Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat- In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egyptian Information Minister Osama Haikal revealed the issues that the Egyptian media are enduring and talked about solutions and future plans. He affirmed that the ideas of the various sectors of Egyptian society will not be marginalized and added that the official state media are striving to preserve the revolution’s purity and complete the goals. He also talked about the civic state and the position of the armed forces. He disclosed details on the backbiting that is taking place between the people and the army and pointed out that the revolution succeeded with the first statement issued by the armed forces. He ruled out the idea of selling the trials that the Egyptian Television is airing since they are the property of public opinion and in order to the trust in the seriousness of the trials. He talked about the alliances being formed between the religious forces and currents in the Egyptian society and about the role of the political parties. Haikal emphasized the three institutions – the media, the judiciary, and the army – have a major role in protecting the state from collapsing and in rebuilding it on sound grounds, particularly the parliament, the presidency, and the police. He also revealed that a media cooperation protocol between Egypt and Saudi Arabia is being drafted that would reflect the magnitude of the strategic relations between the two countries. The text of the interview follows:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What are the problems that the Egyptian media faced before the revolution and Have you developed a strategy to solve these problems?
[Haikal] There are many problems because one cannot separate the media product that should be on the screen after the revolution from the major internal problems. In other words, there are accumulations that have been going on for three decades; these accumulations grew in the past six months. We all know that in employing workers, the official Egyptian media operated with the logic of the public sector; that is, the employment of civil servants. They did not take into consideration the fact that the media establishment should be essentially based on creativity and on conveying the message accurately and credibly. In order to reach this stage, we should have a suitable climate for work. The problem is that in the past 10 years, the official media organ began to compete with private channels that did not suffer from financial or administrative burdens as well as complications that obstructed the work. For instance, if you wanted to cover an event in minutes, the execution would take hours due to the routine. This makes a difference in the issue of competition. Quick action is very important for the quality of the media product. The official Egyptian television, however, suffers from administrative burdens that affect the required performance.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have previously stated that there are around 43,000 employees in the radio and television stations while the work does not require more than 8,000. How will you handle this?
[Haikal] In order not to misunderstand the equation, we have no intention to dismiss any employee working the radio and television stations. There is absolutely no such intention. What we are trying to do at present is to optimize the use of all the present employees. The fact that the figure has reached 43,000 is a fait accompli. We also froze hiring in the radio and television establishment for a specific period because this cannot be implemented for a long time. We are also reviewing the situation of the advisers that have reached the retirement age.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How many advisers are there?
[Haikal] It is a big number because there are advisers in the various sectors as well as in the radio and television federation. Thus, this subject will be reviewed. What is also important is to study the idea of distribution of resources so that each sector would not be responsible for itself. This situation led to the disbursement of financial bonuses to the same persons in every sector. In other words, we want to set a salary and bonuses ceiling. We thus succeeded in saving resources that we used in the salary structures.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Does the policy of rationalizing expenditures that was announced by the Council of Ministers affect the Information Ministry?
[Haikal] Of course; but we want to distinguish between the two. The bulk of our budget goes to salaries, wages, and so on. We do not spend much on the quality of the media product. We need to spend on the media product in order to generate revenues that serve the work and the establishment. The second point in our development plan is to highlight qualifications. In other words, we cannot implement the policy of standing in the queue. I mean the deputy comes after the director with “seniority” but by placing every qualification in its suitable place because the media require creative people everywhere distant from the routine of mere employment.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the issue of television debts? How will it be resolved?
[Haikal] The debt has reached about 13.5 billion Egyptian pounds [approximately $2.2 billion]. A solution must be found for this debt. The debt is about 6 billion Egyptian pounds but its rate of interest is 7.5 percent. If we wait until next year, the debt will rise to 14.5 billion. When I took over office, I sent a letter to the prime minister in which I outlined this financial situation. The solution lies in minimizing the debt because it was spent on building the infrastructure.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the new budget that you were given after the revolution?
[Haikal] We pay 83 million pounds in government salaries each month in addition to 50 million in product rewards. The total is 133 million each month. The government provides about 83 million. Thus what is asked of me is to raise the remainder of the rewards through revenue generated by the production of programs and advertisements that are supposed to provide us with additional funds to maintain the infrastructure of the building that necessarily needs a huge maintenance operation. This is not available at the present state. Part of the debt is due to the issue of Nile Sat because part of the debt is due to launching several satellites in a short time and at a high cost.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us talk about the media policy, that is, the media of the revolution. Will this media serve the ruling elites as was the case in the past or will they be media outlets for the Egyptian people?
[Haikal] Egypt was very affected during the period of the revolution; the revolution was the reason for selecting me as information minister. Had it not been for the revolution, I would not have come to the Information Ministry because I was the chief editor of an opposition newspaper (Al-Wafd). In other words, the official media were the media of the ruling regime where the Information Minister carried out the instructions of the president. This regime ended with the revolution and we turned from being the media of the regime to that the Egyptian state. The state has its components, namely, the people. As soon as I took office, I announced three principles to operate. First, the operation should be based on no exclusion of any group in the Egyptian media. All the currents of the people should be represented in expressing their stands and opinions regardless of whether these stands are opposed to government policies. Second, the media will not look under their feet; the target is media that address minds not sentiments. In other words, the differences in stands should be presented by the Egyptian screen while respecting the Egyptian citizen because such presentation also aims at finding interaction in dialogue, participation of all in shaping public opinion, and practicing the cultural role because I believe that the Egyptian media should primarily be a cultural institution. Third, it is defining my role. Is it merely presenting what the viewer wants or is to present creative people in all fields? The intent is to combine the two. I wish to focus on diversification in presenting all the positions. I do not wish to depend on 70 or 80 names that regularly appear on television as if there is no one else in Egypt. I also the reject the idea that the minister is a media censor; I reject the mere idea of a censorship system.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is this your agenda or is it the agenda that the current stage requires?
[Haikal] This is the thinking that serves the homeland at this stage; no two people disagree on it; namely, national and ethical commitment that is in harmony with the vision of transforming the media to play its proper role. It is the thinking of the Egyptian revolution while creating a state of balance through which we regain the trust of the viewers and abolish the idea of the naïve media that prevailed prior to the 25 January revolution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can this approach also restore the competition with the private channels?
[Haikal] If there is no competition there is no need to operate better.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did you receive a letter of designation from the prime minister on the priorities of the current stage?
[Haikal] The message was oral. We talked about the various stages of deficiency through which the media passed, especially in the last six months when the Egyptian media lost its credibility during the 25 January revolution. We also talked about the idea of change and other matters such as I am with or against the regime. The official media has always been with the regime and began to drift after the fall of the regime. Criticisms and talk about false media began.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You mean we should distinguish between the margin of freedom in the past in criticizing the regime because we opposed everything except the president and those around him?
[Haikal] That is correct and that is why the current media structure is unjustly treated because it was only given what existed to be broadcast. Then the transformation took place 100% after the regime’s fall and everyone began to say what he wished. But the citizen is not that naïve. He began to think that the media told me yesterday that the demonstrators have foreign agenda and foreign funding and today they are telling me that the citizens are honorable. They began to wonder which message to believe, that of yesterday or that of today?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on what is happening in the Al-Tahrir Square now?
[Haikal] What is happening today is not what happened a few days after 25 January until 28 February when Yusuf al-Qaradawi entered the field. The structure of the Al-Tahrir Square began to change. We saw a religious current from which many movements split. After the square represented the unity of the Egyptian people against the regime, differences and disputes emerged and the square became a place for division.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What can be done about this phenomenon?
[Haikal] This is what we are trying to do on the media level. We believe that was took place on 25 January is a historic achievements by all standards. This achievement should be protected because we cannot yet say that this revo9loution succeeded or failed except after it acco9mplishyes its goal.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you believe that the revolution’s goals have not been achieved yet? In your opinion, to what degree have they been achieved?
[Haikal] Only about 50 percent of the goals were achieved. This was the easy part represented in overthrowing the regime. At present we are building a new regime that requires a better vision than the old regime while preserving the revolutionary purity. The question is: Is the group present in Al-Tahrir Square the same that was there during the revolution? The answer is 100 percent no. So what happened? The sentiments of the people are being provoked. Everyone became upset with the idea of threatening to shut down the square and so on. What I mean to say is that if there are 100 revolutionaries that agree on a goal t o complete the accomplishments and goals of the revolution and five are not in harmony with the others infiltrate their ranks the scene becomes totally different. This is what we are trying to preserve with the idea of revolutionary purity. We have to keep in mind that we did not witness any sectarian strife in the first few days of the revolution. This world was awestruck with this historic and civilized revolution. Can we forget the scene when Muslims were performing Friday prayers while the Christians protected them and then the Christians celebrating holy mass in the square while the Muslims protected them? It was a scene that represented the zenith of civilized behavior.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let me go back to the scene of dispersing the currents of the revolution and ask whether it was caused by the reported alliances between the army establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood on one hand and between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Al-Wafd Party on the other?
[Haikal] No, this is not the cause. The fact is that this transformation is a natural one. Any revolution in the world is normally followed by a state of alliances and chaos. The danger of what happened lies in our definition of the revolution and its concept. We believe that it is a genuine popular revolution and I said this in the banner headline of the Al-Wafd newspaper on 29 January. I used the term revolution from the first day and I called it the “Revolution of Anger” because it was clearly so. Thus it can be defined as a popular revolution that the armed forces supported. From here emerged the notion of the national fabric. But the danger in what happened is that some groups began to tamper with the unity between the people and the armed forces.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Who are these groups?
[Haikal]I do not wish to name any specific group. For example, let us consider the recent regrettable incidents in Al-Abbasiyah that bring up a big question mark, particularly since they are trying to target the military council. Before taking such a step, we should first consider the reasons and the results. First, on 10 February, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces met and issued its first communiqué. It was a historic stand that is credited to the army. It then drew up the alternative scenario. This establishment is a military one. Some should ask themselves what would have happened to the military had the revolution failed to remove the former regime. The alternative would have definitely been hitting with bullets. Moreover, the army establishment issued its first communiqué knowing the magnitude of the real risks. Thus, the men of this establishment cannot be accused of being not nationalists and then we start talking of attacking and declaring them as traitors. This is what logic tells in part and parcel. They cannot be declared as traitors following the support and assistance that the Egyptian army provided by siding with the people.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the strong emergence of the representatives of the religious currents after the revolution?
[Haikal] Can anyone imagine that there is a huge force in Egypt called the salafists that is stronger than the Muslim Brothers? Nevertheless, I oppose the exclusion of any these currents or the Copts in the Egyptian society. Thus, the success of the revolution depends on the unity of the Egyptian fabric.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your opinion on the role of the Al-Wafd Party that is active in the arena and has three ministers in the current government?
[Haikal] Not three ministers because I am not a member of the Al-Wafd Party or in any of its organs. I am only the chief editor of the Al-Wafd Party and my thinking is in agreement with that of the liberal Al-Wafd Party.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Since you are close to the thinking of the Al-Wafd Party, can it play a role in the new political scene?
[Haikal] Al-Wafd Party is playing an active role and it has the historic opportunity to rise and have an effective role in the coming stage. We also have the Muslim Brother s. They too represent a real force and are organized on the Egyptian street. Thus, the official Egyptian media should express all these political currents and the various groups.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the parliamentary and presidential elections be held on schedule, particularly since some have said that the presidential elections may be held in 2013?
[Haikal] Based on what I know about the military council, it wants to hand over power as quickly as possible. This became clearer to me from the meetings that I attend. It is also important to keep in mind that if the regime fell, we should not also cause the fall of the state. Three major institutions – the presidency, the parliament, and the police – have fallen but three other institutions – the judiciary, the media, and the armed forces – should be preserved. These three institutions are striving to rebuild the institutions that fell. In fact, the police have begun to return and we need to have a truly elected parliament, a permanent constitution, and presidential elections. This way, we restore the building of the state institutions.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there a trend to liquidate the official media?
[Haikal] The official media should be present but their role should be to release the media from the restrictions. I believe that the closest model to me is the BBC. It is a state-owned media that protects the national security of the state. Ultimately, it is a free media establishment that does not court the regime.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the post of information minister? Will you be the last?
[Haikal] This issue appeared that it was a mistake during the period of the revolution. Why? It was a mistake because all the departments and institutions of the ministry witnessed some neglect, especially the public information department.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will you be the last information minister?
[Haikal] This is determined by the next president of Egypt.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Did your work as a military correspondent play a role in selecting you as minister?
[Haikal] No; actually, it was Dr Essam Sharaf who nominated me for this post. My career as a military correspondent was a long time ago. I am very proud of it and honored by it; I gained a lot of experience from it. My nomination by Dr Sharaf was approved by the military council.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Are you expected to take into consideration the point that some have raised that the Egyptian television can profit from selling the trials? Some have said that you wasted two billion pounds.
[Haikal] What I did was to obtain fees for the use of the equipment of the Egyptian television. I said that anyone that wishes to transmit the event using the special Egyptian television logo is welcome to do so without having to pay fees. But those that wish to transmit without our logo should pay the cost of transmission using my equipment. I positioned at the site of the trial about 11 cameras, a mobile transmission vehicle, and sophisticated equipment up to the standard of this historic event and the accuracy of transmitting it.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How much does it cost to transmit the trial?
[Haikal] Each day has a different cost. On 3 August, we positioned cameras three days prior to the trial and we conducted many rehearsals before transmitting the trials live on the air. The second point, which is more important, is to restore the trust of the Egyptian people and the world. A lot of ambiguity surrounded the issue of selling the trials. In order to sell a commodity, one should have paid for it first and it belongs to me. However, I did not own the trials and thus could not sell them.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is cooperation between Egypt and the Arab countries on the level of the media in your current plans?
[Haikal] A few days ago, I met with Ahmad al-Qattan, the Saudi ambassador in Cairo. We talked about drafting a cooperation protocol between the Egyptian and Saudi media establishments during the current phase. This protocol is being studied now and will be signed within weeks. Egypt and Saudi Arabia have a strategic cooperation relationship in the full sense of the word. They have very strong and solid historic relations. The media cooperation will reflect this relationship.