|My experience as an audience member with the first Arabic version of Questions Time in Cairo|
|By Randa El Tahawy|
|When I heard that BBC Arabic and Al-Hayat television channels were hosting an Arabic version of the popular political discussion show Question Timein Cairo, I jumped at the opportunity to be part of the audience.
The premise of the show is that audience members get to pose questions to prominent public figures invited on as guests. In the United Kingdom, Question Timeoften gets heated, and the 2009 episode hosting Nick Griffin, leader of the far-right and very controversial British National Party (BNP) was certainly an unforgettable one, among many others.
I believe it's is a brilliant idea to steer away from the conventional and often subjective questions posed by talk show hosts in Egypt. So, excited at being on a television set, and even more so at taking part in a TV show for the first time, I was trying to get as many people as possible to be part of the audience. The goal was to have a diversified crowd of activists, journalists, political players as well as regular people who are simply interested in the country’s future.
But to my surprise, all I got were rejections. One of my friends just laughed and responded that they usually pay people to be in the audience just to clap. As usual, my poor fiancé had to be dragged along — but at least he got to be on television for at least five minutes while I didn't get any zoom-ins.
A partisan audience
The Cairo show was meant to discuss the status a year after the Egyptian Revolution, covering five main topics: the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), the revolution and revolutionaries, the Constitution, the presidential elections and Egypt's minorities. Of course, due to the length of the show, 55 minutes only, it was going to be hard to discuss all of these subjects between the guests and the audience, which was a disappointment.
We were asked to write down our questions on the bus ride to the Media Production City, where Al Hayat studios are. The host will then choose some of the questions and the audience member who wrote it will address it to the guest on the show. The guests all represented political parties or movements: Member of the Parliament (MP) Helmy El Gazzar of the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP); MP Mohamed Abu Hamed, who was representing the Free Egyptians Party before he withdrew from it; MP Emad Gad from the Social Democratic Party; Nader Bakar, the spokesperson for the Salafi-founded Nour Party; and Walid Shawky from the April Sixth Youth Group. Also on the guest panel was controversial Mohamed Abou Hamed from the dismantled National Democratic Party (NDP).
I was almost the only non-veiled girl on the set, but then again there were only two other girls in the audience. I couldn’t help but notice the strong presence of Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice party members. There were also Salafis from the Nour Party and other parties’ members supporting the different guests, and a Sheikh from Al-Azhar. In the middle of all these enthusiastic politically involved people, there was my fiancé, a friend and myself, who were almost the only independent audience members.
A disappointing experience
I thought the process of recording a show would be fun with an impressive studio, so I was pretty disappointed by how tiny and dirty the set was. It is just a dark room with two cameras and a main table in the middle of the room.
We were asked to take our seats to start recording and yes, we did clap when we were asked to clap, but we also clapped when we thought some of the guests made a strong point — which made it impossible to listen to the rest of their sentence.
I enjoyed the experience overall, but I was disappointed by the guests' attitudes and answers, as well the turns the discussions often took.
The first 10 minutes were about Parliament being in line with Tahrir Square and how protestors and Parliament go hand in hand. Then the debate started heating up when we discussed the future of the SCAF and the host had to cut the discussion off as voices started getting louder. He switched to topics that brought even more heated debates; the constitution and the drafting committee. The show then turned into a mere fight about which party has the best options to the problems at hand.
The FJP's El Gazzar was pleasant but rather vague in his answers; a real politician. Shawky of Sixth of April movement had no voice at all, and when he did speak, his answers, to me at least, seemed superficial and out of topic. Bakar was talking about politics without having any political knowledge or background to base his arguments on.
The only guest who impressed me was Gad from the Social Democratic Party. He had very coherent points, thorough analysis and an intricate political vision. He is, after all, a political analyst who worked with Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. Gad got me thinking that this is what we need now in this Parliament, people who have a vision, who know the laws and will protect our rights and our revolution.
All in all the discussions didn’t seem productive to me and my questions were either unanswered or not raised at all. I wanted to hear the panel's views on the unmet demands of the revolution and why former President Hosni Mubarak’s men, the SCAF, are still governing the country. I was also hoping for some answers on how to truly include women, Christians, Nubians and Bedouins in political life.
Instead, I just got to hear and see another episode of our People's Assembly farces. All there was to the show were fights, audience members yelling and interrupting, accusations thrown around about former Abou Hamed’s NDP associations and allies with Gamal Mubarak. It is sad that a year after January 25, all we are discussing is still banning pornographic websites and English from schools and which Parliament member got their jobs done. It seems we've lost sight of the truly important issues.