Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 February 2007
Issue No. 833
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Devil in the detail

So what is the Hala Sarhan furore really about, asks Shaden Shehab

The clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, constitutional amendments, the spread of Avian Flu, cases of police torture, they don't stand a chance, in terms of column inches, to the scandal that ensued when TV presenter Hala Sarhan decided to devote her popular show on the Rotana satellite channel to a discussion of prostitution in Egypt. Immediately -- and predictably -- she was accused of sullying the nation's image.

Sarhan hosted three Egyptian "prostitutes" on her show. They discussed their professional lives in detail, telling Sarhan that not only were the police aware of their activities but they also offered protection. As soon as the first episode was aired -- four had been planned -- the girls announced to the media that not only were they not prostitutes but they had been paid, the albeit small sum of LE400 each, to play the role. They claimed, too, that they had been promised that their faces would be blurred, and their voices distorted, so that they would not be recognised.

Al-Ahram journalist Sayed Ali, who had attacked the programme even before it was aired, broke their story on the Mehwar channel. The channel dedicated an entire week to their exclusive, hosting the three supposed prostitutes alongside an array of commentators who denounced Sarhan not only for defaming Egypt but accused her of inciting immoral acts. The girls then went to the police and the case is now with the prosecution. Sarhan faces charges of aggravating public security and promoting promiscuous and licentious behaviour.

Sarhan, who travelled to Dubai before the scandal and has now delayed her return to Cairo, is reported to be on Cairo airport's wanted list. If it is true she will be arrested as soon as she sets foot in Egypt.

Sarhan appeared on the Orbit satellite channel via a video link-up during which she expressed her "disappointment". She told the audience that she was fully prepared to face police questionings, adding that she was sufficiently well known not "to fabricate stories in search of fame".

Dr Hala, as she is often referred to, obtained a PhD in drama from George Washington University, and began her broadcasting career with ART, the channel owned by Saudi tycoon Saleh Kamel, presenting show business programmes. She is rumoured to have left ART for the Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV after arguing with Kamel's wife, the actress and presenter Safaa Abul-Seoud, who accused Sarhan of presenting an "inappropriate" programme during the month of Ramadan.

At Dream TV, Sarhan's reputation for tackling subjects hitherto considered taboo grew, and the channel faced threats that its licence would be revoked, ostensibly for programmes such as the one Sarhan presented on masturbation and its impact on marital relationships, though many commentators thought the real reason behind the threats was because Dream TV was the platform chosen by senior political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal to "address the nation", not least on the subject of the presidency being "inherited" by Hosni Mubarak's son, Gamal.

After Dream TV Sarhan moved to the Rotana satellite network, where she mostly presented chat shows with celebrities but occasionally broaching sensitive issues, among them women's expectations of sex.

Sarhan is a controversial personality, talented but provocative, and her outspokenness has alienated many.

"This time she has gone too far," says Mustafa Bakri, MP and chief editor of the independent weekly Al-Osbou. "Bringing some girls and making them play the roles of prostitutes and talk obscenities on the pretext of discussing prostitution in Egypt is absurd. All she did was fabricate. One of the girls said she was paid LE10,000, a clear encouragement to Egyptian girls."

"And why didn't she bring other Arab girls? Is it because it is a Saudi-owned network? She should be punished for what she did."

Journalist Makram Mohamed Ahmed disagrees. "If Hala Sarhan promised the girls to completely blur their faces and voices and did not then she committed a mistake. But to say that she defamed Egypt's reputation and committed treason is an exaggeration. We should examine the girls' claims carefully since they are old enough not to be tricked." He believes "the aim is to target her personally."

Some argue that what really ruffled the feathers of the authorities was the girls' claim that they worked in cahoots with the police and enjoyed protection. Following the publicity generated by revelations, including video film, of torture in police stations, another scandal was the last thing the police wanted. "Because the girls' identity was not adequately concealed the police may have identified them and offered them a deal. Either be jailed for their confessions or claim that the whole thing was fiction," says one prominent media figure who requested anonymity.

Yet others believe the case has been exaggerated to distract the public from more important issues. "Like the Maadi safah and Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni's remarks on the veil, the story actually boils down to nothing," insists leading Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama. "It is just a way to occupy the public and distract them from controversies like the constitutional amendments and Muslim Brotherhood arrests."

"The system is ready to sacrifice anyone in order to draw attention away from the clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and the prevalence of police torture. It is not a case of three girls being tricked or media fabrication but an attempt to frighten those in the media who might broach more important issues," wrote Wael El-Ibrashi, chief editor of Sawt Al-Umma.

The regime, he continued, attempts to destroy anyone who dares to expose its shortcomings. Al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour was jailed on forgery charges after running for presidency and MP Talaat El-Sadat was jailed for insulting the military after he proved the innocence of the Beni Mazar suspect. Indeed El-Ibrashi himself, along with Al-Dostour 's chief editor Ibrahim Eissa, known for their bold criticism, face multiple charges and possible jail sentences.

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