In Egypt, satellite TV is changing the nation

In Egypt, satellite TV is changing the nation
Sharon Schmickle

As Egyptians vote today in the latest stage of their parliamentary elections, a hidden force behind the combative campaigns is represented by a cluster of satellite dishes rising from the desert just outside Cairo.

Nilesat’s clean and quiet dish farm seems an unlikely place to stage a revolution. But the change that satellite TV is bringing to Egypt and the broader Arab world is nothing short of revolutionary, said Prof. Hussein Amin, chairman of the journalism department at American University in Cairo.

More than any candidate’s campaign rhetoric, the power to channel surf is opening new horizons to Arabs, beginning with news programs that give perspectives no one could have seen on the old government-controlled networks.

“The revolution is not limited to news,” Amin said. “It also is transforming culture, music, movies and science.”

Satellite broadcast was introduced on a limited basis in Egypt before 1990. But few viewers could afford satellite dishes, let alone subscriptions. Only recently, with costs falling for pizza-sized dishes, has it truly come into its own as a vehicle for reaching masses of Arabs.

Nilesat and its competitor, Arabsat, based in Saudi Arabia and Tunisia, now claim to serve 50 million viewers throughout the Arab world, Amin said.

Most of the channels have nothing to do with politics, and indeed candidates have limited access to TV broadcasts. Shows range from religious instruction to shopping to American-style reality TV.

One of the latest options is the Omar Shamshoon show. Say it fast enough, and you get the point. He is Homer Simpson without the beer. The star of the show launched in October by MBC satellite network looks like the lovable slouch embraced by American audiences. But Omar’s hot dogs are beef. His belches reek of fizzy pop, not beer. And he speaks Arabic.

On the other end of the cultural spectrum, there is a wealth of educational programs from historical documentaries to science shows.

Trivial though some of the shows may be, each in its own way is opening a window to the world for millions of people who have been isolated by illiteracy, government control and social customs that kept many — women in particular — from leaving their homes and villages. The sum of the new offerings represents a stronger thrust for democracy than any other force in the Arab world, said Lawrence Pintak who heads the Adham Center for Television Journalism in Cairo.

“This explosion of satellite TV has changed everything quite literally,” Pintak said.

Among other changes, it enabled broadcasts from Qatar-based Al-Jazeera beginning in the late 1990s, and “suddenly things that people would only say behind closed doors were being said on TV,” Pintak said.

Newspapers and magazines are changing, too.

“The editors see what is happening in TV terms and they are inspired to be more than government mouthpieces,” Pintak said.

The upshot could be seen in September in Egypt’s presidential election campaigns. Although long-time president Hosni Mubarak was sure to win, his challengers dared to critique the government with far more openness than Egypt had seen before.

Eventually, satellite TV will alter attitudes toward the United States and other Western countries, too, Pintak predicted.

CNN, Bloomberg, Sky News and a host of other Western news channels have joined Al-Jazeera on Arab TV sets. And for the first time, Arabs can directly watch Israeli and U.S. leaders speaking and answering questions rather than getting their words second- and third-hand.

A new perspective

The viewers also are getting more than one perspective on major world events. Take the fighting last year for control of Fallujah in Iraq. Much of the American coverage came from news crews that were embedded with U.S. Marines, and thus it tended to show firefights between Marines and insurgents. Arabic crews typically holed up in homes, and showed the battles from the perspectives of beleaguered Iraqis who stayed in the city.

Not everyone welcomes the array of choices. The X- and R-rated shows, in particular, generate fiery opposition in a region where many people are shocked to see a woman’s upper arm in public, let alone cleavage.

Some critics also lament a loss of traditional culture.

What had passed for music entertainment on the old government-sponsored broadcasts had become ridiculed as “listening to the dead,” Amin said. Typically it featured film clips of singers, many already dead, standing ramrod-straight in front of cameras and spewing familiar songs.

The sight of people dancing on screen to vibrant new Arab music might be far more popular with young people, but some traditionalists worry that the old music will be lost.

“Those who are really proud of the Arab culture and the legacy of Islam are saying it is wrong to watch these kinds of programs,” Amin said.

Amin predicted that the most profound transformations will come as illiterate viewers in conservative and highly traditional rural villages gain vast knowledge about the outside world.

Many Arab scholars are launching studies, he said, of “the impact on a culture when the world comes to an illiterate village.”

His expectation?

“In the year 2020, we will see a far more liberal society,” he said. “Whether we like it or not.”

Sharon Schmickle•