Egypt's 'Oprah' returns to television

Hala Sarhan's returns to Cairo from exile to launch a popular new political show discussing Egypt's future.
Hala Sarhan hosts political activists, from left, Asmaa Mahfouz and Abdelaziz Abdallah on her show; Nassbook in Cairo.
Hala Sarhan hosts political activists, from left, Asmaa Mahfouz and Abdelaziz Abdallah on her show; Nassbook in Cairo.

CAIRO // A dressing-room door opens at the recording studios of Rotana Masriya, spilling light into the hall. A hefty bodyguard steps out to block the way, a silver handgun tucked into his waistband.

"No, it's all right," a voice calls out from inside. "Nothing to worry about. Let them in."

Hala Sarhan, one of Egypt's most famous and controversial television personalities, waves her visitors to sit down. "I hate guns, but the studio insists we have one."

Laid out before her are dozens of note cards and an Apple laptop. Staff members walk in and out meekly calling "Dr Hala" before rushing over to discuss political developments and the agenda for the evening's edition of Nassbook (Peoplebook), a two-hour show that runs five days a week in the prime-time 9pm slot.

Known as the Oprah of the Middle East for her willingness to address society's taboos on air, Ms Sarhan returned to Egypt in May after three years of self-imposed exile in Dubai.

In 2008, one of her shows on the country's poverty had included interviews with several women said to be prostitutes. One had described how the police provided her with protection so that she could ply her trade.

Soon after, in what Ms Sarhan describes as a conspiracy against her by the government of Hosni Mubarak, the same women told newspapers and other television stations that Ms Sarhan had paid them to pretend to be prostitutes.

Newspaper editorials decried her "libel" against Egypt. The scandal erupted while she was on a trip abroad, and she decided not to return when she was told that arrest warrants awaited her in Cairo for damaging the reputation of the country.

The official charge was "aggravating public security and promoting promiscuous and licentious behaviour". Ms Sarhan insists the show was completely legitimate and the women were indeed prostitutes.

"They came after me because they couldn't put pressure on me. They couldn't use me and I wouldn't be part of their gang," she says of the Mubarak regime. "I didn't serve their regime."

She calls the revolution in January and February a miracle. "The only reason I couldn't come back was all these people who are now in prison," she says.

Within weeks of her return, billboards across Cairo carried images of Ms Sarhan wearing military fatigues and a gaudy golden brooch superimposed over photos of revolutionaries, and the slogan: "Revolutionary dialogue".

Nassbook launched in June and has quickly become one of the most watched shows in Egypt. While she used to tackle controversial topics such as sexual problems between married couples and other taboos, her new show is solely about politics.

"I don't think this is the time to talk about how you love your wife," she says, peering through black Gucci glasses and periodically checking her two iPhones. "It's a different time, a different situation. Our life now is talk about the constitution, a new parliament, elections, political parties."

The show includes monologues from Ms Sarhan, but is mostly filled with round-table discussions about the day's events and some investigative reporting.

A recent show featured discussion about the military's complicity in the "Camel Battle" on February 2, when a convoy of men on camels and horses descended on Tahrir Square to attack pro-democracy protesters. Another revealed footage of police shooting unarmed demonstrators.

On this particular night, she sat with Ahmed Maher and Asmaa Mahfouz from the April 6 Youth Movement, and Amar Ali Hassan, a political scholar and former editor at the Middle East News Agency.

The media atmosphere in Egypt is more open than during the Mubarak regime, says Ms Sarhan, but new forces have risen that have put greater pressure on television shows and newspapers.

Logging on to her computer to look at the show's e-mail and Facebook account and her Twitter feed, she inevitably finds campaigns against her, and numerous threats. Neeraj Khanna, her personal assistant, says the attacks are enough to make him rethink a career in television. "They can be really vicious."

"Before, it was simpler," Ms Sarhan says. "The ministry would even warn you sometimes that they were going to slander you the next day. They would say, 'Don't cry tomorrow'. Now, there is freedom of speech but more social pressure. If someone on the internet doesn't agree with you, they can be worse than the secret police in some ways."

Government interference in the media has not disappeared. The military government recently revived the Ministry of Information, an institution feared by journalists during the three-decade Mubarak regime, and sent out memos to organisations saying they should obtain permission from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces before discussing military issues publicly.

Ms Sarhan sees the pressures on media as a consequence of a radical remaking of Egyptian society that has been under way since Mr Mubarak stepped down on February 11. New voices are beginning to assert themselves, especially from conservative Islamist groups that were kept under tight control during by the Mubarak regime. The army is trying to plug the gap left by a dismantled government.

The pressure on thinkers and media personalities is now not only coming from the top ranks, but also from an activist population that has been repressed for decades.

"Freedom of speech is so fresh now," she says. "There are so many voices, so many people, who can start a campaign against you for addressing topics or discussing anything slightly controversial. It creates a new kind of censorship."

Amr Bargisi, a member of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, says that before the revolution most organisations practised self-censorship to avoid trouble with the government, but that other topics were open for discussion. Now the situation has become inverted.

"Somebody like Hala Sarhan or any other controversial presenter could for instance make as harsh a comment as they liked about the Islamists, but not about Mubarak," he says. The situation was characterised by a disconnect between the haughty media and actual public opinion, he says.

The result, Mr Bargisi says, is that freedom of speech is eroding.

"Now you can say whatever you want about Mubarak, but there is almost no discussion of the negative side of the revolution."

Ms Sarhan says she is undeterred by the pressures, and vows to discuss anything she believes is vital for the country's future.

"Of course, the minute the revolution happened, it was a miracle," she says "Not only for my country, but on a personal level for me. I never believed it was going to happen and I didn't know when I would be able to come home."

For the media to play a proper role in society, though, she believed the country neeed a "new language to talk to each other".

"Egyptian society is so divided now," she says. "We need to talk about everything, but we also need a culture of freedom of speech and not attack people who say something other than a set of beliefs."

Published: August 24, 2011 04:00 AM


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