When the war in Palestine was unfolding in 1948, Egyptian broadcaster Al-Sayed Al-Ghadban would sit close to the radio set in his house listening to the news coming from the battlefield. This was the first war that Egypt had to have with what would later become Israel.
The war was also the biggest piece of news since the end of World War II, and many Egyptians followed it very closely. With Egypt’s official radio service well into its 14th year after its launch on 31 May 1934, people were keen to follow the news as it came on air.
“There was a shift in the public access to news. We were used to getting the news from the papers, but then suddenly there came the radio that offered fresh news at [almost] any time of the day,” Al-Ghadban said. With the devastating drama of the Palestine war, it was inevitable that people would be fixated on their radio sets.
Al-Ghadban already had an admiration for the radio service that was always packed with cultural gems, like “the songs of Um Kolthoum and interviews with top literary figures like Taha Hussein,” he said. However, it was the news that appealed most to this young man then on his way to college.
At the time he could not have dreamed that he would end up in the following 20 years as the broadcaster who would announce the news of the subsequent wars that Egypt would have against Israel, first in 1956 after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal, and then in 1967 during the war of the Arab armies with Israel in the June War.
The path Al-Ghadban took towards being one of the very first broadcasters on the Sawt Al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs) news service in February 1953 just a few months after its launch was not something that he had planned.
Born in the Delta, his first plan was to become a doctor. However, though he joined the Faculty of Medicine at Alexandria University for his first academic year, he then had to drop his studies in the city as all the students from Daqahliya were asked to move to a new school of medicine in their own governorate.
Al-Ghadban was never really interested in studying medicine, and he wanted to opt for law and stay on in Alexandria where he had settled. However, university regulations did not allow him to enroll in the Faculty of Law, and after an encounter with the dean he enrolled in the English Department.
In his years at university, Al-Ghadban spent hours listening to the many radio services that were transmitting in Arabic and English, including the BBC and Radio Monte Carlo. However, this did not prompt plans for him to be a broadcaster. He would have ended up being a teacher of English at a high school or a translator had it not been for the inconvenient posting of the first and the inadequate salary of the latter.
In his efforts to find a job, Al-Ghadban applied for vacancies at the radio service that ended up being Sawt Al-Arab in its heyday. He worked shoulder-to-shoulder with Ahmed Said, one of the most famous radio broadcasters of the time.
Right from the beginning Sawt Al-Arab was a hit, even when it transmitted for fewer than two hours a day and it had a staff of only three people, Al-Ghadban included. Those were the heyday of pan-Arabism, a time when Egypt and its charismatic leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser were at the forefront of supporting independence movements across the Arab world.
Sawt Al-Arab played an important role in supporting the Moroccan, Tunisian, and Algerian pursuit of liberation from French occupation, for example.
In his early months at the radio, Al-Ghadban, who had joined the Muslim Brotherhood when at university as it was “originally an independence movement that was based on political ideology and religion together,” he said, wished to stay away from the coverage of Nasser.
News of Nasser was always adulatory, he said, and this was something that he did not subscribe to, nor did he have much faith at the time in the Free Officers Movement that had overthrown the monarchy in 1952.
He wanted to confine himself to world and regional news, especially that related to his original passion, Palestine. His first programme, “Do Not Forget Palestine”, was tolerated for a while, but then he was asked to join the coverage of a presidential event. He decided to call in sick. Things passed peacefully, or so he thought, but not long afterwards he was arrested, presumably for his past connection with the Muslim Brotherhood that the regime was accusing of making an attempt on the president’s life.
Al-Ghadban had never denied his past association with the oldest Political Islam movement in the Arab world, and neither did he ever make an issue out of his decision to walk out on the movement not long after the assassination of its then leader Hassan Al-Banna by the Egyptian Secret Police in 1949.
Al-Ghadban was even a leading activist of the organisation at Alexandria University when he was a student. He left it over intellectual disagreements “with no grievances or squabbles”.
In prison for seven months, Al-Ghadban was subjected to torture, and he became all the more convinced that if he ever got his old job back, he would not wish to join the coverage of Nasser in any way. “This is exactly what happened until the day of the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956,” he said.
Al-Ghadban was not on shift at the radio when Nasser announced the nationalisation of the Suez Canal during a well-attended speech in Alexandria on 26 July 1956. But he listened to the news on the radio with his eyes wide open. His account of those moments is similar to those of other people who have spoken of “a moment of national passion”.
CHANGE IN DIRECTION: It was then that Al-Ghadban saw Nasser and the 1952 regime in a different light. He immediately went to the radio to ask to be part of the team that would cover Nasser’s arrival in Cairo on 27 July.
“I was in Tahrir Square standing on top of a small café in the heart of the square and looking in the direction of the Egyptian Museum. I cannot recall exactly what I said. But I was thinking of Nasser as a glorious leader, as glorious as Ramses II,” he said.
For days to follow, the airwaves were packed with songs and interviews praising Nasser for a brave political decision that generated much pride. At the time, Al-Ghadban agreed at least partially with the editorial policy that inundated Nasser with praise. However, he still took exception to the exaggeration because he believed that the role of the media was beyond providing political support for the president.
“At that time, I honestly thought that all the political support was fair. But I thought it should be political support for the country more than anything else,” he said.
Already in his third year as a broadcaster, Al-Ghadban was proud of the radio service in many ways. It offered room for intellectual debates, quality art productions, and even some interesting and progressive programmes on Islamic discourse.
It was a Friday programme that he had on weekly basis with the grand imam of Al-Azhar in Cairo, at the time Mahmoud Shaltout, that caused the diva Um Kolthoum to ask the director of the radio service to bring Al-Ghadban back to present her own monthly performances after a bad start that made her ask for him to be excluded from the list of the broadcasters that presented her concerts.
“It was the established habit that the broadcasters who presented the show would stop by Um Kolthoum first to chat a little with her and ask her about the songs she would sing before starting the transmission. But I did not think this was appropriate,” he said.
However, “because Um Kolthoum was such a great lady, when she liked my programme with the grand imam she decided that she wanted me to present her concerts,” he added.
Al-Ghadban’s taste for impartiality was not something that was common at the radio service at the time. With Nasser the room for impartiality was limited, even if someone was in the good books of the president, as Al-Ghadban became after covering Nasser’s arrival in Tahrir Square on 27 July 1956.
This was something that got him worried about the quality of service that the radio was presenting. His idea of supporting Nasser did not mean that all criticisms should be disallowed. He believed that even if state-run, the radio service should have room for objective reporting.
Towards the end of 1966, less than one year before the shock of 5 June 1967 and the defeat in the June 1967 War, Al-Ghadban was summoned to the office of a leading figure in the Tanzim Al-Taliaa (the Avant-Garde Organisation), a body associated with Nasser’s Arab Socialist Union, to receive “a secret assignment from the president to plan a new radio service that would come under the title of Al-Taliaa Al-Arabiya, or Arab Avant-Gardism.”
Al-Ghadban was told that this new service would have significant freedom because the president, in office since 1954, was convinced that the media should have more freedom.
Initially apprehensive, Al-Ghadban said he wanted to present the conditions of the new scheme. His interlocutor told him that he must be “out of his mind” if he thought that he “was going to make conditions for Nasser”.
“I explained that there are conditions to make any scheme work successfully, and I said I needed time to think about it,” Al-Ghadban recalled.
Apprehensive as he still was given the norm for the radio, and for that matter the TV service that had started its broadcasts in Egypt in 1960, Al-Ghadban decided to give his interlocutors the benefit of the doubt. He made a proposal and he recruited a team that started to make dummy programmes.
In one of the programmes, the broadcaster was supposedly doing an interview with a citizen who had a lot to complain about, including the deficit of freedom that saw him describe Nasser as “a tyrant and brutal dictator”.
Al-Ghadban recalled that when the team listened to the dummy interview prior to sending the recordings for the consideration of the president, “who was personally keeping a close watch on the media”, one of the colleagues panicked.
“I insisted on sending the recordings because after all we had got a green light. The recordings were sent back with no political comment from the president whatsoever. The only remark he made was about an interruption in the signature tune for one of the programmes,” Al-Ghadban said.
This, he added, encouraged him, especially as he was feeling that there were concerns over violations of human rights at the time and the lack of freedoms and liberties. However, Al-Ghadban lamented, due to the devastating military defeat of 1967, the plan was then put on hold.
AFTER 1967: The days of the 1967 defeat are perhaps the only time in his life that Al-Ghadban has not been able to overcome.
It would be unlikely for anyone to be able to overcome the sense of suffocation that came with reading the false announcements that promised victory when he knew from other radio stations and the news agencies that the Egyptian army had been dealt a huge blow.
“We knew it was all false. We knew we were reading lies, but we had no choice but to read the military statements,” he said. The one thing that Al-Ghadban could do, he added, was to read the statements in a tone of voice that reflected unease.
“I never subscribed to the mobilisation school that assumed that the only role of the radio service was to rally people behind the president,” he said. “I knew that this was the purpose of Nasser, just as it had been of the rulers who ran the country before him, but I did not like this,” he added.
At any event, Al-Ghadban said, he knew that after the first 24 hours the news of the defeat must have already been seeping out through other radio services.
“It was a moment of hope against hope. We wanted to break down and cry. We wanted to scream. But we had to control ourselves and hope that something would happen that could maybe reverse the defeat. We were waiting for the army to use the weapons and rockets they said they had developed, as we told the people on the news,” he said.
Three days later, orders were issued for broadcasters to start preparing the audience for bad news. “The orders came for us to stop the mobilisation, though it was too late because people had already turned to other radio services,” he added.
With his long experience in broadcasting and media production, Al-Ghadban today is convinced that this was one of the worst moments in the 88 years of Egyptian radio. It was the moment that formed a deep sense of distrust on the side of the Egyptian audience in their own radio service. And it was a mistrust, he added, that has never been fully dispelled.
This is not only because the trauma of the false victory news in 1967 can still be remembered today, 55 years down the road, but also because the founding creed behind this sad performance has never been altered. Al-Ghadban said that what Nasser did was particularly bad, but he was not the only one ruler who has used the national radio and TV service for political mobilisation.
“I often hear people speak very negatively of what is usually dubbed as Nasser’s media, and I think it is unfair because while the media at the time made huge mistakes, in terms of excessive mobilisation, it also did some really good things in terms of the quality of radio production, whether in terms of programmes or drama or whatever,” Al-Ghadban argued.
He added that the other leaders that followed stayed within the same parameters of media coverage, but failed to keep up the level of intellectual debates that the radio offered during Nasser’s years. After the defeat, he argued, Nasser allowed some margin for freedom of expression until he died in the autumn of 1970.
Nasser’s sudden death was one of the moments when Al-Ghadban got to see for himself the power of the airwaves in the second half of the 20th century. The struggle between those who wished to endorse the presidency of Anwar Al-Sadat, then Nasser’s vice president, and those who wished to halt his becoming president found its way onto the radio through the messages that each side wanted to have on air.
Using their full prerogative, the directors of the radio service decided to steer clear from getting trapped in the conflict.
This, Al-Ghadban recalled, was the second time that the radio team had taken the airwaves into their own hands. The first, he said, was on 9 June 1967 when Nasser announced his plans to step down and assigned his aide, Zakaria Mohieddin, as head of state.
At the time too, Al-Ghadban recalled, there were conflicting messages being sent to go on air, including a recording that Mohieddin himself sent to decline the appointment made by Nasser.
“It was a very difficult time, a very weird moment, when suddenly the sitting president said he was stepping down, and the new president declined to be head of state. Coming a few days after a huge military defeat, all this seemed very troubling,” he recalled.
The leading broadcasters on that day went beyond declining to air anything other than patriotic songs. They decided to cut down transmission hours, and the editors of the TV service followed.
“When the airwaves went silent, there was neither mobilisation nor agitation. The nation had to come to terms with the shocking reality away from any speculation,” he said. This, he added, shows the power of the radio and TV in Egypt at the time.
Sadat, he said, who sacked Al-Ghadban from the radio because of the role of close friends from Tanzim Al-Taliaa in an alleged attempted coup, was keen to use the media to strengthen his position with public opinion.
The new president made a point of having a new team of anchors and broadcasters put his message across. It was also Sadat’s wish to face up to the leftists who had caused him to use the radio and TV to promote an alternative agenda to the socialist line that Nasser had adopted. This, Al-Ghadban said, continued to be the case for later leaders who wished to control the airwaves and use them as a tool of mobilisation.
People then abandoned the radio and the TV to pursue alternative sources of news that were perhaps less partial, if only by virtue of the fact that they were more diverse. People today, Al-Ghadban said, get their news and entertainment online from social media, news websites, or podcasts in what is an international trend.
However, he said, this trend is more obvious in countries that need to invest more in promoting the freedom of expression. Al-Ghadban himself does not listen much to the radio anymore — “only very briefly to one news bulletin a day to get some local news,” he concluded.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.