|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 February 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (375)
Wireless comes to Egypt
Marconi's invention, the radio, came to Egypt in 1925. What first emanated from the wireless were melodious sounds -- literally music to the ears of high-ranking state officials charmed by this new machine and proud that the country had embarked on a new technology. But the British occupation authorities saw the wireless not just as a form of entertainment but a political weapon which could be used to serve its own ends and keep the Egyptians under control. From Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizk* relates the story of Egyptian radio and a tuned-in public
On 1 August 1925, Al-Ahram reported, "An Italian has set up a small wireless station in Suleiman Pasha Square near the new Groppi. During a trial run between 9.00pm and midnight the station broadcast music and songs from Cairo to a wireless receiver in Bulkley district in Alexandria. Ministers were invited to attend the test. However, the experiment, according to reports we have received, was not as successful as was hoped. The transmission was choppy and the sound was not always clear."
Two days later, in a letter to Al-Ahram, Castilliani, the owner of the transmission station, denied having invited the ministers. "I have the honour to inform you that the station did broadcast the music at the times you mentioned and that all wireless enthusiasts in Cairo heard the transmission clearly," wrote Castilliani.
The news items, while sending contradictory signals, established one unequivocal fact: the birth of radio broadcasting in Egypt was not in 1926, as textbooks say, but a year earlier and five years after the Americans founded Adka, the world's first broadcasting station.
Many Egyptians and resident foreigners, of whom there were some 100,000 at the time, managed to obtain radio receivers from abroad. On 6 April 1925, the minister of transport -- it was believed that the issue came under his authority -- met with the director of the Railways and Telegraph and Telephone Authority to discuss "the smuggling of wireless apparatuses into the country by a large number of people, their illegal installation and the effect news from various foreign countries has on them." The participants decided to form a committee in order draft legislation to prevent the smuggling of wirelesses into the country which they considered "extremely detrimental to the welfare of the national budget... It is best that the use of these devices should be permitted over specified times for which their use is charged set fees."
However, by then, it seems, the officials were too late. At the beginning of April that year, Al-Ahram reported, the members of the Egyptian military study mission in Britain were asked to choose a supplementary elective. Most chose wireless communications and excelled in the class. Then, the Egyptian Ministry of War requested from the British authorities that the students be permitted to bring broadcasting equipment back to Egypt "so that they do not forget this art." (Judging from the news report, the students already had acquired considerable experience in the "art" before having been sent abroad on the study mission.)
The Ministry of Transport formed another committee, inspired by "the great progress the world has made in wireless communications since the ratification of the International Wireless Accord in London in 1912. The agreement made it easy to disseminate news, music, songs and speeches that can be carried over the air waves to the public in their homes and stores." In view of this potential, the new committee was to study a draft ordinance giving the government a monopoly on wireless communications and on the import, sale and use of radio equipment.
The committee reported back with a set of principles which as a whole demonstrated the attitudes that prevailed when dealing with new inventions. Some of the points pertained to the conditions for purchasing new wireless equipment and gave the government broad powers. The wireless telephone was to become a government monopoly. No transmitting or receiving device "of any sort" could be assembled without the knowledge of the government and without a government licence. In addition, the import, manufacture and assembly of any device was to be governed by ministerial decrees, among which was the provision that all apparatuses entering the country had to undergo a technical inspection following payment of customs duties and inspection fees. Imported apparatuses could not be sold or used without the government's consent.
Among the ordinance's other stipulations was a ban on the transmission of secret intelligence, signals or information that could disrupt public law and order or jeopardise public morals in any way.
Naturally, an eager public followed these developments assiduously and made their own contributions to the press. One avid enthusiast was Abdel-Azim Ismail, a member of the Society of Civil Engineers in Britain, whose "On Wireless Apparatuses" appeared in Al-Ahram on 25 September 1925. Ismail's article was highly informative and stimulating. The spread of wireless receivers, he wrote, will have an enormous impact on society, introducing a powerful mode of family entertainment directly into the home, where "children, adolescents, parents, in short, every member of the family, will be able to take part." Ismail goes on to paint a picture of a joyful husband and wife, sitting with their children in comfortable family bliss "as they listen to humorous sketches, children's tales, literary anecdotes, songs and splendid musical compositions." Moreover, "enthusiasts will be able to hear the latest news of the day without having to get their news from cafés -- a lifestyle that has stifled men's talents, sapped their energies and has led them to neglecting their homes, forsaking their wives who are left wretched in the absence of their husbands and abandoning their children who hunger for the tender affection of their fathers."
Ismail then goes on to furnish some technical details of the machine that was to revolutionise domestic life. He tells his readers that there were two types of wireless receivers: the cheaper was the crystal set, costing between only LE1.5 and LE3 and, therefore, the most widespread among the poorer classes in Europe. Its disadvantage was that because of its relatively poor receptive capacities, it could only be used in close proximity to broadcasting stations. Yet, so simple a device was it that when he was in England, Ismail built a simple crystal set of his own design, at a cost of a mere two pounds, with which he was able to listen to the radio station located three kilometres away. During his time in England Ismail witnessed the spread of wirelesses. At the end of 1922, he relates, the number of wirelesses to be found in any one city could be counted on the fingers of one hand. "The following year, after a number of public radio stations had been established across Britain, you could not pass through a city or its suburbs without seeing wireless antennae on every rooftop!" There was no reason, he believed, that a similar development should not occur in Cairo: "I believe there is not a single household in Cairo that could not afford an apparatus moderately priced at LE2, after which there would be no further expenses." In fact, he relates an experiment he performed from his home in Shubra. He constructed a simple crystal set, similar to that he had made in the UK. It was no larger than an ordinary cigar box, yet it could pick up with perfect clarity Castilliani's broadcasts from Suleiman Pasha Square.
The second type of wireless receiver was made with vacuum tubes, its price varying according to the number of tubes it contained. The cost of a single tube radio was LE5. It could pick up signals 45 kilometres away. A two-tube radio cost LE6 and could receive transmissions 60 kilometres away. The most sophisticated and most expensive receiver at the time contained nine tubes. The technology was still extraordinarily expensive by the standards of the time. Nevertheless, Ismail reassured his readers that scientists were making extremely rapid progress in developing these radios to the extent that "every day produces another miracle. Marconi [the inventor of wireless transmission] and other pioneers of this technology are constantly researching ways to improve it."
Ismail concluded his article with an appeal to the government to take urgent measures to establish a public broadcasting station in Cairo. Such a project would cost the government only a few thousand pounds, which it would quickly get back from the various licensing fees that he estimated at LE200,000 per year. He cautioned against not taking steps in this direction as that would keep the number of radio receivers restricted solely to the rich because only they have the LE20 to LE40 needed for the apparatuses powerful enough to receive signals from European broadcasting stations. In addition to the high costs of these machines, listeners had to wait until very late at night in order to get an audible signal. Even then, after the painstaking efforts it took to tune in, foreign languages would prevent most Egyptians from benefiting from the content of the broadcasts.
While readers were awestricken by the potential of the new media, Major G Monroe, the British deputy general inspector of the Egyptian Telephone and Telegraph Authority, was busy drawing up guidelines for programming content. On 2 December 1925 Al-Ahram featured a memorandum he wrote on the subject that must have raised the eyebrows of many readers who read the article, entitled "News Dissemination via Wireless Broadcasting." The new technology, Monroe wrote, required a new concept of news, which he defined as non-controversial information such as stock market listings, vocal or instrumental music, speeches or lectures on scientific subjects and weather reports. Conversely, news should not include controversial subjects because that only alienates the listeners. He further urged that programming content not be subject to government bureaucracy because such agencies never succeed in satisfying public tastes. Rather, the authorities should limit themselves to monitoring the programmes to ensure that they are non-controversial and free of political party propaganda. In short, he urged, the government should put broadcasting administration in the hands of a private individual or company with an operating licence for a specific term and with provisions for appropriate government intervention or censorship.
Monroe revealed in his memorandum that the American University in Cairo had asked the government for permission to transmit lectures by wireless. The request was turned down on the grounds that the right to broadcasting should be restricted to a single authorised public broadcasting centre. One suspects, however, that the refusal was not entirely innocent of political motives, foremost among which were the British authorities' qualms concerning the spread of the influence of American culture in Egypt.
In view of the government's apprehensions regarding the new technology, it is not surprising that the first ordinance regulating wireless communications in Egypt, issued on 10 May 1926, should contain so many clauses beginning with "It is prohibited." The law prohibited, for example, "the assembly or use of an electrical wireless appliance for the purpose of transmitting or receiving sounds via wireless ethereal waves except by government permission" to be determined by ministerial decree. It was further prohibited for anyone to operate an electrical wireless transmitter or transmitting station without having first passed an examination set by the Telegraph and Telephone Authority and then obtaining a wireless operator certificate from the authority.
Consistent with the harsh rules were stiff penalties against offenders: "detention for up to seven days or a maximum fine of 100 piastres or both" for operating without a licence. In addition, the government had the option to expropriate the illicitly used apparatus and to withdraw any licence issued for its operation.
The law did not appear to respond to Monroe's proposal to place the administration of public broadcasting under a single private individual or company, for in the wake of its promulgation there began a proliferation of privately-owned broadcasting companies: Radio Farouk, Radio Viola, Radio Misr Al-Gadida and Radio Sayo.
While these companies were making their first forays into family programming, the British high commissioner's office initiated negotiations with the Egyptian government to establish a British-controlled wireless broadcasting company. British officials in Cairo were acutely aware of how the new and powerful media might imperil their interests, claiming Egyptians should not be allowed to monopolise their own airspace. Thus, British High Commissioner Lloyd z had Percival, the British judicial adviser to the Egyptian government, draw up a memorandum on the relationship between "establishing a central broadcasting station in Egypt for the dissemination of news, public addresses and music" and British rights in accordance with the reservations stated in the declaration of 28 February 1922.
Percival submitted his memorandum to Lord Lloyd on 6 April. Not surprisingly, the confidential document, now in the British Foreign Office archives, suggests that the two issues were closely related. Britain's first reservation in its unilateral declaration of Egypt's independence was its right to "secure the communications of the British Empire in Egypt." Although at the time of writing the reservation referred to the Suez Canal, Percival rendered a much looser reading of the provision, taking it to indicate all forms of communication, including wireless transmissions, which, he contended, justified placing all broadcasting stations directly under British control. He asserted that the Egyptian government had already tacitly agreed to this in principle when the British set up the Abu Zaabal wireless telegraph service in 1914 as part of the empire's communications network.
To Percival the second reservation -- the right "to defend Egypt from all foreign aggression or intervention" -- also lent itself to British interests. Britain would be unable to defend Egypt unless it had full supervision over wireless communications, he maintained, especially now that "it has become the most effective means for political propaganda." Furthermore, he added, "granting a broadcasting management concession to a foreign-owned company could influence the conduct of Egypt's domestic affairs, something the British government cannot permit."
While Percival admitted that the relationship between British control over the wireless and the third reservation was more tenuous, he still felt it contributed to strengthening his argument. Under the Declaration of 28 February the British "reserved the right to safeguard foreign interests in Egypt and to protect minorities," a mission which called at least for some form of British supervision over the wireless media.
But perhaps of greater concern was the subject of Britain's fourth reservation -- Sudan, the control over which was still a sharp bone of contention between Egyptian nationalists and the British. If Egyptians were permitted unrestricted access to the wireless, Percival feared, they could use it to incite the Sudanese against British rule, which was not an unlikely prospect in view of the recent assassination of the governor general of Sudan and the withdrawal of the Egyptian army from the southern portion of the Nile Valley.
Based on this report, the British high commissioner's office struck an agreement with Marconi's Wireless Telegraph Company, in accordance with which the company was to administer the operation of the Abu Zaabal radio station under British supervision. Simultaneously, Lord Lloyd notified Prime Minister Adli Yakan of his government's decision to make the station a control centre for wireless communications in Egypt.
Soon afterwards the British government began to put its plan into action. On 24 May 1926, Al-Ahram reports, Graham Bowman Manifold arrived in Cairo. Manifold was representing the company which the British government had given concession over its shares in the Abu Zaabal wireless station. He was carrying a proposal to found "an Egyptian corporation to establish a public broadcasting centre for the dissemination of news, public addresses, music and all other programmes transmitted to audiences in Egypt." The founding capital of the company was set at LE60,000, apportioned into 15,000 shares. The company would call itself the Egyptian Wireless News Broadcasting Company.
That same day the newspaper also announced that the government had authorised the minister of transport to sign an agreement that essentially approved the contract between the British government and the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company, in accordance with which the latter would be licensed to operate the Abu Zaabal station for 30 years.
Two days later, however, Al-Ahram published a government statement denying the report, saying the Egyptian government had informed the British officials concerned that it could not sign such an agreement without first securing the approval of parliament which, at the time, was in recess. Such resistance, however, failed in the face of British pressure, as we learn from secret correspondence from Lord Lloyd to his superiors in London to the effect that the Egyptian government succumbed at the last moment and the desired agreement was signed between Minister of Transport Mohamed Helmi Issa on behalf of the Egyptian government and Graham Bowman Manifold on behalf of the company.
Indeed, British archives contain a copy of this contract. Of particular interest is Article 25, which refers to the concession the Egyptian government granted to the British Postal Ministry in 1914 to establish a broadcasting station at Abu Zaabal and to the transfer of the concessionary and operating rights to the Marconi Company.
Most of the articles of the contract concerned the station's wireless telegraph transmissions and it would not be until 1931 that Marconi would begin to usurp the newly-formed Egyptian broadcasting companies. But even that situation did not last long, for less than three years later, on 31 May 1934, the government-owned Egyptian Broadcasting Company was formed, and soon this new media institution introduced new policies and began to shape a different society, much as the Egyptian civil engineer Abdel-Azim Ismail had predicted almost a decade earlier.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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