Egypt occupies a leading political and cultural role in the Arab world as the region’s most populous state, with 72.6 million inhabitants. Until 1914, Egypt officially belonged to the Ottoman Empire. However, British economic and geopolitical interests in the region turned Egypt into a semi-colony from 1882 to 1952. The ongoing struggle for independence culminated in the Free Officers Revolution in 1952, which established a nationalist regime. Islam plays a minor but visible role in official politics and legislation. Despite Egypt formally being a parliamentary democracy, the authoritarian president pulls the political strings.
Since 1954, only three presidents have ruled Egypt, each of them shaping the media system differently. Gamal Abdel Nasser (1954 –1970) used the media as an instrument of political mobilization within the strategy of promoting Arab nationalism. Anwar al-Sadat’s (1970 –1981) politics of liberalization opened up space for party papers. Hosni Mubarak (since 1981) still expects media to support the regime’s politics but came to meet the Egyptian business elites’ interests to invest in new media and information technologies. Therefore, Egypt’s media system is in a transitional stage. Strong media competition in the Arab world during the 1990s led to a cautious liberalization aiming at securing markets without losing political control over the media.
Official legislation does not yet meet the liberalization process. The revised constitution of 1980 grants freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the press can be censored or suspended by presidential order due to the state of emergency law, which has been in force since 1981. Press law no. 96 of 1996 regulates the role of journalists. Journalists can be sentenced for libeling public officials or offending the president. Only corporate entities, not individuals, are allowed to obtain licenses to publish a paper.
The first newspaper was launched by the French during Napoleon’s invasion in 1798. During British colonial rule, the Egyptians’ struggle for independence served as the cradle for a strong nationalist party press. In 1960 Nasser nationalized the press. Today, the government still controls the three leading dailies, al-Ahram, al-Akhbar, and al-Gumhuriya, a number of weekly papers, and the Egyptian Middle East News Agency (MENA); 86.8 percent of journalists in the print sector work for the state-controlled media (Korff 2003).
Sadat’s reintroduction of the multiparty system in 1976 was meant to establish “straw dollies” to support government politics. However, parties were allowed to publish their own press. During Hosni Mubarak’s era, the party press developed into a vivid but always controlled mouthpiece of oppositional ideas. The most important of the 14 party newspapers are the liberal al-Wafd and the (now banned) Islamist al-Shaab (El Gody 2004). Since 2000, a number of independent dailies and weeklies, such as al-Dustur and al-Masry al-Yawm, successfully obtained licenses. Their existence is often short-lived due to financial problems or political pressure. Nevertheless, the independent press has become a strong and critical watchdog. To avoid licensing, a number of papers are registered abroad. Like all foreign press, these papers are subject to censorship.
The British Marconi Company established a radio system in 1934, and TV broadcasting started in 1960 with American help (El Gody 2004). Nasser soon used the radio as an effective propaganda tool to reach the largely illiterate masses. Voice of the Arabs became the most important radio channel in the Arab world during the 1950s and 1960s. Until 2001, national television and radio broadcasting was run solely by the state-owned Egyptian Radio and Television Union (ERTU). Eight different radio networks have been established, including local, national, and overseas programs. Two national TV channels were complemented with six regional TV channels from 1985 to 1990. Egyptian film and TV production dominated the Arab market at that time. In 1990, Egypt became the first Arab country to launch a TV satellite channel, ESC 1. In 1993 the launch of Nile TV followed, carrying news in English and French to improve Egypt’s image in the western world.
Egypt’s great leap forward into the era of limited pluralism in the broadcasting sector started in 1998 with the launch of the national satellite NileSat 101, followed by NileSat 102 in 2000. In 2001, nine private Egyptian channels were introduced, including the successful Dream channels. These channels are characterized by rather apolitical programs due to self-censorship to obtain their licenses. Similarly, two private radio channels started broadcasting in 2003. In 1995, the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) was inaugurated, including film shooting areas and fully equipped studio complexes. Part of it was declared a Media Free Zone in 2000, offering tax benefits and exemptions from national censorship for foreign investments. The policy behind this deregulation is “the ruling elite’s determination to present an image of Egypt as a ‘cohesive community’ to viewers at home and abroad” (Sakr 2001, 34).
Economic development through deregulation has also been the motive for supporting new information technologies like mobile phones and the Internet. First introduced at universities in 1986, the Internet became available to the public in 1993. Since 1996 Internet service providing has been privatized. User rates have grown over 100 percent per year ever since, reaching 4 million users in 2005. Illiteracy and limited financial resources hamper wider acceptance. A Ministry for Information and Telecommunication technology was founded in 1999, and the government initiated a “one computer for each household” campaign.
Access to and content of Internet sites are officially not restricted in Egypt. Consequently, Islamist and other opposition groups, as well as a vivid weblog scene, adopted the Internet more professionally than official news media did. Nevertheless, websites of unwanted political organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood are shut down occasionally and bloggers have been imprisoned. A comprehensive Internet law is still lacking.
- Amin, H., & Napoli, J. (2000). Media and power in Eg y pt. In J. Curran & M. Park (eds.), De-westernizing media studies. London: Routledge, pp. 178 –188.
- El Gody, A. (2004). Medien in Ägypten [Media in Egypt]. In Hans-Bredow-Institut (ed.), Internationales Handbuch für Hörfunk und Fernsehen 2004/2005. Baden-Baden: Nomos, pp. 721–736.
- Korff, Y. (2003). Missing the wave: Egyptian journalists’ contribution to democratization in the 1990s. Hamburg: Deutsches Orient-Institut.
- Rugh, W. A. (2004). Arab mass media: Newspapers, radio and television in Arab politics. Westport, CT: Praeger.
- Sakr, N. (2001). Satellite realms: Transnational television, globalization and the Middle East. London: I. B. Tauris.