Ministerial maneuvers

While everyone was talking about the Hariri assassination, the big story in Cairo yesterday was that Minister of Information Mahmoud Beltagui swapped jobs with Minister of Youth Anas Al Fiqi. This is a big demotion for a man who has been in the cabinet for over a decade. Beltagui cut his teeth among other things as an informant on Egyptian exiles while being a student in Paris (according to one anecdote, he pretended to be a communist around other Egyptian students in the 1960s, until one day they found out he had an office at the embassy) and had a career in the intelligence services until he became head of the State Information Service, Egypt's main interface with the foreign press. That position should have led to the post of information minister, but he was beaten by a mukhabarat officer who while less educated, was more ruthless. Safwat Al Sherif (at information until last July's cabinet reshuffle, now head of the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council) was a fearsome enemy, notably because one of his jobs in the late 1970s was framing Egyptian and foreign dignitaries by setting them up with women and filming them. He was, in other words, something of a cross between a blackmailer and a pimp. Instead of information, Beltagui got tourism.

Beltagui finally bested Al Sherif last summer, after the latter started refusing to give his rival airtime on national TV, which wasn't the smartest move in a country that relies on tourism revenues. He was kicked upstairs and Beltagui finally got the post. Once there, Beltagui began a reform project of the notoriously corrupt, bloated and inefficient ministry of information -- which along with defense and interior is one of the most important control institutions in the country. This Al Jazeera piece seems to suggest that he was sacked because he was unable to control the flood of negative information about President Mubarak, including (in more oblique ways) in state-run bodies.

The story is more complicated than that. Over the past few weeks, as Beltagui tried to implement his reform plan, there was an insurrection among ministry employees and the various public servants (including journalists, technicians, admin people...) who work in media institutions. Beltagui had tried to impose changes that would create further control on what state TV could show -- this at a time when Arab satellite television is booming and diversifying way beyond Al Jazeera. Notably, as we had noted here before, he wanted to introduce a review of soap operas by Al Azhar and the Coptic Church. “The media cannot be transformed into instruments to distill poison under the pretext of artistic licence,” he said at the time to justify the move. He had also imposed a shortlist of 34 tele-evangelists who were allowed to appear on TV, infuriating those that had been excluded.

In the press, though, it was the first move that caused an uproar. One Egypt's greatest living scriptwriters, Osama Anwar Okasha, slammed into the "Higher Committee for Dramatic Works" (the censorship office) and its head, Al Ahram columnist (and French-language weekly Al Ahram Hebdo editor) Muhammad Salmawy. Okasha said he refused to be censored by an arbitrary board of writers and ministry officials. Salmawy replied with a long letter to Okasha basically asking him what he was afraid of, ending on a sardonic note by telling him he was looking forward to reading his next work at the commmittee. He might now have to eat his words.

Beltagui, 67, now finds himself at the head of the Youth Ministry (old ministers never retire, they simply get less powerful jobs), while Al Fiqi (apparently close to Gamal Mubarak) grabs a crucial post where he could potentially do a lot of good, if he is so inclined. Egypt's richest man, Naguib Sawiris (of Orascom Telecom, which for instance owns the Iraqna mobile network) has been telling journalists that he wants to start a private terrestrial TV station in Egypt. The liberalization of broadcast media has long been overdue, and perhaps Al Fiqi will take a step in the right direction. I've never met him and know little about him, but having met Beltagui I think it's difficult not to improve.