The only surprise about Minister of Information Osama Heikal’s resignation on Sunday is that he took so long to submit it, said Tamer Abdel-Qader, secretary of the House of Representatives’ Culture and Media Committee.
Cabinet Spokesman Nader Saad told reporters on Sunday that in submitting his resignation to Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouli, Heikal, 65, had cited personal reasons. It is not clear whether a new information minister will be appointed to replace Heikal. Speculation has been rife in recent weeks that a cabinet reshuffle is imminent.
According to Abdel-Qader, Heikal only decided to resign after it became clear he would face a motion of no confidence which he was likely to lose.
For three months Heikal had been the focus of criticism from MPs. The complaints about his performance reached a crescendo two weeks ago when MPs were joined by a number of editors-in-chief who echoed their charges of financial and administrative incompetence.
The accusations left Heikal in a state of isolation. He rarely appeared in public occasions and was not on the agenda of the meetings made by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Madbouli.
Parliament Speaker Hanafi Gibali told MPs on 30 March that Heikal had twice refused to come to the House to respond to accusations levelled by the Media and Culture Committee. “I am sorry to say that Minister Heikal is wasting the House’s time and doing everything possible to prevent it from exercising its supervisory powers,” said Gibali.
The Media and Culture Committee had compiled a report on Heikal’s ministerial performance that was originally scheduled to be discussed early in February. Gibali says he was contacted on 13 February by Heikal who asked for the discussion to be postponed. “Heikal asked for a two-week grace period in order to respond to the report. We gave him a month and a half, rescheduling the meeting for 30 March. Once again, Heikal apologised. His refusal to come to parliament for a second time reflects disrespect for the House.”
Earlier this month Gibali let it be known urgent questions had been tabled by Nader Mustafa, deputy chairman of the Media and Culture Committee, for Heikal to answer. Mustafa told reporters on 2 April that “instead of forging a strategy to respond to hostile media coverage of Egypt, the Ministry of Information underHeikal chose instead to attack Egypt’s national media institutions”.
Mustafa accused Heikal of undermining Egypt’s image by issuing a series of ill-considered public announcements attacking the standards of Egypt’s domestic media that hostile television channels broadcasting from Qatar and Turkey then used to attack the Egyptian state.
Mustafa also questioned whether Heikal serving as minister of information and chairman of the Egyptian Media Production City (EMPC) was legal, claiming it “violates Article 166 of the constitution, and Article 79 of the joint-stock companies’ law which prohibits cabinet ministers from holding any other public positions”. According to Mustafa, Heikal should repay the salaries he has obtained from both posts.
Mustafa also argued that the Information Ministry is a waste of public money and should be scrapped.
Mustafa received support from the editors-in-chief of leading national and private newspapers who, in a press conference earlier this month, thanked the House of Representatives for exposing Heikal’s “unacceptable practices” and announced that Heikal would no longer receive any coverage on their pages. “We respect the Ministry of Information as a government portfolio, but we differ with the minister who is responsible for this portfolio,” the editors said in a statement.
In a policy statement before parliament on 19 March Heikal denied insulting Egyptian journalists.
“What I said is that Egyptians no longer read newspapers or watch local television channels,” said Heikal. “And the National Press Organisation, which supervises 50 publications, is burdened with LE22 billion in debts. Obviously reform is needed to escape the financial mess.”
Heikal also told MPs he was appointed head of the EMPC at the request of the prime minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly