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On Call-In Radio, Egypt's Leader Offers Reassurance

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (right) speaks to the media on Aug. 6 in El Arish, Egypt. He has already been engaging with the public more regularly than his predecessor.
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi (right) speaks to the media on Aug. 6 in El Arish, Egypt. He has already been engaging with the public more regularly than his predecessor.

When it comes to connecting with the Egyptian public, the country's new president, Mohammed Morsi, seems to have looked at what his predecessor did, and then plotted a course that is diametrically opposed.

During three decades of rule, the former president, Hosni Mubarak, would sometimes go months without making a public statement. When he did appear, it was almost always a formal presentation that seemed to emphasize the gulf between the leader and the ruled.

In contrast, Morsi is taking to the airwaves every night with a radio program during which he fields questions from ordinary citizens.

The new show is called The People Ask, The President Answers. Every night for about five minutes during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Morsi answers prerecorded questions on issues that concern them, ranging from security and social justice to electricity and garbage collection.

The new president, who has been in office about six weeks, made his boldest move yet when he forced the retirement of two top military officials on Sunday. Morsi's decision made clear that he expects the powerful military to answer to him as an elected, civilian president.

And while he deals with the big questions facing Egypt, he continues to address the daily concerns of ordinary Egyptians.

Speaking To Daily Concerns

On a recent night, a man named Mohammed Hassan Mohammed called into the radio program with a question. He said that in his home province, there are no government bakeries or granaries, forcing local residents to buy wheat from the black market at a high cost. He asks Morsi what he can do about this problem.

"We're working on creating a network of new bakeries, with plentiful production, to decrease losses and to improve quality," Morsi said.

As in all of these broadcasts, Morsi went on to stress his commitment to solving the people's problems and asked them to do all they can to help.

Sameh Mohammed, an accountant breaking his Ramadan fast in a downtown Cairo restaurant, says he likes Morsi's broadcast.

"It's a very, very good sign, that the president shares the people's problems, and shares in their worries," Mohammed says. "This wasn't happening over the past 30 years."

Breaking From Mubarak

Emad Abdel Latif, a professor at Cairo University who studies presidential speeches, says Mubarak sometimes gave the impression that he didn't care about ordinary Egyptians.

"To understand the way Morsi speaks, we have to compare it to Mubarak's rhetoric, and we can see that there is an attempt to do just the opposite," Abdel Latif says.

He explains that Mubarak generally read a prepared speech, while Morsi has a tendency to improvise. And in sharp contrast to Mubarak, Morsi addresses the public at least once a day.

In addition to the radio broadcasts, Morsi has set up a complaint hotline to field calls from citizens. He's also using Facebook to reach tech-savvy young people.

Previous Presidents' Public Exchange

Abdel Latif says that although answering direct questions from Egyptians shows more engagement with the public than in recent years, this format is not new in Egypt. Previous presidents — Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat — took questions from university students that were broadcast live.

In one famous incident in 1977, student Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh accused then-President Sadat of having a hypocritical policy toward Islamic scholars.

Sadat bellowed back at him, "Hold it right there. I've never been called a hypocrite in my life." The debate raged on for a full six minutes, live on the radio.

Aboul Fotouh, the student, went on to become a presidential candidate in this year's vote.

Abdel Latif of Cairo University says that the main difference between these debates and Morsi's show is that Morsi is answering pre-screened questions.

Talk Goes Only So Far

At a downtown coffee shop, tour guide Alaa el-Din Ibrahim says he is unimpressed by the show.

"If you are promising people to do something ... there has to be an action. If you want me to believe you, there has to be an action," he says, adding that "just talk" doesn't lead anywhere.

Many Egyptians see better communication with the president as a good sign. But as the economic situation in Egypt deteriorates, promises mean less than real changes on the ground.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.