< TV in the New Egypt


Friday, April 15, 2011

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone with my producer Sarah Abdurrahman hitching a ride to the pyramids with Mohamed Khalifa, the director of a new cool YouTube show you'll be hearing more about. He's a TV guy, so I asked him which TV outlet best covered the revolution.

MOHAMED KHALIFA: The, the foreign media played a very big role in the, in the Egyptian revolution.


MOHAMED KHALIFA: In the time where — when the Egyptian media didn't say anything about the thaura and

the revolution and stuff like that, only the foreigners were here and reporting that. So this is how people trusted the — people who were in the revolution, they trusted the, the — the foreign channels, like Arabiya and Al-Jazeera and BBC, CNN, even though I don't like CNN that much —

[BROOKE LAUGHS] — but, in the same time, you know?

QUESTION: What about Anderson Cooper?


[LAUGHTER] He has no — I have no problem with him.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Not crazy about CNN but likes Anderson Cooper. Some things are universal. Also universal, distrust of Egyptian television.

SOHU ENNAKKASH: It's very, very painful for me to say that Egyptian television wasn't able to tell what was happening in Egypt. Our sources were BBC and Al-Jazeera, CNN and all other channels. We wanted to know just what was happening outside our building.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sohu Ennakkash worked at the Egyptian Radio and Television Union for 20 years. She was doing newscasts on Egyptian TV when the protesters launched the revolution in Tahrir Square. We met her in the Chantilly Cafe in upscale Heliopolis.

SOHU ENNAKKASH: I studied journalism in Cairo University. I graduated in 1991. And when they started the project of Nile TV International with both languages, English and French, I switched to TV. And I had the feeling not only doing the job I love but also I had a dream. I had this dream, to represent Egypt and to create a small circle of good professional journalism in Egypt. I had this dream. I wasn't alone in this dream. All the group of Nile TV International had this — dream, to start to make a good journalism, TV journalism in Egypt.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And when did the dream die?

SOHU ENNAKKASH: The dream died gradually. It was every day and it was everywhere, and in every news bulletin we do. We focus on the news of the President, his son, the — National Democratic Party. That day in Cairo there was the demonstrations, there was clashes between police and demonstrators. There was injuries. There was killed people. I had the difficult mission to go on air, on the top of every hour, and tell the people that Cairo regains its calm, on the top of every hour. I wasn't in peace with myself. I was lying, it's clear. I admit that we had to lie in the past years, but on that day I had the feeling that I have to take the decision to be on the part of those people who chose to defend one family and one party, or to be with the people defending all our rights.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So she quietly walks away from her career in state TV forever. A couple of months later the head of Egyptian television is sacked, along with two anchors, and a fresh new face walks into the spotlight.

BASSEL SABRI: My name is Bassel Sabri. Currently I'm the show host of — you can say the prime time talk show on Egyptian television, which is Masr Elnahrda or Egypt Today.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Egypt Today is widely viewed two and a half hours a night, six nights a week on a network that has to do a complete turnaround if it's regarded as anything other than a sick joke. Bassel who used to work in the relatively more free foreign-language service, has a big job ahead. Can you speculate why the people who hired you hired you?

BASSEL SABRI: First of all, there is an image problem because Egyptian television has been associated with so many lies and so many misinformation in the previous regime. The faces of anchors, the backgrounds, the studios — everything says old regime. I think that's one of the reasons that I have been chosen for this, because I'm a new face to most of the people. They're not sure how am I affiliated, but they think that a change in faces is very essential.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Many people like to say there are no red lines anymore, but everybody knows that there is still a big, bright, thick red line around the military. What are you going to do when you bump up against it?

BASSEL SABRI: Okay, that's — that's a good question. The military intervened at one point in the revolution and averted Egypt going down the same path as Libya or Iraq. They have to be credited for that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think they have been credited for it. Now they have to answer for the current moment. There's been a lot of online documentation of people who were taken into custody and abused. But this — kind of material doesn't make it onto television. You - have you talked about it?

BASSEL SABRI: We haven't talked about it yet, because I've been on air for only eight episodes. And there are so many subjects that we need to discuss. And there is no really subject that is a taboo at the moment. It varies and I discuss it. You will find me off air the next day. And if I get taken off air, I don't care.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So the prospect of losing the job doesn't bother you.

BASSEL SABRI: It doesn't bother me at all —

BROOKE GLADSTONE: What about the prospect of going to jail?

BASSEL SABRI: If I get taken to jail, people will know why I was taken to jail, 'cause they see me on air, they see what I say. And it will be very strange, very weird if I get taken to jail!

BROOKE GLADSTONE: No, in a way it's a great situation because you are so public that if you do push against that line, if you do report something that under the current repressive press laws amount to defamation, if they punished you, everybody would know. That's a tremendous amount of power. Do you think you might use it?

BASSEL SABRI: Yes, I will. Yes, I will.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: He says he will. Meanwhile, Egypt's independent satellite channels, most notably Dream TV and On TV, have no legacy of lies to contend with. Instead, they bask in the glory of reporting fairly on the revolution. Still, the heavy lifting of the information revolution happens online, not just in assembling testimony about the abuses of a nearly untouchable institution, or peering into the crannies of political corruption, but in shaping the way Egyptians think about those things, which brings us to Bassem Youssef.

[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] This is not the theme for the Bassem Youssef Show. Although it was written by its sound designer, at the moment this lightning-paced YouTube production hasn't got room for one. But someday soon it may. Bassem Youssef's audience is growing as fast as a snowball rolling down a hill, and it exemplifies everything that is new about media in post-revolutionary Egypt. As goes Bessem, his producers contend, so go the Egyptian media. And as go the Egyptian media, others speculate, so go the rest of the regions. Egypt’s revolution was driven by young people sharing information online. And the way people communicate online is — different.

MAN: When people talk about internet video or Internet viewership, it's usually labeled as a lean-forward experience, that you need to sit close to your computer and watch the person talking to you, and talking real, saying the real deal to you online. Tarek Alqazzaz is general manager at Baraka One Web, a production company that is actually making money posting original content on YouTube, itself a revolutionary act. But when Tarek cooked up a show starring his old friend Bessem Youssef, he was enmeshed in the other revolution in Tahrir Square, where Bessem, a heart surgeon, was attending to the wounded. Tarek told him:

TAREK ALQAZZAZ: I need to shoot something for the revolution, and I know that you have John Stewart everywhere in your [LAUGHS] in your being, okay? And I'm like, let's do the Egyptian version.

BESSEM YOUSSEF: I always dreamt of having something like this in Egypt, where you actually have no limits in satire.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Bessem Youssef venerates Jon Stewart.

BESSEM YOUSSEF: I mean, Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert works on how ridiculous the media is. And the 18 of the days of the revolution, we just like topped everybody. I mean, we were actually the home of stupidity. It was like juicy, wow! I mean, that was a gold mine.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The Bessem Youssef Show is formatted like The Daily Show, minus the interview. An appealing everyman sits in front of a screen airing absurd clips from the media and bizarre statements of politicians, and reacts accordingly, with wisecracks and funny faces and the occasional prop. He's the rational viewer's surrogate, who in desperate times is in desperate need of a laugh.

BESSEM YOUSSEF: I'm amazingly modest and fantastically humble.

[BROOKE LAUGHS] And, and I'm really, really up there in being down to earth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is the lean-forward experience Tarek mentioned, at once intimate and communal. That’s The Daily Show. Something that was never possible in Egypt before now. Egyptian political satire is practically an oxymoron. So when Bessem shows a clip on state TV of a source crying crocodile tears –



MAN: And the Oscar goes to –

WOMAN: And the Oscar goes to –

WOMAN: And the Oscar goes to –

BROOKE GLADSTONE: - and then opens the envelope to award the prize, it startles.

[CLIP PLAYING IN BACKGROUND] Bassem's is the most subscribed-to show on Youtube in Egypt. It’s expanded from around 5 to 15 minutes or more, and last Friday, he drew legions of fans when he dropped in on the ongoing protests in Tahrir Square. His favorability ratings are soaring.

AMR ISMAIL: We just - we don't want lies.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Amr Ismail is Bessem Youssef’s executive producer.

AMR ISMAIL: We are living 30 years of lying on each other. It makes us hating each other. So, right now people are close to each other. They want the truth. They want everything to be clear. Clearness is very important, in the media, in social life, in dealing with each other - just clearness.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Moustapha Halawani is a full time composer. He wrote the theme wwe heard earlier for a movie. But he’s also the show’s sound designer.

QUESTION: Do you feel like you’re working on something that could change the country?

MOUSTAPHA HALAWANI: Yeah, very much, yeah. It’s gonna change the comedy in Egypt and this kind of shows big time. Here in Egypt we are used to laugh, even in the worst situations. And I’m sure you have seen this, like in Tahrir Square in the middle of the revolution, all the things people were screaming - BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the signs they carried exhorting Mubarak to: MOUSTAPHA HALAWANI: Leave because my wife is about to deliver, And, you know, funny stuff like, leave, because, actually, I, I need to go to the – whatever, hairdresser or something.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: That kind of caustic rebuff to power gets no airing in state media. Even the local satellite channels, so much freer, don’t smirk in the face of guns. But it’s spilling onto the internet, in shows like Bassem Youssef’s. Topics of past shows: state media’s attempts to demonize the protesters in the Square, conspiracy theories involving Kentucky Fried Chicken, really. And the cynical use of religion as a goad to influence the vote on the recent referendum on the Constitution. Bassem sets real news clips of people predicting doom to music, and delights in the panic-mongering.



BASSEM YOUSSEF: Let’s play a game together called The Great Terror.

The elections will come quickly, and only the Muslim Brotherhood are prepared for it.

[VOICES IN ARABIC] One would control the country and force Islamic law, cut your hands and feet. But if you leave it to the people, an infidel may come to power! A Christian will rule. The cops will control you. The crusaders arrived in Mansoura. This is a good game.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The show's most profound resemblance to The Daily Show is in its resolute moderation, as when Jon Stewart suggested signs for people to carry at his Rally to Restore Sanity.


JON STEWART: Here's a quick one: I disagree with you, but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: In a recent episode Bessem, for the first time switched gears, as Stewart sometimes does, from strategic snarkiness to sincerity. It felt like a big risk.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: My face totally changes in front of the camera and I say, “There's been like a thick boot on everybody's neck for 30 years. And when the boot is lifted, it's expected that everybody will, will scream and you will hear things that you do not like. Nobody is a saint and everybody is mistaken. The Muslim Brotherhood is wrong, the, the Salahis [?] are wrong, the – the liberals who actually talk so much about democracy, they’re not that democratic either because as this kind of conceited, this kind of note –

BROOKE GLADSTONE: If you aren’t pure in your liberality, then you’re –


BASSEM YOUSSEF: S – something like that. I mean, if you are going to address the people in Egypt, not to use religion, they’re not gonna listen to you. You as a liberal, you really need to know that you have absolutely no weight.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Egypt, says Bessem, is not extremist, but it is devout. And the only voices with the potential to unify the nation are those of religious moderates.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: You have to – actually, to step aside, to let these people talk to them. And there’s a lot of moderate people, so you need a Muslim moderate to come, say like, “There’s God everywhere.” It doesn’t have to say that you have to forsake your mosque.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And at that point in the episode, the camera shifts from Bessem’s blazing blue eyes to scenes from Tahrir Square during the revolution, scenes of stunning unity among people of all religious stripes.

BESSEM YOUSSEF: And so – so maybe I’m stupid, maybe I’m naïve but I think that something happened a few weeks ago where everybody got together, and then we get the revolution and, you know, oh yeah, that happened.

[HORN MUSIC] And then I say like this kind of Islamophobia will lead to Christianphobia, to liberalphobia, democratophobia. And I’ll remind you what some people said about you, and I bring Omar Suleiman, the vice president who said like Egypt is not ready for democracy, and I say, like Hosni Mubarak, when he told Obama, oh, Obama doesn’t understand the mentality of Egyptian, so I come back, you know, like yeah, you know, we – we have to be ruled this way. I mean, we – there’s no other way. And I say, like, no, we deserve better, we need better. We are entitled to have better.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: The stakes are monstrously high in Egypt right now, and the media's role is crucial. As Bessem's patron saint once said:

JON STEWART: The press can hold its magnifying glass up to our problems, bringing them into focus, illuminating issues heretofore unseen. Or they can use that magnifying glass to light ants on fire.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: By the way, the YouTube title of The Bassem Youssef Show is B+, after Bassem’s blood type. Get it? Be positive. It’s been hailed by some as the “next big thing” in Egyptian media. Tarek, who launched the show, predicts an almost certain future for Bassem Youssef on satellite TV.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: This is why I’m panicking.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is why you’re panicking?

BASSEM YOUSSEF: Yeah, this is why I’m panicking. Right now I’m not actually voicing my opinion.

[HORN SOUNDING] But you can’t just be in the middle, being neutral. When you start actually to discuss current events, you will have to take a stand. You will actually have to piss some people. This kind of honeymoon will not last. Sarcasm here is - in Egypt, in the Arab world, is very new. Once you make sarcasm about a certain person, this guy takes it very personally. You see Jon Stewart making fun of McCain and he's hosting him the next day. Right? Here, that doesn't work this way.

MAN: We – we are five years away. We – we are five years away from this problem.

BASSEM YOUSSEF: No, we’re actually 50 years away from this, seriously.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Then again, many believe that what happened this year in Tahrir Square would take 50 years. And it might have, without the engine of the internet to help redirect the nation’s hopeless passivity into popular revolt. The Internet’s power to organize is no longer in question. Its ability to inform still is. But not by Egyptian youth, who increasingly desert the mainstream media, dismissing its so-called “objectivity” as a pose, an excuse to evade unpalatable truths. For them, trust is based solely on transparency. And thought this may send a shudder down the spines of established journalists, it is a true liberation for populations across the globe, lied to from cradle to grave. This does not auger the end of journalism. But it does point to a future where expertise is embraced, but only when it can be verified; ignorant voices cannot be suppressed, and it falls to individuals to sniff out uncorrupted information. The authorities who have spent the last half century or more subsidizing brazen fabrication may howl, but for now and for a long time to come, those who bother to listen will likely be laughing.

[MUSIC/MUSIC UP AND UNDER] That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Sarah Abdurrahman, whose fingerprints are all over this hour, Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, and edited by me. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week by Dylan Keefe. Extra thanks this week to Mandy [ ? ] and Deborah Amos. Katya Rogers is our senior producer, Ellen Horne is WNYC’s senior director of National Programs. On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. Bob Garfield will be back next week. I’m Brooke Gladstone.