The post of minister of information was abolished in June 2014. For almost a quarter of a century it had been held by Safwat Al-Sherif, who served as Hosni Mubarak’s minister of information between 1981 and 2005 and secretary-general of the ruling National Democratic Party from 2005 to 2011. Now, though, talk is rife that the position is about to be resuscitated, and MPs have been lining up to tell reporters that there is nothing in Egypt’s 2014 constitution to prevent this from happening.
Osama Heikal, the head of parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee who served as minister of information between 2011 and 2013, told reporters that the constitution makes no mention of the position, stating merely that “three organisations shall regulate the media in Egypt.
“If there is a new minister of information, he or she will be required to play a new role and coordinate with the three regulatory bodies in drawing up media policies.”
Heikal argued that media attacks against Egypt emanating from Qatari and UK-based TV channels, particularly Al-Jazeera and the BBC, mean that should a minister of information be appointed in the imminent cabinet reshuffle his or her most important task will be “mobilising all forces to stand up to the media campaigns that are attempting to destabilise the country”.
Taher Abu Zeid, an independent MP and former captain of the Egyptian football team, said he had petitioned Parliamentary Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal to lobby for the post to be reinstated.
“The speaker’s response was that it was for the executive authority to decide,” said Abu Zeid. “A lot of MPs would like to see the post brought back. Not that anyone wants to see the emergence of a figure like Safwat Al-Sherif, but because it has become essential to coordinate media policies so they can effectively rebuff hostile propaganda attacks.”
Karam Gabr, head of the National Press Organisation (NPO), one of the three entities charged with regulating the media, and Abdel-Mohsen Salama, chairman of Al-Ahram Establishment, agreed in a TV interview on Monday that reinstating the post could serve a useful purpose.
“Of course, the ministry will have a different role to the one it had in past. It will be there to reinforce the national media, help solve its problems, and mobilise against attacks targeting Egypt’s internal stability,” said Salama.
“In terms of disrupting the kind of hostile media campaign we saw in November, it would help if there was coordination over a collective response and in this regard a minister of information will be useful.”
Parliamentary Spokesman Salah Hassaballah said in a TV interview that he favours the post being reintroduced.
“This position has become necessary given the failure of the Supreme Council for Media Regulation and other media councils to stand up to the hostile campaigns to which Egypt has been subjected. Right now the Egyptian media, both national and private, is fragmented. It is high time we had a minister to orchestrate media policy and direct it to serve national security interests.”
Head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation and veteran journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed told reporters on Monday that he opposed the reinstatement of the post.
“The minister of information will be part of the executive authority and reinstating the post could clearly impact negatively on media independence,” said Ahmed.
“In the vast majority of countries in the world the media is governed by a code of professional ethics and, where appropriate, by legislation. It is not subject to a ministry.”
Ahmed defended the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, insisting it was playing its role effectively and in line with the constitution.
Ahmed’s remarks came ahead of a meeting scheduled on Tuesday to investigate complaints filed by MPs against a number of newspapers and TV programmes which they claim have subjected them to a barrage of false news.
Deputy Speaker Suleiman Wahdan has spearheaded attacks on the Supreme Council for Media Regulating, accusing it of doing nothing in the face of September’s hostile media campaigns.
“The return of the post is now essential, not only to mobilise the country’s media against foreign attacks but to draw a future roadmap for the Egyptian media,” said Wahdan.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 December, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.