On 31 May 2009, Egyptian radio celebrated 75 years of broadcasting.
All through, Egyptian radio stations have entertained Egyptian audience with a number of successful programmes covering all fields of interest. Those whose childhood years coincided with the 1950s and 1960s still feel a tingling of nostalgia at the thought of the gentle, soft voices laden with compassion and humour, of Baba Sharo and Abla Fadila, the male and female presenters of the famous Children’s Corner. Today’s grandmothers and grandfathers doubtlessly recount the countless stories and songs they heard on the programme, still fresh in their memory, to enraptured grandchildren. What more proof that such material has become part and parcel of Egyptian collective memory than the song Eid Milad Abul-Fassaad (Happy Birthday, Sparrow)? This pleasant, rhythmic ditty which all the birds sang when they gathered together to wish the smallest of them—the sparrow—a happy birthday on the children’s programme in the 1950s, has today become the birthday song of every Egyptian child.
Round the corner
And who can forget such programmes as the hour-long Alan-Nassya (Round the Corner) every Friday afternoon, which held witty interviews with passers-by in the street on current events, then aired the song each loved best? Or, for that matter, Ziyara li-Maktabat Fulan, which took listeners on an exciting cultural trip through the library of one or the other public figure; or Tareeq al-Salama (Safe Driving) which accompanied drivers on the road with the latest news, weather reports, hints on traffic, or anything that would help pass time at the wheel. The list of memorable programmes goes on and on.
The month of Ramadan had its famous fawazir (poetry or singing charades) and soap operas. It was Radio Cairo that carried to the entire Arab World the voice of the diva Umm Kulthoum, as well as other great singers such as Asmahan, Fayrouz, Nagat, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Fayza Ahmed and Farid al-Atrash.
Radio broadcasting started in Egypt by individuals in the 1920s, but the technical standard and content were very poor and these private stations were soon closed down by the government. The official Egyptian Radio station was established in the 1930s. It was affiliated to the Ministry of Communications, which signed a 10-year management contract with the British company Marconi. The main broadcasting station was set up at Abu-Zaabal, north of Cairo, followed by an additional station in Alexandria. A budget of EGP25,000 was dedicated to the establishment of the project and, ultimately, the local radio was totally Egyptianised..
The inauguration of the official Egyptian Radio in 1934 was both a cultural and historical event. Ibrahim Fahmi Karim Pasha, minister of communication, gave the opening speech, and was followed by Mahmoud Shaker Mohamed Bey, general manager of the railway and Egyptian government’s telegrams and telephones authority, the authority responsible for the radio at the time.
Sheikh Mohamed Rifaat’s voice was the first to be heard on the station, reciting the Qur’an, round the whole Arab world through the Egyptian radio. Ahmed Salem was its first presenter.
During the inauguration ceremony Umm Kulthoum sang for a fee of EGP30. The great singer Saleh Abdel-Hai also sang for EGP12, and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab performed the grand finale with Ah! Ya Thekra al-Gharam written by Poet Laureate Ahmed Shawqi—known to the Arab world as the ‘Prince of Poets’.
Mohamed Saïd Pasha Lutfy was the first head of Egyptian Radio which set off with a combination of music, drama, culture as well as medical, social and agricultural issues. Egyptian Radio avoided political issues, nevertheless it did broadcast patriotic songs.
Amal Fahmy, the presenter of the most prominent radio programme Alan-Nassya (Round the corner), had such a warm, soothing, and expressive voice and was such a success presenting her programme that she was asked to act as an announcer on many other occasions. Fawazir Ramadan, which started in 1955 and was written by vernacular poet Beiram al-Tounsi and afterwards by Salah Gahin, was Fahmy’s idea. Through her programme Alan-Nassya, Fahmy hosted such prominent figures as the Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, during his visit to Cairo. During the celebrations for the navy, Fahmy was submerged 800 metres under the surface in a naval submarine.
Until the 1950s the government and the palace employed the radio to serve their politics and objectives. During his time, Mustafa al-Nahhas, then Egypt’s prime minister, made his speech regarding the annulment of the 1936 treaty with the British and broadcast it via the radio. Later, before the end of World War II, Mustafa al-Nahhas issued a decree affiliating Egyptian Radio to the Ministry of Interior.
Voice of the Arabs
On 23 July 1952, Anwar al-Sadat announced on the radio that the July Revolution had taken place. The Egyptian Radio started a new era and became the mouthpiece of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser regime, extensively exploited to influence public opinion. Through the affiliation of Radio Cairo, with Sout al-Arab (Voice of the Arabs), a network was set up in Cairo in 1953 and was regularly used to stir up popular feeling in Egypt and the Arab Word against rival Arab leaders.
In July 1956, the radio played a role in orchestrating the publication of Abdel-Nasser##s decision to nationalise the Suez Canal Company. The Radio building was hit during the Suez war in October 1956, and a contingency plan was immediately put into action by which additional substitute stations were temporarily put into operation.
In 1967, as Israel was defeating the Arab armies in the Six Day War, State-controlled radio broadcasts misled listeners for several days into thinking they were heading for a victory. History tells us that Ahmed Saïd, the fiery head of Sout al-Arab who in 1998 confessed to media people that during the six-day war crisis he was forced by the media minister as well as by President Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s secretary to make false announcements implying that Egypt was winning the war. Later, on 13 June 1967, when he was able to talk to his audience about the defeat, Saïd said that it was not a defeat for the army but for the system. This annoyed Nasser so much that Saïd had to hand in his resignation.
When Anwar al-Sadat became president in 1970, he toned down some of the patriotic songs that were regularly being aired on the radio. In 1972, he began to relax controls on the information flow of governmental organisations to the media. During the 1973 October war, the announcers tended to downplay news of the war. The idea was to avoid the shock of the 1967 defeat.
Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977; the Camp David accords signed by Egypt and Israel on 17 September 1978; the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty on 26 March 1979; followed by Egypt’s regaining control of Sinai in May 1982; were all important moments in Egyptian broadcasting.
Today, Radio Cairo broadcasts in 35 languages on short wave. Egypt also provides large amounts of radio programming to other countries, (averaging 550 hours daily overseas in 35 languages), and is providing historical archive material to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.