VI Media and popular culture

Introduction: Divergent trajectories of creativity and coercion

Naomi Sakr

All media were once upon a time “new media,” and people in Egypt—whether under occupation or after independence—have historically been quick to experiment with “successive waves of new media” (Armbrust, 2012, p. 162) while they were still new. Film screenings took place in Alexandria and Cairo in November 1896, less than a year after the worlds first public film screening in Paris and, within a generation, films made in Egypt were giving rise to ambitions of building a Hollywood equivalent in Imbaba, northwest of Cairo (Darwish, 1998, pp. 9—13). Radio broadcasting began in Egypt in the 1920s, while it was also still beginning elsewhere, with more than a hundred transmitting stations operated by radio amateurs and entrepreneurs who wanted to use the medium for advertising (Boyd, 1977, p. 6). Shortwave transmitters installed immediately after the 1952 revolution enabled Egypt to launch state-run radio services in Asian, African, and European languages at such a rate that by 1973 it was the world’s sixth largest international broadcaster in terms of weekly program output (Boyd, 1999, pp. 30—32). Although not the first country in the region to establish television as such (ibid., p. 37), in 1960 Egypt became the first independent Arab state to introduce a substantial television service (Dabous, 1994, p. 67), using expertise developed through film and radio to meet additional demands for programming fueled by the creation of television channels in other Arab countries, especially Gulf oil producers after the mid-1970s oil price explosion.

A reputation as “early adopter” was maintained through following decades, tor both “big” and “small” media, where size refers not to audience reach but to a distinction between vertical communication that is professionally produced and a horizontal form based on active popular participation (Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi, 1994, pp. 20—21). Looking first at “big” media, the collectively owned Arab satellite, Arabsat, launched in 1985, remained underused until 1990, when Egypt became the first country to lease a transponder to send news and entertainment programming through what became the Egyptian Space Channel (ESC), ten months before the next Arab satellite channel start-up, MBC (Sakr, 2001, pp. 10—11). Having reserved an orbital slot in space in the 1980s, the Egyptian government finally ordered a broadcasting satellite of its own in 1995, as Arabsat signals were starting to deteriorate. When Nilesat came into operation in 1998, providing the expanded capacity afforded by digital technology ahead of Arabsat s first digital satellite, it put Egyptian authorities in a position to befriend broadcasters rejected by Arabsat (Sakr, 2012a, p. 146).

As for“snrall” media, it is instructive not to overlook audiocassettes, used to circulate sermons as well as music. Portable cassette players and blank cassettes were introduced to Egypt, as elsewhere, in the 1960s, and by the mid-1970s private record companies and the state-owned Sono Cairo were reissuing music on cassettes (Castelo-Branco, 1987, pp. 35—36). Cultural anthropologist Walter Armbrust, whose work on the Egyptian media scene spans the 20th and 21st centuries (Armbrust 1996; 2019), points out (2012, pp. 168—169) that audiocassettes, albeit an analogue medium, prefigured digital media in miniaturization, ease of duplication and “dispersion ot textual authority.” With Internet introduced to Egypt in 1993 (Abdulla, 2005, p. 153), the same year the world’s first web browser became available, the stage was set for the post-2000 spread ot digital media that would reproduce the vibrancy ot the country’s print media scene in the first half ot the previous century, with its many ground-breaking features of the time, from innovative women’s journalism (Dabous 2004; Baron 1994) to social satire (Dougherty 2000). Developments in digital media are a significant focus of most chapters in this section of the handbook.

How best to present and understand those developments? International media development specialists have finally come to recognize the “deeply political nature” of media institutions and the fundamental place ot “power and politics” in determining outcomes in the media sector (Nelson, 2019, p. 31). That observation is key to making sense of the introductory narrative above. As the narrative suggests, every change in Egypt’s media landscape merits an analysis that encompasses not just the relevant technology, content, and impact of each new medium but also the context and contingencies behind its introduction. For example, ESC emerged on Arabsat in 1990 and no earlier because Arabsat’s other owners boycotted Egypt from 1979 to 1989. It was Egypt's participation in the United States (US)-led coalition to end Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that gave it the incentive to send programming to Egyptian troops and other potential viewers in the Gulf.

Connection to the Internet in 1993, initially limited in extent and reliant on a sole Internet Service Provider (ISP), was expanded after Egypt was required to provide adequate internet connectivity for the UN International Conference on Population and Development, which it hosted in 1994. The government kept the additional capacity after the event, allowing free connections to non-government users (Abdulla, 2005, pp. 153—154). A further boost came in 1999 with the creation ot a Ministry ot Communications and Information, headed by the former chief executive ot a major private corporation, who was qualified in computer engineering (ibid, p. 152) and was charged with implementing a master plan, driven at least in part by the objectives of linking Egypt to the global market place, promoting “e-learning” to eradicate illiteracy, and encouraging an ICT export industry (Kamel, 2010).The imperative of trade connectivity can be seen in the context of Egypt's 1995 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), its consequent exposure to foreign competition, especially in textile manufacture, and pressure trom the World Bank to make local industries more “competitive” (Shenker, 2016, pp. 159—160). During the 2000s, the ruling National Democratic Party, reorganized around a central policy committee tied to wealthy private business owners and international financial institutions (Ibid, p.62), earned praise for Egypt from the World Bank as the “world’s top reformer” (cited in El-Mahdi and Marfleet, 2009, p. 2) and the International Monetary Fund as a “top performer” in structural adjustment and “improving] the investment climate” (Shenker, 2016, p. 64). It was during this decade that privately-owned television networks and newspapers were permitted and became established, and popular grievances built to the point where they erupted in the revolution of January 2011.

When media developments are set in their political and economic context, various crosscutting themes emerge that offer further perspective. One theme, evident in Nasser’s radio transmissions as well as the Arabsat-Nilesat saga, is Egypt’s role in regional affairs. Another, reflected in the vision ot ICT as a tool for teaching and job creation, is the way media activity intersects with demographics and inter-generational communication and how issues around living standards and youth prospects are represented. A third, implicit in legislation allowing but controlling private media, is the web oflegal and extra-legal limits on expression. A fourth, signaled by the vitality ot media content at certain points in the 20th and 21st centuries, is the resourcefulness of those resisting repressive controls. The rest of this introductory chapter presents an overview ot the contemporary media field in light of these themes, setting the scene for the section’s other chapters.

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