Egypt’s new information minister, Osama Heikal, was worried before the 25 January revolution that any potential uprising in Egypt would turn violent as in Tunisia – something he did not want to see.
In an op-ed he penned on 24 January, a day before protests that led to the president's resignation began, Heikal, then editor-in-chief of Al-Wafd, expressed deep concern about potential violence.
He wrote that no one was hoping for a confrontation between the people and the regime, but insisted that change was needed soon. Heikal was also upset about the decision to protest on 25 January, because historically it was a day that commemorated the stance of police officers and civilians in Ismailiya against the British occupation in 1952, but would now commemorate a stance by the people against the police.
In the op-ed, he urged the regime to begin instituting much-needed change, arguing there was still time for it to reform. Heikal called for dialogue between the regime and the opposition. It was not to be.
Four days after former president Hosni Mubarak's resignation on 11 February, Heikal wrote another column in which he saluted the “great youth” of Egypt and congratulated them on their success. He called for constitutional change and free presidential and parliamentary elections.
Heikal was sworn in as information minister on 9 July in front of Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, head of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). The post of information minister had been abolished in the wake of the 25 January uprising as it was deemed a mainstay of autocratic regimes and thus no longer needed. But the decision was reversed and Heikal was appointed.
Tantawi alluded to the reason why the post was reinstated, according to a military source who told AFP that the SCAF head urged Heikal to “reorganize the Egyptian media and draw up a plan that addresses all the shortcomings that came from abolishing the post of minister of information.”
Heikal had stated that abolishing the post had thrown the media sector into disarray and that he had been tasked by Prime Minister Essam Sharaf to restructure the organizational aspects of the ministry and the media under its umbrella.
In statements since his appointment, Heikal said the reinstatement of the post was necessary because its sudden abolishment caused administrative and technical problems. He also said that new financial procedures would be instituted “very soon” to counter the disparity in the wage structure of the state media.
“The position had to be reinstated because there is a ministry that still exists,” said Nile News television anchor Mohamed Abdallah, “and even when there was no minister, the head of the television sector was operating with the minister’s mandate anyway.”
Abdallah said there were still numerous problems within the state media that need to be addressed, such as favoritism, nepotism and unstudied transfers between administrative and technical posts.
Ramy Raoof, online media officer for the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and media consultant for Nazra for Feminist Studies, disagreed that there needed to be an information minister in post-25 January Egypt.
“When the post was abolished I knew they’d reinstate it because those who run the country are not ready to give up their biggest weapon, the media. Under the previous regime, it was the best tool to propagate their agenda,” Raoof said.
The Information Ministry was long considered the arm that subverted Egyptian state media to serve the interests of the regime. It was synonymous with regime stalwart Safwat al-Sherif, who served as minister for over two decades. The last man to assume that post, Anas al-Fiqqi, faces charges of misappropriation of public funds, as does Sherif.
Ideally there should not be such a position, Raoof said, but the reality is that there is a new minister and the challenges he will face need to be discussed. He needs to be a staunch supporter of freedom of the press and expression and not bow to external pressure, specifically from the SCAF.
Heikal was editor of Al-Wafd for only eight months. For 18 years before that he was a correspondent covering military affairs. He was also a correspondent for presidential affairs. He is a fellow of the National Defense College at the Nasser Academy for Military Studies.
Abdallah said Heikal was a good journalist capable of running a newspaper well, but there are major differences in running the television sector. He also said that Heikal faces many challenges and will not succeed without support from within the sector.
“Egyptian television is collapsing,” Abdallah said, “because it has lost its credibility and it will be hard to regain people’s trust. Change will need a lot of effort from within the sector and support for Heikal or he will not succeed. We must bring back ethics to television.”
Raoof said Heikal needed to look at the mistakes of his predecessors and not repeat them.
“We also have to look at his relationship with the SCAF and whether he will have freedom from them, unlike Sharaf and the other ministers," Raoof said. "He also has to learn from the mistakes and lies the state media spread during the revolution.”