On 22 December 2019, five years after the Information Ministry was abolished, a new minister of state for media affairs was named in the long-awaited cabinet reshuffle.
MP Mohamed Fouad directed an inquiry to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli on 23 December asking what the aim was in appointing Osama Heikal, the outgoing chair of parliament’s Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee and the current head of the Egyptian Media Production Company (EMPC), as minister of information.
“What will Heikal’s responsibilities be, given the 2014 constitution formed three bodies, the National Press Organisation [NPO], the National Media Organisation [NMO], and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation [SCMR], to oversee the sector,” asked Fouad.
“We also want to know what the budget of the ministry will be and where the minister’s main office will be located.”
Fouad said MPs hope a presidential decree will be issued to outline the roles of the new minister of information.
Heikal, a former military correspondent with Al-Wafd newspaper, briefly served as information minister in the first government following the 2011 uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak.
Under the Muslim Brotherhood regime (July 2012-July 2013) Salah Abdel-Maqsoud, an Islamist journalist, replaced Heikal. Following the anti-Brotherhood uprising in July 2013, the ministry was led by former TV anchor Doreya Sharafeddin before being scrapped in 2014.
Karam Gabr, head of the NPO, said last week that he would soon meet with Heikal to examine how the NPO and the new Information Ministry should cooperate.
“There is nothing in Egypt’s constitution against appointing a minister of information, though the role of the minister will be different than in the past given the media in Egypt is now regulated by three media organisations,” said Gabr.
Under Egypt’s 2014 constitution, TV, radio, print and online media are regulated by the SCMR whose current chairman is veteran journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed.
Established in late 2016, the SCMR has sweeping powers ranging from regulating media organisations and imposing penalties to guaranteeing their independence and neutrality and ensuring they do not harm national security.
MP Abdel-Hamid Al-Demerdash told Al-Ahram Weekly that resurrecting the post of the minister of information had become a necessity.
“Heikal is a regime loyalist and media expert and a majority of MPs believe his appointment has come at the right time,” said Al-Demerdash. “Egypt’s media need to stand up to repeated hostile campaigns targeting Egypt’s internal stability and national security.
“These campaigns have been using television channels broadcasting from Turkey, Qatar and London, as well as the social media manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood,” said Al-Demerdash.
Ahead of the cabinet reshuffle, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi had said a new strategy was needed to rebuff hostile media attacks.
“All state authorities, including the national media, must mobilise to defend the Egyptian nation,” said Al-Sisi. “We face a media war, which uses rumours spread on social media to encourage citizens to lose confidence in their country and its authorities. We have to be awake all the time to defend the state against these campaigns.”
Meeting with Heikal and Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli on Sunday, Al-Sisi said the role of the re-established Ministry of Information will be to formulate media policies capable of defending Egypt’s interests.
“We want a professional and aggressive media capable of standing up to hostile campaigns targeting Egypt in the form of malicious rumours, TV reports, and social media attacks,” said Al-Sisi. He urged the media to focus more on reforming religious discourse and to protect young people from radical ideologies.
To achieve these objectives Al-Sisi said there should be close coordination between the Ministry of Information, media regulatory bodies and state authorities. “This includes national press organisations and the government-owned TV and Radio Union.”
Heikal said he told the president his main goal will be “to regain Egypt’s soft power in the cultural arena and convey a realistic view of Egyptian politics, history and civilisation to the outside world.”
Salah Hassaballah, parliamentary spokesman and head of Al-Horreya Party, told the Weekly he believes the main role of the new minister will be just to formulate a policy to safeguard the nation against malicious and hostile media campaigns.
“The new minister will be required to coordinate with the three media organisations and act as a link between the regulatory bodies and the government,” said Hassaballah. “Heikal will also be expected to help find solutions to the financial and administrative problems facing the national press and state-owned TV and radio so that they can perform their jobs more efficiently.”
SCMR head Ahmed said on Sunday he will wait to see how the responsibilities and roles of the new minister are defined.
“Heikal is a friend, but at the moment he looks like a minister without portfolio,” said Ahmed. “Existing laws say nothing about the role of an information minister. We want to ensure that there will be no conflict of interests between him and regulatory bodies.”
Yasser Abdel-Aziz, an independent media expert, said in a TV interview that the main problem facing the media in Egypt is a lack of “adequate media freedoms”.
“The role of the new information minister is likely to be very limited, restricted to proposing media policies, representing the state in media conferences and supervising the State Information Service.
Sami Abdel-Aziz, a former dean of Cairo University’s Faculty of Mass Communication, said “Heikal will be expected to propose and draw up media policies and this is not an insignificant thing.”
On 27 December Heikal organised a meeting between Madbouli and editors of Egyptian newspapers and chairmen of media regulators.
“In the meeting Madbouli answered many questions on the economy, the media and social protection policies. This is just one example of what the information minister can do,” said Safwat Al-Alim, a Cairo University media professor.
Parliament Speaker Ali Abdel-Aal met with Heikal on 22 December to congratulate him on his new appointment.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 9 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.