Talking Politics on Egyptian TV


Egyptian talkshow 'In the Square'

Since the dramatic events that led to the fall of Hosni Mubarak in February, Egyptians find themselves in a whole new world of politics.

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There's an election coming up and new parties and new politicians are emerging. Plus the constitution has to be re-written.

For politically inclined Egyptians, there's a lot to keep up with these days, which helps explain why TV talk shows are all the rage right now.

A key moment in Egypt's revolution came three days before Mubarak resigned.
And it happened on television. Activist and Google executive Wael Ghonim was released from 12 days in detention by Egyptian state security and he went straight on the air with Dream TV host Mona Shezley.

Ghonim's emotional interview provided a boost to the demonstrations, according to Jonathan Wright, Cairo-based editor of the online publication, Arab Media and Society.

"Wael is probably not going to be a major figure in Egyptian politics in the future," Wright said. "But for that moment, (Ghonim) turned out to be just perfect."

Arabic satellite channels like Al Jazeera played an important role in the Egyptian revolution. But so did local TV talk shows. And in the weeks since then, they have remained immensely popular.

The pedestrian mall near Cairo's stock exchange is called Al-Borsa. It is a place where young Egyptians visit cafes to drink tea, smoke shisha pipes and talk politics.
Making Time for Late-Night TV

Sitting in front of a laptop with a couple of his buddies, 30 year-old Ibrahim said he is extremely busy these days. He has a full-time job and he takes evening classes. But he still makes time for late-night TV talk shows.

Ibrahim said the "10 PM" show with Mona Shezley is his favorite program, because Shezley deals with important issues.

She's smart and she is fair, he said.

Before the revolution, said 24 year-old Methaf, many Egyptians were scared to talk openly about religion or politics. But the talk shows have helped change that. They are cool and informative, she said.

"Everyone watches," Methaf said. "People want to see and watch and listen, to be more educated, to be on the scene."

Egypt's talk show scene is lively and crowded  ­ with several different programs vying for audience share most nights of the week. Tahrir TV went on the air about the time Mubarak stepped down. It puts out a program called, "In the Square," hosted by Mahmoud Saad.

Saad is a familiar face to Egyptians. He hosted a show on state-run television up until the revolution began. But he said he quit after management told him to describe Egyptian demonstrators as foreign troublemakers.

In his dressing room, Saad explained that it was Mubarak who loosened restrictions on what TV talk shows could discuss on the air. But he said there were still red lines.

"Mubarak himself was off-limits," Saad said. "We could criticize the Egyptian government and its policies, but not the ex-president."
Criticizing the Military

Now, things are different, Saad said. "We have the freedom to deal with almost any topic on the show."

There is still at least one bright red line though.

Egypt's transitional military rulers have shown little tolerance for criticism. A 25 year-old Egyptian blogger, for example, was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the army.

That means there is a lot at stake  ­ and a great deal of responsibility  ­ that goes along with the job of TV talk show host.

Arab media expert Jonathan Wright said the talk shows, "were quite powerful even before the revolution in the sense that they did air important issues within certain limits."

"Now, they have actually become one of the main forums for political debate in the country."

And that means more scrutiny as well.

One Egyptian political activist told me he is quite disappointed with the quality of this new generation of TV talk shows.

He said they often take small issues and blow them out of proportion.

But small or big, there is plenty to talk about in Egypt right now, and there is lots of airtime to fill between now and the elections this fall.