Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat—It is the second time in less than a year that Asharq Al-Awsat has paid a visit to Cairo’s Maspero building, headquarters of Egypt’s Radio and Television Union (ERTU), to meet with Egyptian information minister Salah Abdel-Maksoud. He works out of the same ninth-floor office that had previously been the domain of his Mubarak-era predecessors, Safwat El-Sherif and Anas El-Fiqqi. However, this time, Asharq Al-Awsat had to wait before being ushered into Abdel-Maksoud’s office: he was busy performing evening prayers.
The minister of information is a bona fide member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Behind his desk, the customary portrait of former president Hosni Mubarak has been replaced with a plaque that reads, “Without God, I Cannot Succeed.” To the minister’s left is a giant screen divided into 16 smaller screens displaying thirteen domestic and three satellite television channels. Abdel-Maksoud does not conceal his Brotherhood colors; however, he emphasizes that “I take off my Brotherhood hat at Maspero’s doors.”
This interview has been edited for length:
Asharq Al-Awsat: What is the latest news on the Media Code of Ethics?
Abdel-Maksoud: On March 30 last year, a number of satellite channel owners and other prominent people in the media, including ERTU representatives, were invited to a meeting in which several issues were discussed, including the Media Code of Ethics. All invitations were accepted, and therefore this was a highly inclusive meeting during which representatives from the various television channels, newspapers and radio stations discussed the Code of Ethics. From the outset, we emphasized that the Code of Ethics should not be imposed on those working in the media; rather, journalists and media figures should be allowed to craft the Code of Ethics with their own hands, free from any external pressures. We hope that the new Code of Ethics will make lawsuits and court cases a thing of the past and bring our nation closer to having what might be called a self-regulating media.
Q: Do you still maintain that you will be Egypt’s last minister of information? Will your job be redundant after you have overseen the changes that you want on the Egyptian media scene.
No, I have not changed my stance in this regard—this is truly my hope. Here we run the media of the people; our slogan is “Channel of the Egyptian People.” The pre-revolution media, however, was merely a mouthpiece for the single-party regime and did nothing to inform the people. We have made serious advances in allowing the media to encompass all walks of life, creating a media that advances the public interest of the nation, and commits to airing contrasting viewpoints. In Maspero today, we oversee 23 television channels and 58 radio stations, including 35 radio stations in 23 different languages that broadcast to countries in Africa, Asia and Europe. All of these media outlets speak on behalf of the people, and the opposition forces are given more representation than the ruling, pro-government forces. During the last 3 months, 65% of talk show guests represented the opposition, with the remainder being government supporters. This is part of the policy of airing both an opinion and its counter-opinion.
Q: In light of President Mursi’s rise to power and your subsequent appointment as minister of information, how many Maspero employees would you say are affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood?
I am from the Muslim Brotherhood, and I am proud to be affiliated with the Brotherhood—but I take off my Brotherhood hat at Maspero’s doors. You are well aware that Maspero was kept under close watch by the office of the President from 1952 until 2011. Thorough background checks were conducted on its employees, and anyone with ties to an Islamist movement was banned from entering Maspero, including Brotherhood members. I personally only entered Maspero after the revolution, even though I had been a member of ERTU, and I had never previously appeared on Egyptian television. I had been the media adviser to President Mursi’s campaign, and on the eve of his electoral victory, I came here to debate with Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim. That was the first time that I ever set foot in Maspero.
Q: How many female broadcasters wear the hijab today?
Only until after the revolution did a broadcaster wearing the hijab appear on Egyptian television. Prior to this, anyone who appeared with a beard brought doubt and suspicion upon himself. Even wearing a simple hijab could expose one to abuse. Before the revolution, Ghada Farouk had been a broadcaster for the Nile News channel. She had worked there since it was founded in 1998, and in 2001, after having worked there for three years, she decided to wear the hijab. Because of this, they relocated her to a position behind the camera. Post-revolution, Nermin Bitar—the daughter of media mogul Kamil Bitar, one of the founders of the Voice of the Arabs radio service—decided to start wearing the hijab. Despite the revolution’s demands for justice, dignity and citizens’ rights, they also forced her off-camera. As soon as I took over the ministry, I allowed these female colleagues to appear on-camera wearing the hijab, and some of them returned to their original posts. The number today stands at about ten news broadcasters, which is thanks to God almighty.
Q: What is your take on the Islamists’ siege of the Media Production City (MPC)? How do you account for your decision to send cameras to provide coverage of these events?
I sent cameras to MPC, just as I sent cameras to the Constitutional Court, the Office of the Attorney General and the Presidential Palace. I demanded that the demonstrators stay away from the MPC entry and exit points and that they demonstrate peacefully. The right to assemble is a guaranteed right, and protesting the content of some media channels ought to take place through legal means. The Media Free Zone does not ignore comments from citizens or public and private bodies. Sending cameras to cover the demonstrations was first and foremost a professional decision. At the same time, we condemn the besieging of any institution, because there are legal means available and official complaints can be filed if there is a violation of the Media Code of Ethics. We call on the media to work within a professional framework.
Egypt is a great country and it cannot be brought down by mere words. We are striving to promote a message of national unity and to avoid dissension and discord. We want a media that solves problems, not creates even greater ones. There are highly effective accountability mechanisms in place. The process starts with a notification, followed by investigation and punishment; if required, the program, or even the entire channel, can be taken off air, similar to what happened with Al-Fara’een TV. In this case, what is the justification for besieging MPC or demanding that channels based there be taken off the air? I support the right to protest as long as protestors keep their distance from the entrance points and do not disrupt production. Billions are being invested, and as I have stated before, EGP 6 billion was spent on private media last year with only EGP 1.5 billion of revenue to show for it. Thus, there is a gap; political money flows into private media. There is a gap of EGP 4.5 billion, and we do not know who paid the difference.
Q: So how are these private channels being financed?
They are financed by members of the former regime, from within Egypt and abroad, by businessmen and political parties, and by some who have political agendas they want to impose on Egypt. There are broadcasters whose salaries are twice as much as that of the president of the United States. Some broadcasters earn EGP 18 million per year, while others make EGP 14 million, or EGP 12 million. We also have broadcasters who receive more humble salaries despite their high levels of professionalism. Thus, there is a gap—and again I must stress that political money is flowing into private media. Some working in the media depend on the successes of the current government, which inherited heavy burdens and major crises from the former regime. It is working day and night to resolve these and meet the demands of the people.
Q: What is your stance on Bassem Youssef, the TV comedian who has been arrested on charges of maligning Islam and President Mursi? Do you support the charges that have been leveled against him?
I do not want Bassem Youssef to appear in court. As you already know, I support a self-regulating media, which should be able to render judgment. This could take place by way of media veterans overseeing the affairs of a self-regulating media, say, by way of a national body. This would set the profession’s rules and regulations and hold people accountable for any lapses in professionalism. This body has yet to be established but it could look to the Media Free Zone, which already has rules and regulations that dictate how to handle violations. There is also the Egyptian Satellites Company that can also be held accountable. There are many private media outlets that do not tell the truth. As Minister of Justice Ahmed Mekki previously stated, the government is treated unfairly because it works tirelessly but it only ever receives negative press. Its achievements are ignored.
Q: In your opinion, what is the underlying cause for the general public’s ambivalence towards President Mursi?
Since Mursi’s election, significant domestic and foreign capital has been poured into weakening the reputation of the state and toppling the president. Attempts have been made to show that the president has not kept his campaign promises. Even on the first day he took office, the so-called Mursi Meter website was launched to measure the progress made in the five issues on which the president based his platform: fuel, security, traffic, bread and cleanliness.
Q: When the president says he will “cut off any finger that meddles in Egypt,” do these fingers belong to Egyptian nationals or foreigners?
They are from abroad. The meddling fingers from within Egypt must be held accountable and contained. As I told my friends, the few thousands that wager that the president will be overthrown and take to the streets to protest here and there are delusional. The president’s supporters are many times greater than these few thousand. [Protests are] not the proper mechanism for bringing down a political leader. The proper mechanism is the ballot box; the same mechanism that brought the president to power. We, as a country, chose this course via the ballot box; this reflects the will of the people. Everyone must be patient with President Mursi and give him time. If he succeeds, then we will re-elect him. If he fails, then the people will choose. As I told my friends, you are deluding yourselves if you think that the president will be toppled by demonstrations, even if there are millions of Egyptian pounds being spent—from home and abroad—to this end.
Q: Are there any plans to privatize television channels being broadcast from Maspero?
We have always denied such rumors. We have received many inquiries regarding purchasing broadcasting stations from various Arab and international organizations. Some Arab organizations wanted to buy radio frequencies, but we refused. We have no intention to sell any channel or radio station. We do not have any extra to rent or sell. The same goes for the regional channels. We are already working to develop these channels, because they have an indispensable role to play in local community development. We want to utilize these channels and develop them.
Q: How many employees work at Maspero? What is the minister’s average expenditure?
We have 43,000 employees. Problems arise from the wages, benefits and salaries paid to this staff, which amount to approximately EGP 270 million per month. From the beginning, we undertook a project to reduce expenses. I have put spending limits in place. Last month, these expenses were EGP 208 million, whereas this month, payroll expenses decreased to EGP 198 million; however, they are likely to rise next month. I am also committed to an open door policy in that I listen to employee complaints. A delegation from Nile News came to my office recently, and just today I met with a number of colleagues regarding creating a new radio station that will be called Radio of the People. It will provide up-to-the-minute reporting on news, traffic and the economy. This comes after the great success we had with Radio Egypt.
The Ministry of Information prepared a report during my first 200 days, and it referenced my success in saving the ministry EGP 186 million in expenses, producing revenues of EGP 89 million in advertising, and achieving sales of EGP 52 million from dramas. Studio 5 has been completed and it is the largest studio in the Arab region. The privately owned Studio 21 was established for the Egyptian satellite channel at a cost of EGP 16 million. In addition, a digital broadcast archive was set up at a cost of EGP 15 million. I am currently working on setting up three television studios overlooking the Nile on the tenth floor, which will be operational in a matter of weeks. This will allow us to dispense with the leased spaces in MPC.
Q: As a Brotherhood (Ikhwan) member, what is your response to the rumors that the Brotherhood is seeking to Ikwanize society at large?
The government has 35 ministries, seven of which are affiliated with the Freedom and Justice Party, which is the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, 20% of ministers are affiliated with the Brotherhood, and they entered the government based on their reputations as technocrats. Al-Wasat Party has a minister, as do other parties. The whole Egyptian spectrum is represented in this government: liberals, nationalists and Islamists. However, not a single one became minister because of his political affiliations, but rather because of his experience and technocratic background. The allegations of the “Ikhwanization of the state” are blatant lies created by the president’s enemies. They undermine all of his attempts to fulfill his campaign pledges.
Q: What is your assessment of the leaders of the National Salvation Front’s refusal to enter into dialogue with President Mursi, despite his persistent calls to do so?
They do not want to enter into dialogue because they fear dialogue. They fear the ballot box. Unfortunately, some circles from abroad support them. Some Western circles do not want us to use certain democratic mechanisms in our country. They do not want to concede the right to rule to those who won at the ballot box. Some have given up this stance and call for incorporating everyone, but if everyone participates, then there is no platform or identity. The platform that the people chose must be given a chance to be implemented so that it can become a tangible reality on the ground. If the government has made mistakes, we must criticize and expose them.
Q: When did you last meet with President Mursi?
About a month ago. President Mohamed Mursi is a very busy man. He bears the burdens of many people, and we pray that God aids him. The president has no directives regarding the media. He personally wants the media to be the eyes of the people, evaluating him and his government’s performance.
Q: How has your life changed since becoming information minister?
This position has ended my social life. We ask God to bless our time, and that he guide our affairs and our families. We ask God Almighty for blessings. I believe that despite the difficulties, the country is progressing. All members of the government are working hard. Egypt is safeguarded by God Almighty, and we will succeed in passing through this ordeal, like many other countries before us.