Something important is happening in Egypt. It might be called the al-Jazeera effect, the way that the highly professional and popular Qatar-based satellite TV channel is starting to change the media culture of the Arab world.
Less than a year ago, a new private satellite channel was launched in Egypt called Dream TV. Egypt's state-run TV and Radio Corporation owns 10 percent, but the main owner is businessman Ahmed Bahgat, who thought he was already spending so much on advertising he might as well do it on his own TV station. My Egyptian contacts say it is now by far the most popular channel in the country, and not just because one of its presenters is Sally Shaheen, Egypt's entrant for this year's Miss Universe.
Dream TV's vice-president and star presenter is Hala Sirhan, who used to work on Voice of America's Arabic service. She says that Dream "is open to all types of opinions and ideologies -- socialist, western, capitalist, left-wing, right-wing, fanatics and extremists.
"We are open to everyone. So this our dream, to let people talk, let people be entertained, let people choose what to believe in and what not to believe in. We believe in being credible first, and second, we believe in entertaining. Entertainment programming in the Arab region has traditionally been considered less important than other types of programming. But media is about entertainment, come on! "
After 370 people died in Egypt's train fire disaster in February, Hala's own show saw unprecedented criticisms of their government as "corrupt and incompetent." On another Dream 2 talk show called Fi Al-Mamnoua ("Into the Forbidden"), her guest was presidential adviser Osama Al Baz, who was visibly stunned to be asked whether President Mubarak was really grooming his son for the succession.
The show that everyone watches is Al-Ustaz, the Professor, which features the grand old man of Egyptian journalism, Mohamed Heykal, former editor of Al-Ahram, adviser and close confidant to former President Nasser. So far he has done three shows, all discussing politics and world affairs, and they have all had a huge impact. His latest show, on Iraq and the Bush administration, has been re-broadcast three times already.
Heikal did not give the standard Arab rant about Jewish influence in Washington and Arab victimhood, and ridiculed the idea that America's top priority was to crush Iraq and the Arab world in general.
"It's all a sideshow. Iraq is just the battleground," Heykal said. "What is about to happen in Iraq is about taming the rising international monsters, the big international competitors like China and Europe. Unfortunately, the Iraqi people will suffer and so will we all, but this is not about us. This is about international strategy."
"It's insulting to say that 9/11 was a turning point that made Bush mad, turned him into an angry Greek God bent on destruction," Heykal went on. "America is a power that plans and thinks -- it invented the think-tank industry -- and has devised a rational state and thoughtful institutions that simply do not allow its president to go mad. American policy is based on rational calculation."
Heykal went on to dismiss the charge that the pro-Israel lobby was steering Bush's policy. "This lobby is only allowed to be effective when it meets American interests. It's never the other way around. America is using Israel, not the opposite," he said.
Agree with Heykal or not, this is not the usual garbage that passes for commentary on traditional Arab TV, nor is it the usual kind of programming that attracts over 10 million Egyptians to tune in. Like all the Arabs who tune in to al-Jazeera, Egyptians are hungry for something better, more credible and more thoughtful. There is a cultural revolution under way here that even Egypt's tired old state TV has had to recognize, with its own current affairs show, Hamdi Kandil's Ra'is Al-Tahrir (The Editor-in-Chief).
Usually serious, and sometimes provocative in a safe way (like attacking the Bush administration), earlier this year the show defined the limits of Egypt's new openness. When Kandil attacked the last Arab summit and their leaders for being all talk and no action when it came to helping the Palestinians, the screen suddenly went blank as the censors cut him off.
But on Dream TV, Mohamed Heykal carried on criticizing the Arab summit and Arab (particularly Saudi) leaders, and said it was high time that Arabs lifted their eyes from the siege of Yasser Arafat and focused on what was happening among the Palestinians as a whole -- and Arab and Arafat's own responsibility for their plight. And the censors did nothing; the rumor at Dream TV is that one of the censors later confessed he'd been too enthralled by the show to even think about pulling the plug.