Born during the heady days of the revolution, Tahrir TV serves as a mouthpiece for the hopes, fears and freedoms of New Egypt. In this eniGma exclusive, Ibrahim Eissa – the rebel journalist, co-founder and co-owner of Tahrir TV – tells Amy Mowafi the story of a station 18 days in the making and a lifetime in the imagining.
Ibrahim Eissa has made a career out of pissing people off. The wrong people. Or indeed, the right people. Depending, of course, on which side of the regime you’re standing. And not too long ago, most of the people getting all riled up by Eissa were flying high on the opposite side from whence he was writing, broadcasting and soap-boxing. As far as Eissa was concerned, it was his job to bring their feet back to the ground, and if he had his way, keep on pushing till they were held accountable. If you were corrupt or conniving, if you were abusing resources or abusing power, he was the tenacious thorn in your side. Well, superficially at least. Because before January 25th 2011, if you were rich enough, powerful or connected enough, his words could sting but never really hurt you. Especially when you had all the necessary sticks and stones to throw back at him. So every controversial edition of the newspapers Eissa edited, every outrageous statement he made on live TV, every book he wrote, would inevitably, and within a matter of hours, come back and bite hard. He was the ultimate unrelenting dissident journalist, and the regime with all its cronies made him suffer for it. He’s been sentenced to prison four times, taken to court 65 times, had editorships snatched away from him and TV shows taken off the air. For seven long years – from 1998 to 2005 – he was banned from lending his antagonising words and controversial opinions to any publication.
From the first publication he created himself at age 11 to his most famous role as the on-again, off-again, harassed editor and innovator of the original anti-government Al Dostour newspaper, his story has been well documented, lauded and revered. His daring has been noted, locally and internationally. In 2008 he won the Gebran Tueni Award by The World Association of Newspapers that honours editors and publishers in the Arab region. He was dubbed journalist of the year by the prestigious British paper the Guardian in 2011. So rather than repeat ourselves, we’ll start our story, where most stories start these days, on January 25th 2011, the day the Egyptian revolution was born and with it the embryonic beginnings of Tahrir TV.
I meet Ibrahim Eissa on a sweltering weekday morning at the Mohandessin headquarters of Tahrir newspaper – a vibrant and vivacious publication founded by Eissa; created by youth for the youth. His small corner office is a hub of activity; important men in suits are vying for his time, staff purposefully scurry about him and itineraries being drawn up for international appearances. The controlled chaos of the media world. The hustle has heightened because Eissa, finally avenged, is the man of the moment. And yet he seems oblivious to the weight afforded him, and seemingly has no intention of throwing that weight around. Eissa is a big jolly man; he’s warm, welcoming and hilarious. His trademark literary (and on-screen) sarcasm and razor-sharp wit translate into real-life. If he was your uncle, he’d be your favourite. And it’s almost impossible to believe this genial guy with the bright red suspenders is the hard-nosed journalist of local print-lore. Especially given the casual self-deprecating manner with which he describes how he came, in a matter of weeks, to conceptualise, co-own and launch one of the most popular, highly-rated and critically acclaimed TV channels of New Egypt.
“The idea for Tahrir TV came to me while I was sitting in my house,” he starts. With local media controlled by the state, propaganda reaching ridiculous heights during the early days of revolt, and private media institutions looking out for the best interests of their powerful businessmen owners, the time had come to put into motion a dream he had long harboured. A media outlet owned by the people for the people. “We had to have our own voice and not be controlled by anyone,” he continues. “The time had come for journalists and media people to own a channel for the very first time, instead of businessmen. We took advantage of the fact that the censorship structures had collapsed and no one was going to stop us from creating this channel.”
Along with his close friends, engineer and leading set designer Mohamed Mourad and producer Ahmed Abou Heba, they “simply” sat down with the Nilesat team to arrange the logistics of frequency and transmission, sat with a graphic designer to create a logo and sent word to the public through various social media channels that they were on the lookout for footage from and inspired by the revolution. It sounds like a fanciful school project not a TV channel. Surely setting up a TV channel can’t be that easy. But Eissa nonchalantly insists it was. “The three of us sat together in Tahrir Square on the first Monday of the revolution, then again on Tuesday, the day of the camel incident and founded the channel. With my idea and our collective imagination, we created this channel. We even signed a contract and got a lawyer for all the paperwork more or less on the spot. We filmed the promos in a studio in 6th of October City that I can’t even remember the name of now. Then we went on Facebook looking for interesting content and information. We collected videos, pictures, poems and anything interesting we could find from people that were in Tahrir. The youth use Facebook, so our idea was to show the population what was on Facebook. Instead of just five million seeing this content, we wanted 20 or 30 million to see it. We were getting 500 messages a day before we’d even launched any original content. We went on air the night of Wednesday February 9th because I had confirmed information from a reliable source that Mubarak was going to resign on Thursday. Of course, he actually resigned on Friday. So before Mubarak had even resigned, we’d said, ‘On the day of Freedom (Tahrir) the channel of Freedom (Tahrir) was founded.’” Within four days of the channel’s launch, they were the number one local television station on YouTube.
Of course a channel can’t survive on cool citizen-generated content alone. So Eissa played his trump cards. Two of the most respected (and of course rebellious) journalists and TV personalities in Egypt were just a speed dial away. Critically acclaimed author, journalist, TV producer and scriptwriter Belal Fadl had been mentored by Eissa when he was still a student. “I’ve known him since 1995 and we have a very easy and understanding relationship,” he says. “Both of us consider ourselves journalists first and foremost, not TV personalities. So I told him all he had to do was be himself. We don’t read the news, we analyse and discuss it. It’s not a form of news television that you see often in Egypt.” Appearing once a week on the daily Fel Midan show, dressed always in short-sleeved shirt and trainers – as if the fact that he’s on TV were but an after-thought – Fadl has the nation gripped with his in-depth scrutiny of the day’s political events. And these days, there’s always drama.
Next up was superstar TV host Mahmoud Saad who, as if fate had planned it just for Eissa’s benefit, had just resigned from his show Masr El Naharda on the state-owned Channel 2. Having refused to succumb to governmental propaganda-fuelled pressure on the media, Saad was ripe for a little freedom. “I made him an offer and he was very excited,” says Eissa. “We quickly signed a contract and that was it.” Together they immediately proposed the idea to Amr El-Fiki, the owner of AdLine, the country’s leading media marketing and advertising agency. El-Fiki was equally fascinated by the possibilities, and the pipe-dream started to take shape in reality. Today the channel blends guerrilla youth content with the more polished shows of its three big stars. The number of their fans on Facebook is second only to Al Jazeera, and during every live show aired on the channel, they receive up to 800 tweets.
Of course since the moment Tahrir TV launched, rumours have swirled about its funding. Where did this group of supposedly humble journalists come up with the cash to launch a TV station? A TV station. Who was really behind it? Who, beyond this group of idealists, had the sort of cash to pour into such a venture and had a vested interest in the collapse of the regime? Eissa thinks the dramatics are unnecessary. “The start-up cost of the channel was 1,200 LE,” he says, as if the figure is perfectly reasonable. I laugh, clearly thinking he’s joking. “I am serious,” he says. “1,200 LE.” Eissa is saying he has set up one of Egypt’s most popular and respected television channels for about $300; give or take the price of a McDonalds combo. He interrupts my verbalised stream of disbelief. “Look, if you have the imagination, the will power and the people who can bring it all together, it’s not that difficult. When we told our friends at Nilesat our idea and that we didn’t have any money, they offered us the frequency for free for three months. Our graphic designer friend did the work pro-bono, and the initial content which we launched with was user-generated, from the freedom-loving people on Facebook. We worked out of my garden, just us, some laptops, tea and shisha. That 1,200 LE was just the fee for the licensing paperwork. We are the only channel in Egypt owned by journalists and not businessmen. And that’s what makes us unique.”
So essentially the answer to the question of how Tahrir TV is funded tells the very story of Tahrir TV. It’s a TV station born not out of a desire for money or power, but simply from a people’s desire for freedom. Like those 18 days of the revolution, Tahrir TV is tangible proof of the age old adage… where there’s a will, there’s definitely a way.
Which, last, but certainly not least, brings us to perhaps the most important question about Eissa and Tahrir TV: What is up with the suspenders he insists on wearing? “At one point I got really fat and wearing a belt was uncomfortable. Then I lost weight and the suspenders were still more comfortable. So I decided to always wear them,” he laughs. And as always with Ibrahim Eissa, whether he’s locking horns with the power structure of a nation, or setting up an entire TV station, it’s as simple as that.