Cairo, Asharq Al-Awsat – Egypt’s newly-appointed Information Minister, Salah Abdul-Maqsoud, does not shy away from his Muslim Brotherhood background, rather he wears it like a badge of honor, but stresses that he leaves his ideological orientation at the door upon entering Maspero, headquarters of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union. In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Egypt’s Information Minister spoke about the challenges he is facing reconfiguring Egypt’s media following the revolution, the new political situation in the country and his aspirations for Egypt and its media.
Salah Abdul-Maqsoud has been a journalist since 1979, where he worked on a number of Islamist magazines including Egyptian Dawa al-Bashir (1985), The Banner of Islam (1987 and 1994) and Harvest of Thought (1992), in addition to writing frequently for the Muslim Brotherhood’s online website. He has been a member of the Supreme Council for Journalism and the Union of Journalists over the past 16 years. He was also appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Radio and Television Union and was a prominent member of Dr. Mursi’s presidential election campaign. He was appointed Egyptian Information Minister in August 2012.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What debts did the former regime leave for the Information Ministry?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] In terms of numbers, there is more than 19 billion Egyptian Pounds [EGP] owed to the [Egyptian] Investment Bank from the pension fund, whilst there is also 850 million EGP owed to news, photography and production agencies. In addition to this, there is salary inflation due to basic salary increasing by 400 percent from last year, which has resulted in general salaries [at the Information Ministry] now standing at close to 225 million EGP annually. You might be surprised to learn that only around 25 million EGP is spent on production and operations cost, in other words 85 percent of revenue goes towards wages, whilst just 15 percent goes towards operations and maintenance. This is an unsustainable model because wages should not exceed 30 percent. The reason for these accumulated problems was that the media was previously directed to serve the regime; however there is no room for this– thank God – following the revolution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the most prominent project that you are working on to develop the Egyptian media?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] We are currently working on a number of contexts. Previously, there were “owned” programs that were sold, either to the regime or figures within the regime, and these programs were directed towards a single vision, namely to settle scores with particular trends. We are now working to create a “stylebook”, along the lines of what is present in major western media organizations. This is being created by media figures within the Radio and Television Union in coordination with media experts from outside of Maspero. The presenters, editors and producers in our media would then be bound to follow this Stylebook. Unfortunately, we previously had presenters who would confuse profession and political orientation, and so a presenter would sometimes feud with their guests, when they should have remained neutral and focused on moderating the dialogue.
Currently, we are reviewing what programs are presented on television, and the results of this review are the subject of intense attention from our colleagues. However before anybody can be held accountable for past practices, we must give our colleagues this Stylebook, which they can receive training in and commit to– before anybody is held accountable. In other words, we must provide the media with standards that they can adhere to and be judged by. This is the first part.
As for the second part, this is connected to the Stylebook’s standards, particularly as the media has assassinated figures that have done nothing wrong under the legal aphorism “innocent until proven guilty.” In other words, we must not judge somebody to be guilt before trial or before they have had a chance to defend themselves. The same applies to the rights of the accused, for television programs prior to the revolution would reveal the name and images of defendants before they were convicted by the courts, whilst also publishing information – received by state security – about certain figures that were accused – but not yet convicted – of this crime or that crime. In this context, we are establishing a committee to monitor media practices, and this will be supervised by a number of journalists, media experts and arbitrators. This committee will study and look at different programs and issue a report on this. In addition to this committee on media practices, we are also seeking to establish another committee called the “quality control” committee.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The Information Ministry has attempted to calm fears that it is being controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, and I personally have not seen anybody with a beard upon entering Maspero. So what is the truth regarding the Muslim Brotherhood’s control of Egypt’s media?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] Why am I here in front of you [if not to answer such questions]? I am from the heart of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, and just yesterday I held a meeting with a number of different political parties, and this meeting was attended by representatives of more than 45 parties. The idea of this meeting is based on transforming the media from the media of the party to the media of the people, or from the regime’s media to the state’s media. In other words, this must be a professional media. We must create a media organization that belongs to the people as a whole, without expressing any specific political trend. The president transformed this post into an institution; this is why I want to transform the media from a media that is run by a minister to one that is run by a council, representing all segments of Egyptian society. This ministry could then be led by somebody from the Brotherhood or the left-wing or the nationalist trend, however this official’s decisions would not monopolize operations, as this would be the media of the state, funded by the people, particularly as it is the people who pay our salaries.
My standards are based on professionalism, impartiality and objectivity, as well as opinion and counter-opinion. I told my colleague, even those who worked for the former regime, “Allah forgives what is past” [Surat al-Maeda; Verse 95] and let us open a new page and work together to serve the Egyptian people. We could also say that we are passing through a transitional phase, particularly as this organization was controlled by figures with the same view, since the launch of [Egyptian] television in 1960. Since the July  revolution, Egyptian media promoted one view and viewpoint, however in order to transform this into the people’s media, we require a period of patience and effort, and this is what we are now doing.
As for radio, we are talking about a radio broadcast that is considered one of the earliest radio broadcasts in the world – as it was first launched in 1934 – however it has never had a Stylebook to govern its operations until now. We have regional channels that are more than 25 years old, and those working there have never been subject to training courses, despite the passage of these long years. We have a fleet of vehicles that allow for live broadcast, but sometimes they fail to provide effective coverage from outside of Cairo due to bureaucratic restrictions placed on media work at Maspero building. In reality, we are suffering from a number of problems that require time to be resolved.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is new for Egypt’s news media? How will you ensure this is on equal footing with Arab news channels in the region?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] In just a few months we shut down the special operations of Nile TV. This is a large studio, approximately 800 meters squared, that works with HD cameras to a high degree of efficiently. My belief is that over the next few months, God willing, we will launch the Nile News channel in a new format, and it may serve as competition to Arab satellite news channels, particularly as Nile TV assisted many of these channels with media cadres. Indeed, Egyptian media is proud that its media cadres are present at such channels, after it was granted freedom and opportunity after bureaucratic boundaries and restrictions were lifted.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is you assessment of Egyptian television in comparison with other channels?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] I hope that Egyptian media recovers its good health, through commitment to professionalism and giving room for opinion and counter-opinion. We have, God willing, the ability to engage with the masses, and there is a promising channel called “Sawt al-Shaab” [Voice of the youth] that was launched to broadcast parliamentary sessions, and it has requested to be allowed to broadcast sessions of the Shura Council and Constituent Committee so that the people themselves can see what is happening. I asked my colleagues to reflect the views of all component of Egyptian society, not just the elite and middle class, in other words so that they are the true media of the Egyptian people…representing both the rich and the poor, those living in Cairo as well as those living in the country’s hamlets and villages.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] The first female presenter to wear a hijab, Fatima Nabil, appeared recently on state-run Egyptian television. In your own opinion, do you believe this is something that is long overdue?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] Yes, this was long overdue, and it was not just hijab wearing presenters who were banned by the former regime. I personally was active in the media and civil society [during the Mubarak era], I was a member of the Supreme Council for Journalism and the Union of Journalists over a period of 16 years. However despite all this, I was not permitted to enter Maspero until the night that Dr. Mohamed Mursi won the Egyptian presidential elections, and this was only in my position as media adviser for his election campaign. Last year, I was appointed to the Board of Trustees of the Radio and Television Union, however despite this I still was not allowed to enter Maspero. My name remained on the list of those not allowed access, despite the fact that many people had their names removed following the revolution. However, for one reason or another, my name was on this list and I was not allowed to enter Maspero.
In addition to this, my female hijab-wearing colleagues were also banned, so Fatima Nabil appeared on [Egyptian] Channel 1after years of prohibition. She is somebody who has worked in the media for the past 12 years, working as an editor and translator. She even entered a media competition during the late days of Anas el-Fiqqi’s ministry – who is currently imprisoned – where she won first prize, but was still banned from appearing on air because of her hijab. Another television presenter who was allowed to appear is my colleague Nermin Khali, and she is a presenter who appeared on Nile News TV who is known for her efficiently. She began to wear the hijab in 2007, and as soon as this happened she disappeared from our screens and was banned from reading the news. However she finally returned to our screens last week. The third hijab-wearing presenter is Sara el-Shenawi, and she entered a competition to read the weather forecast, and despite the fact that the weather report is only two minutes long or less, she was prevented from appearing because of her hijab; however she too has now been allowed to appear. As for the fourth hijab-wearing broadcaster, she will appear on television in a matter of hours and she is Nermin el-Bitar; she is a veteran presenter who had read the news for 16 years but who put on the hijab in November 2011 and promptly disappeared from our screens, even though this was 10 months after the revolution. However I took the decision to return her to the 9 O’clock news, and she will be appearing on Monday’s broadcast. I believe that the appearance of hijab-wearing broadcasters is a victory for the principles of the constitution, the law and the revolution.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have seen many Mubarak regime loyalists appear on Egyptian television following the revolution. What is your comment on this phenomenon?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] I could say that one is innocent until proven guilty, and even if one is accused we must confront them in the media, or in other word allow them to appear. We allowed former presidential candidate General Ahmed Shafiq to appear on Egyptian state television, even though he is currently present in Abu Dhabi and accused in a large case in which some former officials have been arrested. We allowed him to appear on state television, and this is his right, namely to appear and respond to the accusations against him. We also allowed Syrian figures to appear on Egyptian television following President Mursi’s speech at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, as well as during the Arab League summit in Cairo, in order to show the other point of view, which is something that was not permitted under the former regime, and this included the appearance of any opponents of the [former] president. However, in my own view and experience, and according to what President Mursi himself told me, the Egyptian media must express the reality of the Egyptian people of all backgrounds, trends and ideas.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] We have seen pictures of President Mursi riding a horse on the front page of an Egyptian weekly magazine, with the photographer depicting him as a peerless knight. So couldn’t it be said that the Egyptian media is continuing to be used as it was in the past, namely to serve the ruling regime?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] Firstly, as Information Minister, I do not have jurisdiction over print or digital media, or private television channels. I have no jurisdiction except within the lines set out by the law. I do not intervene in programs or content, except in terms of guidance and standards, and ensuring commitment to professionalism and neutrality. As for the press in Egypt, we now have a free press that is permitted to criticize the president, and articles are published every day that do just this, whilst others praise the president and his policies. This is something that enriches political life in Egypt. I believe that President Mursi welcomes criticism, and we also welcome this; however we strongly reject slander, accusations of treason and defamation that is not based on facts or evidence. In my view, evidence is judicial rulings.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view of President Mursi’s speech at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran? What is your own personal view of Dr. Mohamed Mursi, particularly as you know him well?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] My knowledge of President Mursi goes back to 1986. He is a man who loves his country a great deal, for he left the US – where he was making approximately $3,000 [a month] – and returned to Egypt to make 158 EGP teaching at the Faculty of Engineering, not to mention leaving behind the scientific research he was carrying out for NASA. He could have stayed in the US and made a lot of money, but instead he returned to Egypt to serve his country. He is inherently Egyptian in nature, a farmer who belongs to his people, keen to visit his village and hometown and engage with Egyptian citizens. He prefers to work as part of a team, and is not interested in monopolizing power and decision-making; rather he is interested in listening to other people’s advice. This is something that we saw during the presidential election campaign. A group of us would meet during this period – and the ages of those in this group ranged from those in their twenties to those in their late sixties – and he [Mursi] would listen to everybody before taking any decision, however he was also decisive in this regard. His decisions were not characterized by half-measures and platitudes, despite his patience and forbearance.
As for his interviews with journalists, media figures and intellectuals, Mursi would reject any pre-prepared interviews. In comparison, the former president, when he wanted to meet with intellectuals, would send the security apparatus to select a group of them which would tell them – a day or two before the interview – what questions they were going to ask the president, so that he could prepare his answers. During the ousted president’s interview with intellectuals at the International Book Fair, we saw that he was holding some papers in his hand, and these contained the questions that he was going to be asked.
For his part, President Mursi supports an open-door policy, in other words he meets with everybody and listens to everybody, and he has nothing to hide or fear. He is a simple man in his daily life who continues to live in his flat at Tagammu al-Khamis in Heliopolis. He is a very simple man, so when he traveled to Saudi Arabia, for example, his wife wanted to perform the umrah, so he arranged for her to travel on EgyptAir despite the fact that protocol allows for her to travel on the presidential jet. The First Lady travelled to Saudi Arabia on a civilian air-craft, along with her son. Whilst following the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran, President Mursi returned Egypt to its Arab and regional position in terms of power and prestige.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your average workday like since taking over the Ministry of Information?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] I work at Maspero for 16 hours a day, whilst on my day-off on Friday I read all the files that I have been unable to read throughout the week. As for Saturdays, I have allocated this as an open day in which I meet with the staff working as Maspero and the Radio and Television Union. I believe in an open-door policy, and since I came to the Ministry I have not listened to the view of one party against any other, in other words I do not listen to any single viewpoint, but to all views. I issued a televised speech throughout Maspero addressing the Radio and Television Union – on our internal feed – in which I announced that I would be meeting with staff every Saturday, and that I would meet with anybody who has an idea or complaint by appointment. For example, I recently met with famous Egyptian director Mohamed Fadel. Whilst last week I met with actor Mohamed Sobhi, who was having problem with his famous series “Wanis” regarding finances. In addition to this, Mr. Mohamed Fadel has a series based on the case that paved the way for the revolution; however this has stalled due to a lack of financing.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you support the broadcast of the second season of “Al-Gamaa” [The Group] which deals with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, despite the fact that it was not a commercial success?
[Abdul-Maqsoud] If [creator] Mr. Wahid Hamid produces a second season along the lines of the first one, then this will not be broadcast on Egyptian television screens, with all due respect to his ability and creativity. The first season of this show was not impartial, and he created this television series in order to distort the image of the Muslim Brotherhood, particularly as the first season was not neutral. He created this series in order to assassinate the characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder martyr Imam Hassan al-Banna. This series was produced for tens of millions, solely in order to tarnish the image of the Brotherhood. Its objectives were political, particularly as it was produced and screened in the run-up to the 2010 elections, which were beset by voter fraud and resulted in the regime winning 98 percent of the vote. However this ultimately served to harm the regime. The “Al-Gamaa” series served Egypt as a whole, as it misled the then ruling regime to believe that the atmosphere in the country had calmed and that it was possible to get away with this excessive voter fraud. Ultimately this was the straw that broke the camel’s back, thank God.