With 15 minutes until the talk show The Democratic Race goes live at the Muslim Brotherhood’s new television station on the outskirts of Cairo, host Sherif Mansour chats genially with tonight’s guest, a parliamentarian from the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party. Producer Essam Fouad surveys the scene with his arms crossed. Satisfied, he leaves the set with a cheerful caution: “Just don’t go off the script.”
Today’s show, which airs at 6:40 p.m., is about the role of parliament members now that reasonably free elections have replaced the puppet assembly of the old regime. For an hour, the parliamentarian takes every opportunity to insult the former ruling party of Hosni Mubarak, the fallen strongman, while highlighting the achievements of Muslim Brotherhood politicians—namely, himself. It’s one of a multitude of new programs on the new Misr25 channel that broadcasts 24 hours a day. (The name means Egypt 25, and the number refers to Jan. 25, the day of the first protests against the Mubarak regime.)
Mubarak, deposed after the Arab Spring protests last year, monopolized broadcast news and set strict guidelines for what newscasters on state-owned stations could report. State TV is still the way most Egyptians get their news, even though satellite stations like Qatar-based Al Jazeera and private Egyptian channels cropped up late in Mubarak’s reign.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 with the purpose of Islamizing society. The group’s broader goal is to shift Egyptians’ understanding of Islam to align with their conservative views. Banned in 1954, the Brotherhood has spent long periods underground. Its highly organized and motivated members run charities, hospitals, and schools as part of their social outreach.
While the Muslim Brotherhood won almost 50 percent of the seats in Egypt’s new parliament, it has almost no television experience. “We believe the media can make our duty easier, to attract crowds and lead them to the correct understanding of Islam,” says Fouad. “This will move the nation forward to take its rightful place among other countries.”
Almost no one in the newsroom, except the news director, is a member of the Brotherhood. Aasem Aboul Ghar, chief of reporters and a news presenter, came to Misr25 from Alhurra, a U.S. government-funded channel. He calls himself a liberal, but considers himself a professional first and foremost. Ghar shrugs off any possible criticism that might accompany working for the Brotherhood: “You have a stigma here, just as before; when I was working for Alhurra, there was a stigma working for America.”
Misr25 began broadcasting at the end of August, and programming is mostly news and talk shows. In one planned show, three women will discuss topics including divorce, marital values, and cooking. Channel director Hazem Ghorab says he employs 100 staffers in almost all of Egypt’s 27 governorates. Funding comes from wealthy Brotherhood businessmen (Ghorab will not disclose his budget). Misr25’s aim: “to be the most watchable channel in Egypt and the Arab world,” he says, while promoting “conservative values.” All content on Misr25 must conform to the channel’s Islamist ethics: No drinking, gambling, or women without a headscarf will be shown, though news broadcasts may play clips of unveiled women, like Hillary Clinton. So far, Misr25 operates without advertising.
Attracting young viewers remains a challenge. Hossam Ghamry, a Muslim Brotherhood Youth member and the channel’s humor programmer, is responsible for producing short bits of comic relief. Past segments include “What’s a liberal?” in which Ghamry stumps people on the street by asking them what “liberal” means. (In Egypt, liberalism is a bit vague, but implies a connection with non-Islamist political views.) “We explain our ideas in a funny, mocking way, and we try to be sarcastic, but in a fair way that matches our Islamic values,” Ghamry explains.
Misr25 faces stiff competition from established satellite talk shows that dominate prime-time slots. The country’s original independent satellite channel, Dream TV, is still powerful, while Christian businessman Naguib Sawiris’ ONTV is right alongside. There has long been a host of ultraconservative Muslim channels. Yet the Brotherhood is known for its dedication, efficiency, and ready access to funds. With their party expected to take power when parliament sits on Jan. 23, the station’s employees expect ratings to spike.