As Egypt’s revolution unfolded last January, Reem Magued became the most watched woman on Egyptian television. In this eniGma exclusive, Amy Mowafi asks the powerhouse media personality to relive the month that made her a star…
For a woman who prides herself on objectivity – one who has spent well over a decade steadily carving out a career for herself as a respected journalist, producer, news anchor and eventually hard-hitting talk show host – it is ironic that Reem Magued’s defining moment would be one in which she lost control of her emotions, her opinions and for one infamous episode, her own guests.
Yet the nation loved her for her it.
For those heady 18 days in Tahrir Square, Magued became the voice of the street, literally and metaphorically. She would spend her days in the square, and then go live on air every single night, retelling the stories she’d heard; reliving her experiences to an audience of millions, asking the questions we all wanted to ask before we’d even had a chance to scream at the TV.
As the host of ONTV’s top-rated talk show, Baladna Bil Masry, we’d come to expect a certain cool decorum from Magued. Indeed, her thorough and serious reporting of events across the country and candid analysis – provided with the help of a respected roster of guests – helped make ONTV the channel of the revolution. But at some point she seemingly slipped through the cracks of the nation’s emotions, and just became an Egyptian expressing all the passion, fear, hope and awe most Egyptians were experiencing.
“At first I was hugely conflicted. I was in support of the street, I was on the street. So no one could lie to me,” says Magued, easing into her first coffee and cigarette of the day.
It’s only been nine months since the revolution, but already history has started to have its wicked way with the events of January 2011, and it’s easy to forget how we all felt back then. But judging by the quaver in her usually controlled voice, Magued hasn’t…
“I was in Tahrir every day and saw the truth for myself. All that rubbish about protesters accepting foreign bribes and KFC handouts, it just made me so angry. When I was in Tahrir, people would beg me to tell the truth on TV. So I would head back to the studio with all these requests from people, but we were still operating under the pressures of a regime censoring what the media could and could not say. Pretty soon, however, everyone at the station, from the top to the bottom, decided there would be no lies. All of us, personally and professionally, were in support of Tahrir, and we had an obligation to tell the truth, come what may.”
So there you were, boldly and blatantly defying the powers that be. Were you not terrified?
On January 28th, the Day of Rage, I thought I was going to die. I was there in Tahrir, and I stared death in the face. Once you’ve been through that, nothing can scare you.
What did you say to detractors who questioned your objectivity during those heady days of the revolution?
There is no such thing as total objectivity because every decision – from the way the story is angled to the way it is presented; from the guests you host to the questions you ask – is inherently subjective. The problem is, when you are sincerely sympathetic to an idea, you can unwittingly give it so much support that you run the risk of alienating your audience. So sometimes, to ensure a point I am passionate about hits home, it is best to take a step back and be distant. However, during the revolution that was absolutely impossible. Take February 2nd – the day of the “Battle of the Camel” – for example, the entire world watched as thugs attacked the demonstrators with camels and swords. It was a violent attack on people who had been protesting peacefully for a week. When you see something like that with your own eyes, how can you even think about being objective? There were demonstrators and there were attackers, and it was as simple as that. Even so, I still got criticism on air. Someone called in and claimed I was only expressing one point of view, which was unprofessional and unfair. My immediate response to him was: if he knew any one of those camel-riding thugs who would be willing to come on the show and share their ‘side of the story’, I would be more than willing to host them.
Was there ever a point when you clashed with the producers of your show?
There was a point when it just got to be too much. It was around February 9th. I was part of the Tahrir Square movement, and I could not distance myself. I just couldn’t do it, and I felt like it was starting to affect my professionalism and my performance on air. So Albert Shafik, ONTV’s Channel Director, told me I could take the weekend off and we’d touch base on Sunday. On that Friday, of course, Mr. Omar Soliman gave us the best 30 seconds of our lives when he announced Mubarak would be stepping down.
So the episode of your show on the following Sunday was the first without Mubarak in power. How did that feel?
I can’t even begin to explain it, and I don’t think I will ever be able to. My mother called me the morning after Mubarak was ousted and said, “I might just be imagining it, but the sun seems brighter and the air feels lighter. Is it the same where you are?” And I completely felt the same way! But not long after, around February 12th, I started to suffer from severe depression. My doctor says that our minds operate on two different levels: one level processes emotion and the other deals with information. When the dose of either is too high, it can cause problems. I was on air throughout the entire revolution and I think I suffered from information overload: my emotions could not properly process everything that was happening. It was a huge load on me, so when it was over, everything just fell apart. Personally I think the reason is simpler than that. During the revolution I used to go to Tahrir to recharge. Outside of the square there was fear, manipulation, confusion and lack of order. Inside the square there was security and truth. People were sure of what they were doing and they cared about nothing more than the fact that they ‘can do it.’ They struggled purely on the belief that ‘they can.’ Tahrir was my crutch. When it was gone, I collapsed.
But you came back with gusto. Not long after, you hosted the historic episode with the confrontation between then Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik, and the renowned writer and activist, Alaa Al Aswany! What happened on screen barely needs repeating, so what we really want to know is what happened behind the scenes?
The first part of the show was perfectly normal, other than the fact that it was the first time in history a Prime Minister appeared on a live show to discuss and debate the issues at hand. That day, when they told me I was about to do an interview with Ahmed Shafik I immediately decided I would tell him everything being said about him on the street. If he didn’t know, then it was about time he did. I wanted to give him the chance to respond. And all that went fine. Yosri Fouda was to follow with his show Akher Kalam (The Last Word), where his guests Alaa Al Aswany and journalist, Hamdi Kandil, were to discuss Shafik’s performance on my show. Shafik’s people got wind of this and were completely against it. So during the break the Channel Director actually suggested to Shafik that he stay and face his detractors, so he could reply directly. Of course, Al Aswany and Kandil were thrilled at the idea. Naguib Sawiris, who was also a guest with him on my show, urged Shafik to think carefully about this decision. Shafik, however, seemed very eager to do it. In fact he promised us that the show would make history. Of course no one knew how true those words would turn out to be!
So we extended my program, and Yosri Fouda and his two guests joined us. On a professional level, that has to be the worst show I ever did, because I was unable to direct or control the conversation. I lost all power over my guests. What happened on air was not a discussion. I am used to directing discussions. What happened was a fight, pure and simple; an all-out, actual fight. I could not get a word in edgewise. Nothing I was saying or doing was making a difference. At one point, Yosri actually had to physically get out of his seat and come between the guests for fear they would do something to each other. And by this point I was doing everything in my power to stop from cracking up. Meanwhile in my earpiece all I could hear Albert say was, “Egypt. Remember Egypt.” He just kept repeating that over and over again, and I had no idea what that meant. I thought what was happening was great for Egypt, although I was totally unprepared for it. That show made history. It was the pilot for a new type of programming in Egyptian media; one in which our leaders are answerable to the public; to their detractors; and one in which they take responsibility for their actions and do it in front of the public. To me that is the most important thing.
And, of course, as we all now know, Ahmed Shafik resigned the very next day. To what extent do you feel responsible for that?
I don’t think the show inspired his decision to resign, it simply sped it up. I believe there was already an idea to do just that. The show was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I genuinely never expected it. I hoped he’d do it on air. I had expected him to, and had he resigned on air, he would have earned a lot of sympathy, support and respect. But resignation or not, what the show achieved was a turning point in Egyptian media history. To me that is more important.
Looking back at her early career, discerning observers noted a certain steeliness that would lay the foundations of her ultimate success. Yet who would have predicted she would become one of the most important women in Egyptian media? Magued kicked off her career in 1995 at Egypt’s Nile TV channel, where she worked as a producer, presenter, editor and anchor. She stayed there for ten years out of a fierce sense of loyalty.
“I learned everything I know at Nile TV. Everyone was young, eager and enthusiastic. We felt we were going to change things. I also learned that nothing is impossible. When I first started they wanted me to report in French, which isn’t even my third language. But despite my fear, I managed to do it. I survived and I succeeded. After that, I was ready to take on any challenge thrown at me.”
Magued was finally snatched up by Dubai-based Hot Spot Productions and literally travelled the world, from the ghettos of Soweto to the boulevards of Paris, producing a whole string of powerful people documentaries for Al Jazeera TV. “I experienced so many different cultures,” she recalls. “It was the most incredible experience for me, on both a professional and a personal level. I learned that everything I do is really about people and that even if we don’t speak the same language, it is still possible to make a connection. I learned to figure people out. I can immediately tell if a person is sincere or fake. And that is a lesson that has served me well throughout my career. I’d rather someone completely disagree with me but stay true to his/her own opinions. And I will make sure that opinion comes across. But I can’t stand it if someone is fake, even if they are agreeing with me.”
And then for the first time in her career, Magued actually applied for a job. She was attracted to ONTV, the newly established station with a decidedly liberal attitude. “Up until that point in my career, certain opportunities had just landed in my lap. ONTV was the first time I actually went after a job. I sent in my CV with the objective of working as a producer. I felt I was better suited and more passionate about working behind the camera. I wanted to direct and produce as I had done with the documentaries.” Despite her protestations, however, the powers that be wanted her in front of the camera, because, according to Channel Director Albert Shafik, “she had a certain twinkle in her eye.”
“Albert could have chosen superstars,” she says. “Those sorts of budgets were available then, but from day one they only chose people they genuinely believed in. They wanted us to grow with the channel and the channel to grow with us. It’s a partnership, and I am so grateful for that. I can’t imagine ever leaving ONTV. There is so much mutual appreciation there.”
As Magued sips her last drop of coffee, and stubs out her third cigarette of the morning, I ask her one last question: And if Mubarak himself were to come on your show tomorrow, if he were to grant you his post-revolution exclusive interview, what is the one question you would ask him? Without missing a beat, she replies, “Why? I would simply ask him why?”
And that perhaps is the one question that has made her both the person and the media powerhouse that she is today. When others were tiptoeing around the very edges of the issue, she would look her guests straight in the eye and ask the one question that needed to be asked: “Why?”