By Naila Hamdy*
This essay is from the upcoming book to mark the Media Diversity Institute’s 25th anniversary. The book consists of essays by academics, journalists, media experts, civil society activists, and policymakers – all those who have supported us in our work towards diversity, inclusion, and fairer representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities in the media. The paper version of the book will be launched at the Anniversary celebration on the 17th of November 2023 in London. Watch this space for the other 24 essays.
Egypt, a very populous nation of over 100 million and one of the most influential cultural powerhouses in the Arab region, has an extremely diverse population, although this is a subject rarely highlighted in public narratives.
Yes, Egypt is diverse in its makeup: it has people of different skin colors, different subcultures, different religions, and different genders. This is why representation in the media is vital. People need to see themselves in films, television dramas, and popular music; they need to see themselves in news and current events talk shows. When reviewing the history of Egyptian media and the past 25 years of my work as an academic in this field, it has been a challenge to find representation of minority groups and marginalized persons.
Media diversity flourishes in an environment that promotes the free flow of information and ideas in society, allowing media to provide a voice to, and satisfy the needs of, all of a nation’s citizens. My understanding of diversity is that it is complex and should include diversity of source, diversity of outlet, and diversity of content. This degree of diversity is essentially a product of free expression in a democratic atmosphere.
So let us study that aspect in the context of Egypt.
To begin with, media in Egypt is and has always been controlled by the state, with ownership concentrated between government, sanctioned political parties, and state-approved private organizations. Obviously, this is not the ideal ecosystem for representation of diverse communities, since ownership affects content and public narratives are typically prescribed. But then again, it is not a totally bleak picture; there are some encouraging signs and good examples of diversifying representation.
Up until the mid-1990s, the Egyptian public only had access to state-owned and political parties’ newspapers, along with sedate state-owned broadcasting services and a highly censored film and music industry. Playing the role of a parent, the government preferred to keep the public uninformed about many domestic and international events and misinformed about others, and even handpicked their entertainment. State censors had a tight grip on content: they chose which information was to be printed or broadcast and which point of view and what entertainment material was appropriate for public consumption. Other types of media – namely independent public service and community media – were banned. Conditions for diverse media did not exist.
It wasn’t until the public had access to satellite television stations and the internet that the government allowed a much wider selection of media outlets. This occurred during the first decade of the 21st century – ironically, during the reign of the former authoritarian president Hosni Mubarak. But the easing of media restrictions was less likely due to any genuine desire on Mubarak’s part than to other factors, such as the recognition that new communication technologies allowed everyone unlimited access to international media content and possible US pressure following 9/11 to boost liberalization and reform.
This was a revolutionary moment. In fact, Egyptians referred to the open skies as “the satellite revolution” and the digital transformation as “the internet revolution”. Several private newspapers, such as Al-Masry Al-Youm and Al-Shorouk, were launched. Private television stations such as the Mehwar and ON TV channels were born. These news organizations published and aired material on topics never discussed or talked about publicly before. Their work ranged from investigative journalism stories on corruption to talk shows addressing previously hidden social ills.
A marked openness in film themes also became apparent. Government censors relaxed their guidelines. In addition, the exposure to the outside world that came through abundant satellite stations and access to the internet gave ordinary citizens a voice online. The winds of change were sweeping away numerous media restrictions.
With that being said, it was not until after the 2011 Egyptian uprisings and the fall of former president Mubarak that media had the freest, most chaotic, most eclectic, and most heterogeneous age that I can recall in Egypt’s recent history. Unfortunately, the bubble has burst. In the past few years, ownership patterns and media content have changed once again.
After a vibrant scene of somewhat diverse ownership, and the beginning of openness to new forms of media, the brief instant led to a period of acquisitions. That, in turn, has led to more concentrated ownership. Today one private company, United Media Services, owns nearly all private media in the country. This company has acquired or launched new media outlets and media services, including production and distribution companies and platforms. Not surprisingly, the same company has also acquired public relations and advertising agencies. It is known to be owned by handpicked businesspersons close to the ruling regime and is often referred to in conversation as a front for the military intelligence services.
Thus, as I write this essay, the media environment has become constrained in unprecedented ways, with virtually all media messages serving the interests of a small number of owners. Even popular internet-based Egyptian sites fall under the same pressures, and those that venture outside of the guided narrative are simply blocked by authorities.
And as if this were not enough, there has also been a purposeful tightening of the noose around the press.
The turning point took place when armed members of the National Security agency stormed the offices of the Press syndicate, a labor union, for the first time since its establishment in 1941. They attacked the journalists there and detained two who had dared to challenge a controversial political decision. Overall, we have recently witnessed a greater rise in draconian disciplinary and criminal accountability measures against journalists, efforts to control content, and underhanded threats against media professionals than the country has seen in decades, all under the pretext of protecting national interests.
Diversity will suffer in such a situation, since the representation of marginalized groups would be politically sensitive and undesirable. So, for those journalists and media professionals who still dare to work, self-censorship is the only method of survival.
But not all is bleak.
In the case of Egypt, I believe that, even with the absence of freedoms, the state can take action to enable a freer media environment and to at least provide opportunity for Egyptian citizens, who are equal according to the constitution, to be heard and to enjoy positive representations in the media.
In this context, diversity, meaning the differences among human beings, is mostly limited to religion, gender, social class, geographical location, ethnicity, and physical abilities. In some cases, the media does present these diversities in unbiased narratives that will reach and strike a chord with the audience. The concept of diversity is relatively new in Egypt but there are many instances of conscious efforts made to improve representation of the under-represented.
In Egypt, one of the main minority groups is the Copts, the Egyptian Christians, who make up an estimated 7 to 15 percent of the population, according to official sources. The exact figure is debated, supposedly unknown, and never published by the government.
Since it is impossible to know the exact number – the country’s census records certainly contain the answer – it is very likely that the reason for concealing it relates to the perceived political sensitivity of the issue. It is possible to make this assumption because Egyptian identification cards list a person’s religion. Therefore, an exact number must exist. Public knowledge of this number would also certainly impact media representation. In addition, a smaller number of religious minorities from other Christian denominations also exist but are nearly completely omitted from the media.
The underlying truth is that media attention to minorities is related to the type of political leadership at a given moment. At the current time, with the heightened support of the president, Abdel Fatah El-Sisi, for the Copts of Egypt, the media has covered more Coptic affairs, included more of their voices and treated their concerns with more respect than in earlier periods.
Nevertheless, most of the news coverage and media presentations are related to religious ceremonies and visits of government officials to Coptic institutions. In contrast, incidents of violence against Copts, which have been occurring for decades, do not get enough play. The rationale for not fully covering these crimes is the belief that to do so is portraying Egypt in a negative light, which in itself is prohibited.
It is undeniable that the film industry, which is arguably one of the country’s most impactful creative forces, has grappled with the inclusion and portrayal of Copts. If you go through a list of Egyptian films that represent Copts, you will find that in the politically liberal ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s they appear as equal to Muslims. In the ’60s, the salient political theme changed to “unity among Egyptians”, and thus diversity was not emphasized at all. The films of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s mostly depicted Copts as victims of Islamic extremists who refuse to accept non-Muslims.
Real change coincided with the relatively freer media environment of the Mubarak era. Among the first realistic representations of Copts in films was I Love Cinema, directed by Osama Fawzy in 2004, which focused on the life of a Coptic family and reminded audiences of the realities of Egypt’s pluralistic society. A series of equally powerful films representing the same community soon followed. Several of these films met with harsh criticism, especially from the Coptic clergy, who consider representations focused on the challenges of daily life rather than religious belief and practices to be demeaning and therefore offensive.
Women, by contrast, are not a numerical minority, but despite that they have often been represented poorly in the media. Nonetheless, state support of gender equality over the years, especially in the last three decades, has led to considerable improvements in the depiction of women.
There is also no doubt that the development of new media in the ’90s, as noted by the media scholar Naomi Sakr, occurred simultaneously with the increase of women’s groups and associations. Arab media was changing, she said. And she was right. It did. Perhaps the improvements have not gone as far as they might have, but there has still been significant progress. Egypt is a country with a strong commitment to development, and Goal 5 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals addresses gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. This in turn has led to state action to ensure equality in media representation.
For instance, the government-backed National Council for Women monitors media and calls out examples of stereotyping and sexualized representation. One moment that comes to mind was the 2019 release of the song “Salmonella” by the artist Tamim Younis. The song’s lyrics describe how a man, after a woman turns down his marriage proposal, begins to threaten her, insult her, and defames her publicly. The song caused controversy because many feared it would encourage violence against women; others, including Younis himself, defended it as an effort to make fun of insecure and violent men and disagreed that it undermined women.
The government-backed council denounced the song as sexist and as encouraging bullying and violence against women. The council contacted Google for removal of what it viewed as inappropriate material.
Since this is government-backed feminism, the outcomes have at times been effective. In addition, the president of the country has been exceptionally supportive of women, further enabling their empowerment.
That doesn’t mean that this support always translates to suitable representation of women in the media. Many Egyptian films continue to portray women as the lesser gender – weaker, dumber, and helpless. Some of the most popular films have normalized sexual harassment, which is rampant in Egypt. That being said, many films and television dramas have also given women full voice.
Cairo 678, a 2010 feature film directed by Mohamed Diab, addressed the issue of women’s exposure to sexual harassment on a daily basis and how to take action against it. More recently, during the holy month Ramadan of 2022, when filmmakers, actors, and scriptwriters race to produce and highlight their best work, one series stood out: Faten Amal Harbi, written by the eminent journalist and writer Ibrahim Eissa, directed by Mohamed El-Adl, and starring Nelly Karim. This series about the antiquated personal status laws portrays the lead actress as a strong woman, a dedicated mother and provider for her family, trapped in a legal battle over her divorce. These are just two among many examples of productions with meaningful representation and social impact.
The 2021 award-winning film Feathers, directed by Omar El Zohairy, offers a brutal analysis of patriarchy. The lead character in this avant-garde production is a downtrodden, meek woman whose attitude slowly changes as she discovers some self-respect. Despite the skill with which the woman’s transformation in consciousness is portrayed, the film received much criticism for going too far even by members of the supposedly liberal movie industry, several of whom stormed out of a film festival showing as a sign of protest.
Advertising as a supporting medium also plays an important role in promoting inclusivity and diversity. In the early 2000s, I served on a thesis committee for a student who had studied the portrayal of women in Egyptian TV ads. Not surprisingly, the literature review showed that men were portrayed in professional settings or outdoors, while women were mostly portrayed at home using products for cleaning, cooking and other household activities. Even in these domestic portrayals of women, men generally provided the voice-overs as the authorities on whatever products were being sold. This form of predictable stereotyping continues.
As for news media, I would say from an anecdotal perspective that the increase in women in parliament, government, and formal professions, has led as a natural consequence to improvements in the representation of women. Yet rarely is there a focus on some of the issues that are of particular concern to women, such as sexual harassment, forced marriage, marital abuse, discriminatory laws, and deprivation of inheritance.
And the majority of women, especially poorer ones or those who live in rural communities, are often omitted all together.
Oddly enough, although veiled women are the majority in Egypt, they are much rarer in news and the entertainment media. Perhaps social media is the space that has been freest for women who choose to dress conservatively. Deemed not modern enough to be seen on any of the local channels, whether owned by the private sector or the state, they are nearly invisible on the airwaves. Today, on most TV stations that display the slogan logo “The New Republic” in reference to a newly envisioned modern Egypt, you will notice that females, particularly those who present the news or programs, have a certain appearance: young, pretty, long hair, wearing very sharp professional suits or dresses – an image disconnected from the reality of the lives of many if not most viewers.
Living in Egypt means you cannot escape noticing the sharp divisions between social classes. Social class representation suffers on countless levels. The working class and farmers are associated with negative stereotypes, such as that they are poorly educated country buffoons or unrefined laborers deserving to be humiliated for their social position. Oddly enough, rich people are also negatively stereotyped, in their case as corrupt, deviants and immoral.
Only members of the middle class escape this negativity, mostly because they do not experience the inhumane living conditions of the poor, nor do they have the wealth that allows them to behave as decadently as the rich.
Social classism is obvious in Egyptian media, with two distinct types of content. Highbrow productions, such as films that intellectually stimulate their audiences and Western media, appeal to the cosmopolitan and often well-traveled upper class. The lower and middle classes consume local media that better represent them, their lives, their values and aspirations.
This has always been the case. Now that Netflix Arabia and other non-Egyptian companies have begun to produce locally adapted US series, it is clear that a show like the Egyptian version of Suits, for example, has no frame of reference for the majority of the public. Set in a law firm, this legal drama featuring an A list of actors, remains heavily inspired by the original version, which is very far from the experience of most people, including those who work in Egypt’s legal profession.
Social classism is obvious even where you might not expect it, such as on food shows. For the longest time, Egyptian TV shows featured Westernized-looking women who made chocolate-covered American cupcakes on the air. It was not until the unusual turmoil and changes that occurred immediately after the 2011 protests, and the launch of the short-lived Channel 25, that the network owner Mohamed Gohar plucked Ghalia, his sister’s domestic helper, to star in a cooking show. Making dishes that poorer people knew and could afford was unheard of, and Ghalia quickly won hearts with her charismatic simplicity. She became an unlikely but refreshing symbol of social justice.
Perhaps music is where this schism is the most visible. The emergence of mahragant (festival) Egyptian street music from underground to mainstream was a product of the 2011 revolution. The social and political changes at the time became a catalyst for this development, and mahragant has proved to be exceptionally popular among youth. The lyrics reflect the life, loves, and everyday struggles of the slum-area poor in Egypt. Songs include obscenities and are viewed as vulgar and inappropriate by more conservative older people and government censors. As recently as 2016, mahragant music was banned from the radio. Even more recently, the popular singers Hassan Shakoush and Omar Kamal were temporarily banned from the music syndicate that controls much of the industry for their references to drinking alcohol and smoking hashish in the song “Bent El-Geran” (Girl Next Door). Soon afterwards, all mahragant music was banned in Egypt, although this rule was later rescinded.
Closely related to social classism in the media is the representation of residents of certain geographical locations, especially Upper Egyptians – inhabitants of the south region of Egypt – and the distinct ethnic groups of Bedouins and Nubians. Upper Egyptians are often misrepresented in films and drama, framed as stupid and old-fashioned, leading residents of Cairo to hold prejudicial stereotypes about them. Egypt is Cairo-centric due to the city’s vast population and job opportunities, and residents still have warped perceptions of those who live elsewhere. Ethnic groups are also misrepresented or not represented at all.
Often, we see Nubians portrayed as doormen or waiters. I cannot recall an instance in which a Nubian was presented as a professor or doctor. Racist comments are often made on air about Nubians, mocking their darker skin. The infamous lawyer and former parliamentarian Mortada Mansour called a football player a “doorman” during an interview, implying that – as a Nubian- he was less deserving of respect. As for the Bedouins, and specifically those of the South Sinai region, the predominant stereotype is that of an outlaw, the “other”, the non-Egyptian, and more recently the terrorist. Little of the real life and identity of Bedouins is shown in Egyptian media. One exception was the portrayal of the loyal Bedouin in the 2019 patriotic war film The Passage.
After the events of 2011, media content underwent a major change. One unusual example was the advertising created for mobile telephone companies. Several ads revolved around diversity and unity, depicting an Egypt full of many types of people. A glance at the Vodafone Egypt website shows the company’s focus on diversity and inclusion, among both its customer base and policy initiatives. This may not be a grassroots-Egyptian idea, since this is probably a global Vodafone policy, yet the effort to localize the notion is certainly notable. The ads were so popular and widely seen that they must have had some impact on the Egyptian public.
When reviewing the representation of genders earlier in this essay, I purposefully identified gender as male and female simply because these are the two socially constructed genders and most commonly accepted to be the norm with all their associated roles and behaviors. Homosexuality is not criminalized in Egypt, but that does not mean that it goes unpunished either. LBGTIQ+ people have little support from the public and are frequently charged with debauchery. News coverage of LBGTIQ+ arrests has been exceptionally negative and often dehumanizing.
The most prominent example is the case of the Cairo 52 in the 1990s, which began with a raid on a gay party on a boat. The raid resulted in the arrest of 52 men, nearly half of whom received severe prison sentences. A more recent incident, the “Rainbow Flag Case”, involved the arrest of several young LBGTIQ+ activists for waving a rainbow flag at a 2017 concert of the Lebanese indie band Mashrou’ Leila. The band’s lead singer is openly gay and advocates for LBGTIQ+ rights. Media coverage of the story and subsequent arrests, particularly in state news outlets, was ruthless. The media-generated moral panic destroyed any chance of support or legitimacy for what is viewed as deviant behavior and the promotion of harmful ideas arising from Western influences in a nation that regards itself as upholding high morals. The situation led the Supreme Media Regulatory Council to issue an order to ban the appearance of homosexuals or promotion of homosexuality on Egyptian media.
Yet cinema and television programs, as stated earlier, have a higher ceiling of freedom on taboo topics. Depictions of cross-dressing and homosexuality have always existed with some frequency in the media of Egypt. Nonetheless, most of these depictions are negative, in line with the country’s religious values, whether Muslim or Christian. On occasion, more liberal depictions have appeared on our screens, escaping official censorship but never the criticism of the more conservative segments of society. Filmmakers like Youssef Chahin in the 1978 Alexandria Why?and Yousri Nasrallahin’s 1993 film Mercedes have depicted gay characters and homosexual experiences. The Yacoubian Building, a 2006 film directed by Marwan Hamed, realistically portrays a gay character who has a relationship with a police conscript from rural Egypt.
However, Egypt as a nation prefers to reinforce its heterosexual identity. The Yacoubian Building stirred much controversy in parliament at the time, while parliamentarians debated whether such a depiction promoted immorality and an undesirable homosexual identity. Not much has changed on that front. Egypt continues to view the depiction of homosexuality as incompatible with the image of a strong and principled state. And so the argument continues. When Netflix aired its 2021 Arabic version of Perfect Strangers, it sparked public debate on both traditional and social media about whether homosexuality should be tolerated.
Media can improve social acceptance by helping to normalize differences in people. The public can better accept persons with disabilities and even find many to admire or relate to when they are portrayed positively and inclusively in the media. In the case of Egypt, and similar to the coverage of Copts and women, only a top-down directive will improve the depiction of the disabled. President El-Sisi has shown great concern for citizens with special needs; he has started a special foundation and has personally adopted this cause.
According to the Egyptian government, the population includes around 11 to 14 million differently abled persons, and they have mostly been ignored by media in the past. In contrast, the president meets with the disabled and invites them to the World Youth Forum, an Egyptian government-sponsored summit that gathers youth from different cultures and nationalities. He attends events related to the International Day for the Differently Abled, and has called on the media to include the lives of disabled citizens and highlight their successes. These efforts appear to have made a difference, at least from my personal observation.
In conclusion, despite the lack of freedom that is a prerequisite for full media diversity, it is possible to achieve some of the desired goals by having the state impose direct obligations on news and entertainment organizations. Just as the Egyptian parliament has a quota for women, Copts, and other minorities or marginalized groups for the purpose of allowing them fair representation, the same principle can be applied to media diversity. A wide range of voices in media can be ensured by the media regulation authorities.
*Naila Hamdy is associate dean for the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. She has authored numerous articles in international journals, book chapters, edited volumes and other contributions, covering the fields of journalism, global communication, and political engagement. A media commentator, a public speaker and distinguished visiting professor, she has also been frequently invited to lecture at numerous universities worldwide.
She is a member of the board and a former president of the Arab-U.S. Association for Communication Educators (AUSACE) and a member of the board of the Broadcast Educators Association (BEA) representing the international division.