on the ground.” Gouda is right to worry – his program runs on the private Dream TV network, whose owner Ahmed Bahgat recently admitted that he would immediately ‘shut the network down’ if asked to do so by the authorities. “What else could we do? Would we challenge the state?” asked Bahgat, who is currently saddled with a $500m debt to the (state-run) National Bank of Egypt.
The small-screen drama comes as the country gears up for a national poll that domestic and international observers believe is likely to be fixed in favour of the ruling party, and which has already provoked violent clashes on the capital’s streets between protesters and security forces.