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Egypt PM routed on live TV, sign of media upheaval
Media once faced censorship, security crackdowns.
March 4, 2011 12:07 by Reuters
An unprecedented live television show featuring a shouting match between the Egyptian prime minister and opposition figures summed up the scale of the transformation sweeping the Arab world’s most populous nation.
A few hours after the Wednesday night show, Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq was out of a job and some commentators said his unconvincing TV performance had played a part in his downfall. Egypt’s military rulers replaced him on Thursday morning.
Shafiq, appointed by Hosni Mubarak in his final days in office, had been under street pressure to step down because of his links to the ousted president’s administration.
Until a few weeks ago, it was impossible to imagine watching a prime minister speaking on television in the presence of other guests, let alone opponents who would criticise him.
Before Jan. 25, when the uprising against Mubarak erupted, even private channels had to worry about state censorship.
Shafiq had to respond to attacks about his performance as prime minister, his relationship to Mubarak, the state of lawlessness in the country, and the failure to release many political prisoners. His answers were often vague, failing to satisfy the other guests.
While he was also humble, taking notes and speaking at length to defend himself, analysts said he lacked the political skill to dig his way out when cornered.
Novelist and government critic Alaa al-Aswany landed the heaviest hits, telling Shafiq he had to go because he represented Mubarak’s administration and his presence was an attempt to “manipulate the revolution.”
“Your talk is rejected,” said Shafiq. “You are the one that is rejected,” replied Aswany.
The former prime minister appeared calm and patient at the start of the show on privately owned ONTV, which ran into the early hours of the morning.
But, after a grilling lasting almost four hours of a sort ad never seen before on Egyptian TV, the former air force officer began losing patience, throwing down his pen and calling for “some objectivity”.
Opposition activist and political commentator Hamdi Qandil said: “I have a question for you Mr. Prime Minister, when is Shafiq’s government stepping down?”
The prophetic reply was “Because I am Shafiq, I cannot answer that question. But those higher than me, may want me to go now and I will leave from tomorrow.”
And he did.
“This interview was unprecedented and I think it may have even brought Shafiq down,” Naila Hamdy, professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said. “We have never seen a prime minister have to respond to something like this.”
“That particular interview for me marks the beginning of a new era for media freedom,” she said. “Egypt has changed. Media is destined for more than just a shake-up, but rather a media revolution and it has already started.”
“Shafiq was beaten in yesterday’s talk show,” said political analyst Nabil Abdel Fattah. “By the end, his gentle mask fell off … he revealed that what was behind that mask was another Hosni Mubarak.”
(Additional reporting by Sarah Mikhail; editing by Tim Pearce)