The iconic Maspero television building has long been a protest hub for activists voicing their mounting frustration with the state’s media arm.
After the 25 January uprising, the iconic Maspero building was the site of regular protests by Egypt’s Coptic minority. It has also been the main area in which mass Tahrir Square protests against the ruling regime spill over.
More recently, a small group of media personnel protested what they consider the Muslim Brotherhood’s stifling control over the state-owned television and radio institution, especially in the aftermath of the presidential palace clashes and President Mohamed Morsy’s controversial constitutional declaration in November.
Adding to its many woes, late March brought about a different kind of demonstration — one by Maspero employees demanding outstanding salaries, highlighting the institution’s beleaguered financial state. Some also called for the dismissal of Information Minister Salah Abdel Maqsoud, whom they claim is a Brotherhood sympathizer.
Protesters briefly blocked the Corniche al-Nil in front of the state television building as a form of escalation.
Balance of payments
The historic state television building located in the heart of Cairo, with its 43,000 employees, has long been criticized for being a tool in the hands of successive Egyptian regimes — pre- and post-revolution — as they tighten an already suffocating grip over public opinion.
Now, an institution that has been an inveterate part of the country’s bureaucracy faces a widening budget deficit, much like the state to which it belongs. Delayed and outstanding salaries may well be the first episode in an unfolding story.
In February, Ibrahim al-Sayyad, head of the news department, said the Egyptian Radio and Television Union is nearly LE20 billion in debt, following a previous statement by the information minister putting the debt at LE19 billion.
“The financial situation of Maspero has been critical since the revolution. There is a huge budget deficit,” Abdel Maqsoud said in a phone interview with Nile News following the protests, which he described as “barbaric.”
Protesters say their salaries have been delayed sometimes by two weeks, and sometimes for more than two months.
Those employed in the news division, however, say their salaries were one week late, but that they were paid after the protests. Others working in the specialized channels division say they have not yet been paid, underlining a differentiation in the treatment of employees depending on the divisions they work in.
“It depends on where you work. If you work in the news division, you are more likely to be paid earlier because you can cause a lot of embarrassment to the administration,” Dalia Hassan, a presenter on the national satellite channel who participated in the recent protests, tells Egypt Independent.
“After the protests, we received our basic salaries without the bonuses, which is a very small part of the total salaries,” she adds.
Public employees’ basic salaries are usually meager, leading them to rely mainly on added bonuses, incentives and allowances to make up their net salaries.
Dalia Hassouna, radio presenter and member of the Independent Media Figures coalition, who was fully paid following the protests, says the situation has worsened over time.
“Before the revolution, it was normal for some employees to not get paid for six months, but of course, no one had the courage to speak out. … When a whole family depends on this salary, [even] a one-week delay is not a luxury they can afford,” she adds.
Hassan says rumors have been circulating about new bylaws in the works to restructure the wage scheme of Maspero employees, which could lead to lower pay for a sizeable number of the staff.
In turn, protesters’ demands include a 30 percent raise, besides timely salary payments, she adds.
Abdel Maqsoud says these are rumors, and suggests that there may be intentions to stir instability at Maspero.
“I have to ask you, did you suffer from any payment delays? I bet you didn’t,” he asked the Nile News anchor, who replied by saying he was uncertain because he had not yet checked his bank account.
Hassan confirms there is discrimination between employees based on which division they work in.
“Why are many workers in divisions other than news not paid for months, while others are paid immediately?” she asks.
Abdel Maqsoud, however, denied that salaries are regularly late.
“Only the March salaries were late, by four days, and that delay has to do with the Finance Ministry, which sent us our monthly budget late. This happened with other ministries as well,” he said.
The minister said that while Maspero is allocated LE147 million a month in the state budget, salaries alone amount to LE250 million, so the amount allocated is not enough to cover basic costs.
“The Finance Ministry has to pay us more than what we are due every month, and this is all counted as debt,” he said.
Even the television series production division, traditionally a source of generous revenues for the troubled institution, is grappling with its own problems.
Adel Thabet, head of the television production division, has said in various media reports that they would not be producing any new series this year due to the widening budget deficit. Instead, series that were produced last year but never aired will be released throughout 2013.
This comes despite the fact that Ramadan is usually marked by a spike in television series production and the flush of ads they bring in, but that may have shifted over the years to satellite television channels.
For years, critics and media experts have criticized the way Maspero is run. They say the only way to truly reform the mammoth media institution is through a well-defined economic and professional restructuring plan, which unfortunately may threaten its 43,000-strong workforce.
“It is a huge risk, and no one seems to be willing to take it,” Hassouna says.
She has been working closely with other journalists in Maspero, who have distanced themselves from state control, to reform the ailing institution. She says employees who work on producing media material only number 6,000, while the rest are administrative staff who “do the job that hundreds can do.”
“We have 7,000 security personnel. Why do we need this huge number?” she asks. “To receive your salary, 10 people have to sign your check — one person could do this more efficiently.”
For Maspero to turn into a profitable institution, it’s essential to cut staff, a move she doubts there is any political will to undertake.
“The military rejected the restructuring plan. They used to plug the budget deficit with their own budget,” she claims, referring to the time the Supreme Council of Armed Forces ruled after Hosni Mubarak’s ouster. “Since President Mohamed Morsy ascended to power, the Brotherhood-affiliated minister is unwilling to make decisions that could endanger the regime’s already troubled image.”
She hints at an inability to make unpopular decisions such as this one.
Khaled al-Sobky, one of the senior accountants at Maspero, tells Egypt Independent that the main problem is one of corruption and inefficiency.
“There is a huge mismatch between the salaries of regular employees and the [senior staff] … and there is no wage equality among the employees of different divisions,” he says.
The dissident accountant assures that if a transparent minimum and maximum wage scheme existed, the budget deficit would be significantly lower.
“To do this, you are going to upset the older leaders, who are used by the regime to keep Maspero as the mouthpiece of the regime, not of the people,” he says.
Sobky adds that Maspero provides services, such as media consulting, to various government institutions, the cost of which has amounted to LE2.3 billion. The money due, he claims, is paid by the Finance Ministry in monthly installments of LE250 million, but it does not appear in the budget and no one knows where it goes.
He also refuted figures cited by Abdel Maqsoud on several occasions.
“Abdel Maqsoud previously said that LE63 million is paid annually as retirement packages, which is impossible. An average worker would never receive more than LE 40,000 as a retirement package, and we have around 1,000 employees retiring yearly, which would amount to only LE40 million. Where did the rest of the money go?” he repeats.
In an interview, Abdel Maqsoud said the ministry is working tirelessly on cutting expenditure and combating financial corruption.
Hassouna believes the broad-ranging and compound problems facing Maspero need a concerted political will.
“I have spoken to many employees who say they are willing to leave if they are financially compensated well,” she says, adding that if the political will exists along with a viable restructuring plan, the institution can be easily put back in shape.
However, she adds, it is “something that I do not see happening in the near future.”