By Osama Diab
The Voice of the Arabs steered Egypt from isolationism and towards a pan-Arabist vision in which Nasser was the anointed leader of the Arab world.
Friday 5 October 2012
A few waves of unrest followed the British Occupation of Egypt with two important milestones: 1906 and 1919. In 1906, unrest erupted when five British officers accidentally injured an Egyptian villager and killed home-grown pigeons while pigeon shooting in the village of Denshwai. Villagers’ anger and the death of one of the British officers due to heatstroke during the dispute resulted in death sentence for four of the villagers, including the owners of the pigeons, and dozens more received varying sentences in a court dominated by British officers and their Egyptian allies.
It is believed that this incident fuelled a rapid grown Egyptian national sentiment and was a key landmark in the development of Egypt’s modern national identity.
The other major milestone was when nationwide demonstration in March and April of 1919 led to the declaration of Egypt’s independence in 1922 followed by the writing of a ‘liberal constitution’ in 1923. The emphasis in Egyptian national identity in the 1920s was culturally and territorially linked to its Pharaonic and pre-Islamic past which established the basis for a separate Egyptian sense of nationalism. Charles Smith, the American professor of Middle Eastern studies, writes that it was inspired by a foreign elites’ vision of indigenous nationalism and then further reinforced by the historic discovery of Tut-Ankh-Amon’s tomb in 1922. “This separate identity, and distinctiveness as Muslims from other Muslims, caused Egyptians to refuse to become involved in non-Egyptian issues, or to do so only in situations where Egyptian paramouncy would be assured,” he wrote.
The 1920s was a decade of consensus over this liberal and secular version of nationalism before the emergence of Islamic and Arab nationalism a decade later. In Redefining the Egyptian nation, the 1930s and the 1940s, some scholars argue, were an era of “supra-Egyptianism”, when a younger generation became more interested in the Arab, Muslim and Eastern worlds and presupposed the existence of a larger community to which Egypt belongs while not totally rejecting the uniqueness and distinctiveness of the Egyptian state and culture.
Up until the late 1940s, Egyptian national identity, these scholars assert, could be divided into two systems: a territorial imagining and a Western-influenced image of Egypt where a myth of common descent was created and modern Egyptians started to link themselves to ancient Egyptians. The dominant brand for at least a decade after the 1919 revolution advocated the culture and values of Mediterranean civilisation and the modern West. Politically, it assumed a necessary linkage between the state and the nation, whereas the supra-Egyptian nationalism that emerged in the 1930s and the 1940s situated Egypt in its wider Arab, Islamic and Eastern context and vis-a-vis the West.
Despite being the product of the imaginings of Western orientalists on Egypt and despite being driven mainly by a newly emerged middle class and educated elite, these nationalist movements seem to have appealed to the vast majority of Egyptians who suffered from foreign occupation. The struggle against the remnants of British rule and the privileged class of Turks remained in the 1930s and in the 1940s. In 1952, a secret movement within the army called the Free Officers Association brought this long struggle against the monarchy and British rule almost to an end when they carried out a coup against King Farouq and forced him into exile.
The rise of Egyptian military officers to power caused tragic changes in the development of Egyptian nationalism. For the first time, national sentiments were propagated by the official government and the new ruling elite instead of being directed against them. Also for the first time, the mass media’s potential in building national consensus was exploited by the state. It was a brand of nationalism that capitalised on the ‘supra-Egyptianism’ that had been building over the preceding two decades; one that centred on Arab nationalism, anti-imperialism and socialism. However, the new leadership developed an authoritarian single-party regime and cracked down on all the democratic, or rather semi-democratic, institutions the country had built up during its struggle against imperialism and the monarchy, such as the parliament and political parties.
Despite developing socialist policies, such as the wide-scale redistribution of land, the nationalisation of most key industries and enterprises, the new leadership heavily cracked down on protests, labour strikes and any form of dissidence or opposition. Less than three weeks after the Armed Forces took over power, two teenage labour activists were sentenced to death, for taking part in a strike in the Delta city of Kafr al-Dawar before a military court. In 1953, they made the decision to dissolve all political parties including al-Wafd, which was the major political party at the time which had emerged from the nationalist anti-colonial movement of 1919.
For obvious reasons, these political change took a heavy toll on the media scene. The relatively pluralistic and vibrant media scene that had prevailed before the 1952 revolution and was defined by the dynamism of the political scene and the struggle for independence was replaced by a much more monolithic and strictly monitored media environment after 1952. Newspapers which existed before the 1952 revolution started to be closed by the government, one after the other, and many journalists were jailed in the process.
In short, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser performed a process of institutionalising national identity through the dissolution of parliament and all political parties, instead establishing a single-party political system to facilitate the process of political and social engineering he was about to initiate. Nasser realised the importance of mass media and once he began to establish his power as the uncontested ruler of the country, he started to propagate his new doctrines of social transformation through the radio to convey the government’s new plans and policies to the masses.
Nasser’s most significant media project was the powerful megaphone of Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) station, which employed the latest in radio technology to shape and influence larger communities in the Egyptian president’s ideological war against his opponents, both within Egypt and in the wider Arab world. “Like no other Egyptian or Arab leader before him, or among his contemporaries, Nasser recognised the immense power of radio, a power which, as a dazzling orator, he had used vigorously and effectively,” writes Adeed Dawisha, the Iraqi professor of political science.
Voice of the Arabs started life in 1953 with a transmission of only half an hour a day. However, in 1963, Nasser’s radio completed a new 1,000 kilowatt medium-wave transmitting station that was considered to be the most powerful radio transmitter in the world at the time. It extended Voice of the Arabs’ transmission time to 24-hours a day and helped convey its anti-imperialist and pan-Arab message to the whole of the Middle East, which further established its position as the flagship station of the Arab renaissance.
The Jordanian scholar and media personality Mahmoud Shalabieh argues that before the revolution of 1952, broadcasting had no national goals, and that it was Nasser who was the first to harness its power to develop Egypt and the rest of the world culturally and politically. Even though television was introduced in 1960, its growth was relatively slow in the beginning. It was confined to urban and rich audiences and was, hence, an ineffective tool of mass persuasion compared to radio, which had already been around for a few decades, reached Egypt’s most remote areas and was heard across the Arab world.
The late Wilton Wynn, described as a “dean of foreign correspondents” who was reporting for AP from Egypt during the Nasser years, observed, in his Nasser of Egypt: The Search for Dignity, the phenomenal popularity ofVoice of the Arabs: “A Saudi Arabian merchant buying a radio stipulated that he wanted a set ‘that picks up the ‘Voice of the Arabs’. The Palestinian refugees in camps in Gaza and Jericho gathered in vast throngs at public places daily to hear the fiery broadcasts of the ‘Voice’.”
Nasser banked on Egypt’s existing regional cultural superiority which was due to what Dawisha describes as a “post-Napoleonic renaissance in Egypt, which opened the country and its population to Western civilisation a full century before the rest of the Arab world”. In describing Egypt’s intellectual pre-eminence, he notes that: “In 1947, for example, Cairo boasted 14 daily newspapers and 23 weeklies . . . Egypt was the only Arab country with a viable film industry, and Egyptian movies in the 1940s and the 1950s competed vigorously with their Western counterparts in Arab movie theatres. Kamal al-Shenawy was as beloved a heartthrob as Clark Gable or Tyrone Power; Isma’il Yassin was a bigger comedic name than Bob Hope or Danny Kaye, and Fatin Hamama and Layla Murad were far more popular leading ladies than Vivien Lay or Doris Day.”
The same applied to music. “Egyptian singers and musicians were household names throughout the region, the most revered and beloved of whom was the majestic Umm Kulthum, an Arab icon, whose legendary five-hour concerts on the first Thursday gathered people around the radio sets in Baghdad, Damascus, Casablanca, Amman, and other cities throughout the Arab world,” Dawisha describes.
The Voice of the Arabs station was deployed to propagate the image of Egypt within its three circles: the Arab, African and Islamic worlds (probably in that order of importance). In his book, The Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser stated that “there can be no doubt that the Arab circle is the most important, and the one with which we are most closely linked.” The station’s motto was that “the Voice of the Arabs speaks for the Arabs, struggles for them and expresses their unity” and it defined Egypt as “in the service of the Arab nation and its struggle against Western imperialism and its lackeys in the Arab world”.
With no rivals allowed to emerge, the state-run radio’s main theme was that the Arabs should unite under Nasser’s leadership, a theme that was used on every possible occasion and through all possible channels, with variations to suit the medium and the audience. At times, a religious tone was even employed. “This decisive turning point in the Arab world was the creation of Arab unity. Almighty Allah wanted this unification and nobody can change God’s will. Nasser has been ordained by the will of God to lead this unity,” one broadcast claimed.
Unlike most of his predecessors, Nasser was a charismatic leader with massive popular support due to his being perceived as the culmination of Egypt’s nationalist struggle for independence and a symbol of the country finally falling back into the hands of its rightful owners. He realised the importance of the media and he banked well on anti-imperialist sentiments and a strong desire for national sovereignty that had been gradually welling up over at least the preceding seven decades.
Charles Smith argue that the new military leadership managed to combine Egyptian nationalism and the more regional Arab nationalism through a supra-national identity in which Egypt was perceived as the leader of the Arab and Islamic world, rather than merely an equal member of it. This notion seems to have made distinct Egyptian and Arab brands of nationalism conflate rather than conflict for a period of time – at least up until the Nasserist brand of pan-Arabism began to crumble following the 1967 defeat, during which Voice of the Arabs broadcasted outrageous claims of victory, and until Egypt was suspended from the Arab league in 1979 for its peace treaty with Israel.
This is the second part in a series of articles exploring the role of the media in shaping Egypt’s modern national consciousness and Egyptian nationalism, as well as fomenting revolution. Part I focused on the role of the nascent print media in shaping Egyptian nationalism and national identity in the 19th century. Part III will deal with the reawakening of Egypto-centric nationalism during the Sadat era.