London, The Arab Weekly – In a country where an estimated one-quarter of the population is illiterate, television in Egypt, and particularly television talk shows, hold an oversized grip on public consciousness. Talk show hosts such as Amr and Emad Eddin Adeeb, Mahmoud Saad and Tamer Amin not only reflect on the news of the day, they push and influence the debate.
Egypt’s media, battered and bruised from four years of political turmoil, revolution and counter-revolution, has grown adept at self-censorship. The talk shows, seeking to attract and hold viewers who have hundreds of local and international Arabic satellite TV channels at their disposal, have found that the key lies in engagement. Shows are increasingly focusing on local issues — whether social or political — and often allow for phone-ins and live tweeting to maximise audience participation.
There is a symbiotic relationship between social media and Egypt’s talk shows, Cairo University media graduate Asma Mohamed agreed: “Yes, we rely on social media but it is linked. The talk shows often find their issues from what is trending on social media and then what appears on the talk shows is discussed via social media as well.”
Egyptian talk show host Doha al- Zohairy said the influence that talk shows have on society in general cannot be overestimated but it is social issues that attract the most attention.
Zohairy hosts the two-hour Al Sharaa Al-Masry (Egyptian Streets) programme for the Al Arabiya Al Hadath channel. The programme is split between a first hour focusing on important news and developments in Egypt and a second hour that contains a field report. She described it as a “socio-political programme”.
“Unfortunately in Egypt talks shows are important and very influential. Each category in society follows the talk show presenter who represents his or her views and who is closest to his or her social level,” Zohairy said.
“When something major happens, politically, [Egyptians] turn to pan-Arab news channels. Viewers know that the local channels are full of views, more than news. Foreign policy comes at the end of people’s interests. People follow whatever they feel will affect their bread and butter directly — it could be political or social.”
Recent social reports carried by Al Sharaa Al-Masry include an investigation into car thefts, a look at the state of Egypt’s cafés post-revolution, flaws in the construction industry and other socio-political issues, seeking to shed light issues affecting ordinary people.
“The media’s main concern is what is happening in Egypt. Even when it covers international issues, it does this through an Egyptian lens,” Mohamed said.
Zohairy recalled a recent episode which focused on people who have long-term leases on home appliances and end up paying much more than the appliance is worth and accumulating huge debts. The report featured a woman, Ratiba, who was imprisoned for more than ten years after being unable to pay her debts.
“The programme is not a charity but when we broadcast this report we received a lot of offers from people who wanted to pay off her debt,” Zohairy said. Things were not so simple though, with Ratiba remaining behind bars even after the debt had been paid.
“The importance of these programmes is that they shed light on these chronic problems and these flawed laws,” Zohairy added. She said public pressure that the report brought on authorities, with the Arabic hashtag Presidential pardon for Ratiba trending on social media, eventually led to her receiving a presidential pardon.
“Thanks to Al Sharaa Al-Masry for bringing this case to public attention. How many Ratibas are there languishing in Egyptian jails?” one twitter user asked.
Western coverage of Egyptian media has focused on some of the more outlandish claims made by TV talk show hosts, much of which focuses on insular views and conspiracy theories.
Tamer Amin hit the headlines in the West in October after a clip from his show Min Al Nihaya (In the End), in which he puts forward a conspiracy theory that included speculation about a “world supreme council” with the ability to manipulate weather and cause earthquakes, went viral.
But Amin, a former state TV host, is perhaps more well-known among Egyptians for the call-in portion of his show which he dedicates to helping ordinary Egyptians with bureaucratic and legal issues. “Tell us your problems, we will do our best for you,” he sought to reassure viewers.
“Most Egyptians will not call in for help with their problems but they want to hear other people’s problems and they like knowing that there is someone out there doing something to help ordinary people,” Mohamed said.
This article was originally published here.