On 30 March House of Representatives’ Speaker Hanafi Gibali told MPs that Information Minister Osama Heikal had twice refused to come to the House to respond to accusations contained in a report by the Media and Culture Committee. Gibali accused Heikal of “wasting the House’s time and doing everything possible to prevent it from exercising its supervisory powers”.
Gibali said the House’s report was originally scheduled to be discussed early February but was delayed at Heikal’s request.
“Heikal asked for a two-week grace period in which to prepare a response. Instead, he was given one month and half, and scheduled to appear before MPs on 30 March. Instead, he apologized again without giving a reasonable excuse, showing a lack of respect to MPs and the House,” said Gibali.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Alaa Fouad told MPs that Heikal had contacted him and said he fully respects the House and is “ready to come to parliament at any time the House chooses to respond to the questions”.
MP Nader Mustafa, deputy chairman of the House’s Media and Culture Committee, told reporters on 2 April that Heikal’s aggressive and confrontational manner had compounded his difficulties with MPs. “Instead of forging a new strategy to respond to hostile media attacks against Egypt, Heikal instead opted to attack national media institutions,” said Mustafa.
He added that public announcements made by Heikal had undermined the state’s reputation and image. “The minister’s aggressive statements accusing Egyptian journalists and media people of poor performance have been exploited by hostile television channels broadcasting from Qatar and Turkey to attack the Egyptian state,” said Mustafa. “Heikal made another mistake when he claimed that the Ethiopian media had excelled in its coverage of the GERD negotiations in Washington last year.”
Mustafa said the fact Heikal serves as both minister of information and chairman of the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) exposes a clear conflict of interests “and goes against Article 166 of the constitution and Article 79 of the joint-stock companies’ law which prevents cabinet ministers from holding any other public posts”. Mustafa recommended the Information Ministry be scrapped altogether on the grounds it is a waste of public money. The ferocity of the attacks has fed widespread speculation that Heikal will soon be sacked. He was named minister of state for information in December 2019.
Informed sources say any parliamentary questioning of Heikal could end up in a motion of no confidence being passed and that to avoid such a scenario Heikal may well choose to resign from office.
In a press conference on Sunday, editors-in-chief of leading national and private newspapers said they expected Heikal to be sacked soon and in the meantime won’t be covering anything Heikal does. “The news of his ministry will be published without mentioning his name,” said a statement issued by the editors-in-chief.
The statement accused Heikal of “sowing the seeds of sedition” in media circles. “This is a minister who is bent on tarnishing the image of the Egyptian media in a way that does a lot of harm to the country’s national security and reputation,” argued the statement.
In his policy statement before parliament on 19 March, Heikal denied he had insulted Egyptian journalists.
“All I said was that the public had stopped reading national newspapers or watching local television channels because they found the media outlets moribund,” said Heikal.
“Take the National Press Organisation. It supervises 50 national publications and is burdened with LE22 billion in debts. It needs wholesale reform to get out of this financial mess.”
Heikal stressed he was appointed head of EMPC at the request of the prime minister.
“I was asked to take control of EMPC and wrap up some important projects,” said Heikal. He added that “as for the Ministry of Information, it is up to President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi to decide whether it should be scrapped.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly