President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s recent meeting with a delegation of trainee African journalists brought to mind the leading role Egypt used to play on the African continent, in the main based on components set out below.
The first component of this role was Egypt’s broadcasting network addressing the African continent. This began in 1953 with a programme specially made for transmission to Africa and continued after July 1954 on a regular basis.
Over the last 50 years, this network should have further developed further and extended beyond a single station even if this now transmits for 19 hours a day to East and West African in languages including Hausa, Swahili, Zulu, Afar, Somali, Fulani, Tigrinya and Amharic.
The service needs to be brought up to date with current developments in the field brought about by the technological revolution.
The second component takes the form of the media offices in Egyptian embassies on the African continent. These have managed to interact effectively with the African media, including the press, radio and TV.
Yet, although it has long been necessary to activate the role of Egypt’s cultural centres and media offices in the African countries and increase their number, especially in the Nile Basin and Horn of Africa, no steps have been taken in this regard.
There are now only seven Egyptian media offices remaining in Africa in Khartoum, Addis Ababa, Abuja, Kampala, Pretoria, Algeria and Rabat. Unfortunately, even these now risk being shut down, and such short-sighted policies may also lead to the shutting down of the Egyptian State Information Service (SIS) offices abroad.
The third component by which Egypt has been able to deepen its relations with Africa in the media field has been through broadcasting Egyptian television through Nilesat and Arabsat.
This has been in addition to plans to launch an African satellite TV channel from Cairo, an initiative proposed by former president Hosni Mubarak during the Fifth African Summit held in the Libyan city of Sirte in July 2005.
The channel’s headquarters were planned to be based in Egypt, and Egypt would have offered all the required technical facilities, including the use of its satellites. The channel was due to transmit programmes in the most widely-spoken African languages.
In November 2015, Egypt hosted a meeting to discuss the details of this proposed African satellite TV channel. The meeting was attended by chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC) Alpha Oumar Konare, media experts from AU countries, and representatives of African civil-society organisations.
It was intended that the meeting should define the organisational and legal steps necessary for the establishment of the new channel, as well as the engineering and technical aspects.
It was also agreed that a report including the expert committee’s recommendations should be presented to the next African Summit due to be held in Khartoum in January 2006.
The then Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Abul-Gheit, said that the initiative, which had the approval of the African countries, would aim to showcase the African continent as a whole with all its peoples and cultures. Konare was notably enthusiastic about it.
Abul-Gheit stressed the necessity of launching a satellite TV channel that would speak on behalf of Africa and reflect the social and cultural mix of the African countries.
The channel would act as a kind of melting pot, he said, in which all African TV programmes would melt together. It would also play a major role in increasing the African peoples’ awareness of pressing African issues, for example in healthcare, and would help to convey a positive image of Africa to the outside world.
The channel was not the only Egyptian media initiative of this sort, as there was also the idea of transmitting the Nile TV International channel to the African countries.
The project, however, did not see the light of day, owing to a lack of production in terms of news programmes, talk shows, dramas, and music or variety programmes that would suit the entire African audience.
It all ended when the question of financing was broached. This Egyptian ambition to reach all parts of the African continent thus turned into a disappointment, having been emptied of its content at the hands of the enemies of success that have negatively acted throughout the ages.
Egypt wasted a golden opportunity to launch an African satellite TV channel in 2006, when the ministries of information and foreign affairs disagreed on which ministry would finance a conference of African information ministers.
In the end, the conference was held in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, where the idea was pushed aside. However, during his recent meeting with African media figures, President Al-Sisi made clear that Egypt was more committed than ever to a policy of openness when dealing with the African countries.
This is based on principles such as the non-interference in the African countries’ affairs, the respect of their sovereignty, the exertion of efforts to promote cooperation and development, and the presentation of African issues in different international organisations.
Egypt’s current membership of the UN Security Council, the AU Peace and Security Council, and the UN Human Rights Council make it ideally suited to play this role.
Al-Sisi noted that Egypt had been keen in the past to support the liberation of the African countries and their peoples’ right to self-determination.
Egypt was still keen on backing comprehensive and sustainable development in Africa, he said, and on promoting social and economic progress for all the continent’s peoples.
Al-Sisi also stressed his willingness to participate in all AU summits in order to activate cooperation on a continental level and to pay bilateral visits to brotherly African states.
There are various issues that await decisive steps by Egypt, including the country’s political and economic relations with the Nile Basin countries.
This necessitates taking certain positive steps regarding such countries through increasing the number of scholarships offered to African students by Al-Azhar or other Egyptian universities.
The SIS should also conduct training courses for African journalists and media workers at Egyptian institutions and organise visits to Egypt. Such steps will support efforts to create a deeper Egyptian-African rapprochement in future.
The programmes offered by the Egyptian African Media Training Institute should also be developed. Since 1977, the institute has offered training courses in English and French to nearly 4,000 African trainees.
The same should be done at the African Journalists Union that Egypt has been hosting since November 1974 with the membership of 12 African journalist unions.
Egypt should develop greater links with the African countries in the field of media, including by providing greater space for African issues on Egyptian TV, including the issue of the Nile’s water and the proper management of the Nile Basin.
A weekly radio programme has been transmitted to Africa for years, but this is not enough today. Apart from the Nile News channel that broadcasts a weekly programme on Africa, Egyptian television does little or nothing else.
The role of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union should not be limited to organising training courses for African journalists. There should also be a special channel addressing the African continent.
The 23 media agreements between Egypt and the African countries should also be activated to help deepen the strategic relations between Egypt and the African continent.
* The writer is a veteran professor of journalism.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 February, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: African media in the information age