Middle East

Egypt state TV building an ugly reminder of the past

Egyptian state TV building
Image caption Egyptian state TV headquarters, known as the Maspero building

It is a building of exceptional ugliness, a concrete monolith on the banks of the Nile sticking an architectural finger at Egyptians and the Arab world. It's also an institution of crucial importance to the Egyptian government.

When anti-government protesters went on the rampage in Cairo in January, nobody prevented them burning down the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party, a few hundred metres away.

To this day, they have never sent the fire engines.

Instead, the army sent its tanks to protect the Maspero, the headquarters of Egyptian state TV.

At the height of the revolution, I counted more than 20 tanks or armoured vehicles outside its doors. Even now it is surrounded by armour and barbed wire, and patrolled by heavily armed soldiers.

In a country with 40% illiteracy, state television it is a crucial tool of power, and Egypt's military rulers are not letting go.

So now the artist Moataz Nasreldin has organised an exhibition examining the building, and its influence on Egyptian culture.

"The Maspero is the symbol of the media in the Middle East and Egypt," he said.

It was inaugurated in Cairo in 1960 - the first dedicated television building ever built in the Middle East.

Three monkeys

"For 51 years, it was just used to be the voice of the rulers of Egypt, to lead, to direct the Egyptians where to go and how to think and how to express themselves. Of course it was a kind of manipulation.

"It was badly used... and for us, it was a disaster."

Moataz's contribution to the exhibition pithily sums up the thought.

It is a picture of a man, facing a horse. Both are wearing a bridle and blinkers.

A picture by another artist features three monkeys with their arms in familiar pose: hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. It could almost be the motto of the station.

For years state TV was notorious for putting on cookery shows at moments of national crisis.

The graphic designer Engy Ali said the state channels almost never carried any programmes of any relevance to what was actually happening in Egypt, hence her picture featuring monkeys.

"All the TV shows are either old or outdated, or just have concepts from the middle ages," she said with a wry smile.

"I just interpreted it visually into monkeys that usually live in hot places, but I put them in a place that has snowy mountains!"

Under pressure from the opposition, Egypt TV was forced to show the first live pictures this week of the trial of former regime figures accused of corruption.

By an acute irony, one of the first in the dock was the former head of state TV, Usama el-Sheikh. He was sacked from his job after the revolution, and is now charged with pocketing money intended for making programmes.

Business as usual?

At state TV, as in Egypt as a whole, the head may have changed, but not much else. That's the view of Shahira Amin, a state TV presenter who resigned in disgust during the revolution, though she has now returned to present a weekly show.

"The editors are the same, the heads of channels are the same. So it's the same mindset. They don't know how to do it differently. They are still waiting for the press releases and for the instructions to come," she says.

"[The staff] wants to keep things as they are because they don't know how to do it differently and they are frightened of change. A lot of them aren't qualified. They were hired because of who they were connected to rather than on their merits, so they are afraid of losing their jobs."

There's evidence of those lack of skills in the notoriously low production standards viewers have long endured.

Artist Ibrahim Saad mocked them in a video presentation - five simultaneous screens project five pretend programmes.

"When I looked into how they made these programmes, I found the way they made them was very poor. They would use a green screen. They would use normal office lighting," he said. "So I made it in the same bad way, except I stressed the bad elements."

Mr Saad says he discovered during his research that several of the phone-in shows were faked.

"They weren't actually people from the public phoning in. They were people from the office, researchers and staff phoning in and just changing their voices," he said.

State TV continues to be a target of anger from the protesters gathered in Tahrir Square.

It is not just the tight control of news and information. The criticism is much wider.

The opposition blames state TV for its impoverishment of Egyptian culture for decades, says exhibition organiser Moataz Nasreldin.

"All these programmes were designed to make people as idiotic as possible, as stupid as possible. So it was like cheating us, stealing our freedom of expression, stealing our humanity.

"It's time to change that all. Freedom has to be - we paid from our people so we have to get it complete."

Related Internet links

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites