Radio Cairo and Egypt’s Battle for East Africa

The country’s new broadcasts in Somali and Swahili draw on a rich revolutionary heritage — but also a subversive desire to undermine President Sisi’s rivals

Radio Cairo and Egypt’s Battle for East Africa
The Emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, speaks in 1963 at a gathering of the heads of African states. On the table to the right sits Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser. (STF/AFP via Getty Images)

In the spring of 1957, East Africans began to pick up transmissions from a mysterious new radio station. Broadcasting in Swahili from an undisclosed location, the Voice of Free Africa mixed music and news with inflammatory anti-colonial commentary. Inverting the racist rhetoric of British rule, its announcers denounced East Africa’s colonial authorities as “imperialist dogs,” whose “savagery and transgression” would soon be replaced with enlightened African rule. However, broadcasts also attacked African leaders who sought a partial compromise with Western interests, denouncing moderates as “Black Europeans” who had spent too long “eating American dollars.” To the new service, nothing short of a “sacred fight” against imperialism could secure the rights and dignity of East Africans.

These broadcasts worried the British authorities, who grew concerned that the Voice of Free Africa was the product of anti-colonial nationalists somewhere in the Kenyan highlands. To the Colonial Office, the service was particularly dangerous because it was “passionate, sometimes almost hysterical in tone and often ludicrously untruthful” — things which they believed made it particularly appealing to “impressionable” East African listeners. Sensationalist stories about the clandestine service also spread to the world press. In January 1958, The New York Times described the service as part of a wider campaign to “wipe out the last vestiges of Western influence in Africa.” Time magazine, meanwhile, suggested that the mysterious “voice of venom” in East Africa was already shaking the foundations of colonial rule and that even the professional propagandists of the Soviet Union could “scarcely do better” than the provocative guerrilla broadcasts.

However, the Voice of Free Africa was not all that it seemed. British radio monitors were the first to raise suspicions about the broadcast, noticing that it operated on a similar frequency to Radio Cairo — an international service operated by Egyptian State Broadcasting — and only when the latter was off-air. Time, too, reported that the announcer on the Voice of Free Africa sounded suspiciously similar to the announcer on the Voice of Cairo, Egypt’s daily Swahili broadcast to East Africa. An investigation by the British Foreign Office in 1960 proved these suspicions correct. The Voice of Free Africa was in fact broadcast from Cairo by Egyptian State Broadcasting. Kept as an open secret at Egypt’s broadcasting house, its staff included Ahmed Rashad Ali — the Zanzibari broadcaster and former soccer celebrity who had become the star announcer of Egypt’s broadcasts in Swahili.

This clandestine broadcasting was designed to bring Egyptian propaganda to new audiences. Where the Voice of Cairo was targeted at listeners in Zanzibar and along the East African coast, the Voice of Free Africa required its announcers to adopt a “mainland Swahili” which would be more accessible inland. Where the Voice of Cairo appealed to Muslim listeners with Quran readings and Islamic theology, the Voice of Free Africa praised the work of radicals who were “fighting for the implementation of rights recognized in the Bible.” The clandestine nature of the Voice of Free Africa also allowed the service to make open attacks on Egypt’s regional rivals. The postcolonial Gamal Abdel Nasser administration’s reliance on Soviet assistance sometimes prevented criticism of communist influence in East Africa. On the Voice of Free Africa, by contrast, announcers were free to claim that East Africans “don’t want to be communist slaves.” Instead, the service argued, they should support a new community of nonaligned postcolonial states including Ghana, Guinea and Egypt itself.

The memory of these anti-colonial broadcasts has become more pointed in recent years, as Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi continues his long diplomatic campaign in East Africa. As in the late colonial era, Egyptian “radio diplomacy” is playing a leading role. In 2017, Egyptian state broadcasters welcomed a delegation from Rwanda. Discussing the need for “media cooperation” between the two countries, the Rwandan broadcaster Voice of Africa agreed to rebroadcast Egyptian programs in Swahili to expand their coverage in East Africa. In 2020, Radio Cairo signed a second deal with the Burundian government, to transmit four hours of Egyptian programs in Swahili through the leading private broadcaster, Radio Culture FM. Egypt has also begun broadcasting in Somali for the first time since 2006, while reinforcing its existing efforts in Amharic for Ethiopia, Afar for Djibouti and Swahili for the wider East African region.

These more recent efforts have sparked interest in the history of the Nasser government’s subversive anti-colonial broadcasting. In a 2020 article for the Egypt Independent, the media researcher Hani Mhana argued that Egyptian broadcasts “played a significant role in supporting [the] African nations’ struggles against colonialism” and presented the Egyptian government as an example of effective leadership in Africa. Speaking to Al-Monitor in 2021, the late international relations scholar Hani Raslan suggested that new broadcasts had the potential to “introduce the peoples of Africa and the Nile Basin countries to Egypt’s historic role in supporting African countries to liberate themselves from colonialism.” Broadcasting officials have also drawn heavily on the memory of Egypt’s anti-colonial broadcasts to justify the continuous expansion of the service. In an interview with the state-owned newspaper Al Gomhuria, Egypt’s head of external broadcasting Sana Shafei argued that Egyptian radio has always been a tool for African unity and cooperation, especially in the struggle against imperialism in Kenya.

In 2018, Nairobi’s Daily Nation and Standard newspapers published detailed historical essays about the Kenya Office, an organization of Kenyan activists in Cairo who were responsible for Radio Cairo’s regular “Kenya Newsletter.” In the Daily Nation, Edwin Okoth described how broadcasters at the Kenya Office connected East African radicals to a wider anti-colonial world and helped to counteract the British Empire’s own propaganda in the region. The public historian Mohamed Said has also helped to raise the profile of Ahmed Rashad Ali and his fellow broadcasters in Tanzania, describing the Zanzibari announcer as an expert propagandist who led the resistance to both British imperialism and Zanzibar’s former monarchy.

By reviving Egypt’s historic broadcasts to East Africa, the Sisi administration may be hoping to build on the positive memories of the services among East Africans. To a generation of East African radicals, Radio Cairo provided a vital line of communication to a wider anti-colonial world. In his 2018 memoir, the Zanzibari trade unionist Hashil Seif Hashil claimed that listening to Ahmed Rashad Ali on Radio Cairo “inspired me and opened my eyes to the need to liberate the African continent and bring equality to our countries.” In an interview with the BBC, the Zanzibari journalist Mohamed Adam agreed that the intense anti-colonialism of Egyptian broadcasts was incredibly exciting to young radicals. “I’ve never taken dope,” says Adam, “but this was the nearest that I can imagine one would have felt, when I listened to Radio Cairo.”

These positive perceptions of the role of Radio Cairo may owe much to the creativity and flexibility of its early broadcasts. The media historian Donald Browne has described international broadcasting as a formulaic and often dull medium, dominated by repetitive political speeches. In contrast, the Voice of Cairo also used cultural programs to make the case for East African decolonization. Building on Cairo’s reputation as the “Arab Hollywood,” Egyptian broadcasts made use of the latest pop music to draw in listeners. By the late 1950s, the colonial government of Kenya was even taping new music from Radio Cairo broadcasts to attract Africans to their own radio services. Broadcasts also used poetry to foster Egypt’s status as a cultural hub of the African continent — including a regular broadcast in Somali allowing listeners to request their favorite poems for recital. While Radio Cairo carried its fair share of speeches, these were often made livelier with creative insults. Hashil Seif Hashil remembers Ahmed Rashad’s dismissive depiction of colonial authorities as “white dwarves,” while Mohamed Adam was particularly impressed by the phrase “the bloody dogs of imperialism.” This insulting shorthand lent itself to a dark sense of humor. “We believe in being kind to all animals,” joked one announcer in 1960, “[even] these white dogs.”

This creativity was only possible because of the participation of East Africans as writers, editors and announcers. Muhammad Fayek, an Egyptian civil servant who acted as Nasser’s advisor on African affairs in the 1960s, recalls that he used to commission East African students to write and record original songs in Swahili. The resulting songs — including “Freedom and Jomo Kenyatta,” “African Unity” and the ever-popular “Who Will Overthrow Imperialism with Me?” — mixed popular melodies with anti-colonial political themes. Religious broadcasts were also a valuable resource for winning support among East African Muslims. East African broadcasters frequently invited scholars from Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar University to deliver Quran readings and commentaries that allowed listeners to pray together, while regular programs offered Arabic lessons for Swahili speakers who wanted to study the Quran themselves.

By 1958, the Somali service had begun broadcasting regular, stridently anti-colonial radio plays written by Somalis living in Cairo. A 1959 play by Abd as-Salam Sayyid Sulayman went so far as to depict two real colonial officials as scheming villains aiming to corrupt the Somali youth. However, this anti-colonial theater typically ended on a hopeful note, depicting a near future when “the dawn will break for the Somalis and the sun will set for imperialism.” A play by Ibrahim Samal follows Maygag, a Somali laborer, as he struggles to find work in colonial Somaliland. After being fired by his corrupt British employer, Maygag flees to Djibouti and then to Cairo, where he is welcomed by the Somali student community. He then returns to an independent and united Somalia — even though, at the time of broadcast, Somalia was still under colonial rule.

Radio Cairo also sought to create lasting ties between its broadcasters and listeners. “African Mailbag” programs were a constant feature of Egyptian broadcasts to East Africa, allowing listeners to request songs and reach out to their friends in neighboring countries. Quiz programs and competitions also contributed to Radio Cairo’s popularity. Transcripts of these broadcasts suggest that these quizzes were dominated by leading questions intended to bolster Egypt’s soft power — asking listeners to name the “protagonists of neutrality in the world” and the date of the nationalization of Egypt’s Suez Canal. Winners were often rewarded with air tickets to Cairo, allowing listeners to develop personal ties to Radio Cairo presenters. This was evidently successful. In the 1960s, a listener called Ahmed Omar won a Radio Cairo quiz in Somali and was invited to tour Egypt in person. Omar was so impressed that he returned to Cairo in 1966 to be trained as a radio presenter and later became one of the leaders of Somalia’s own external broadcasting service.

In the 21st century, Egypt’s international broadcasts can no longer rely on violent anti-imperialist rhetoric — but they still provide an opportunity for innovative cultural diplomacy. According to Sana Shafei, the most popular of Radio Cairo’s current programs is “Your Voice on the Radio,” which broadcasts voice messages from listeners and allows audience members to participate in the production of broadcasts. Broadcasts to East Africa still begin with Quran readings by Al-Azhar scholars, followed by accessible commentaries in Somali, Afar and Swahili. Radio Cairo’s external services have also developed their regular Arabic lessons into a three-tiered program supplemented by Egyptian textbooks. As Radio Cairo seeks to expand Egyptian soft power in East Africa, it is turning again to a form of interactive smart diplomacy which mixes cultural, political and religious themes and seeks to build meaningful relationships with its listeners.

However, the rhetoric of “African brotherhood” on Radio Cairo’s East African broadcasts has long disguised political realities. As Mohamed Fayek argues, the Nasser government was inspired to broadcast to East Africa by a belief in African unity and solidarity. He also points out, however, that there was an immediate need to secure a market for Egyptian manufactured goods. Radio Cairo programs of the 1960s certainly stressed the quality of Egyptian industry, taking its listeners on regular “microphone visits” to factories across the country. In the wake of Egypt’s ongoing currency crisis, the incumbent Sisi administration has again turned to the East African market. In February 2022, the Egyptian government announced the creation of a new logistical free trade zone in Djibouti — the first of its kind on the continent — as part of an initiative to increase bilateral trade. In March 2023, per Egypt Today, the Egyptian government announced plans to increase its total exports to African markets to $15 billion over the coming years.

Egyptian broadcasting has also frequently been used as a tool to undermine the nation’s diplomatic rivals. In the late colonial era, one of Radio Cairo’s main competitors was Israel, which operated its own Voice of Israel service in Swahili from December 1960. In aggressive broadcasts, the Voice of Cairo urged its listeners to counteract “Israeli plots” to influence East Africa. In 1962, the service broadcast an appeal by Yahya Hussain of the World Muslim Congress warning that Israel’s technical assistance in Africa was “trying to use African youths and workers to penetrate African countries.”

Sixty-one years later, Egyptian broadcasts have lost much of their conspiratorial flair but remain highly critical of Israeli policy. In June 2023, following a series of Israeli military raids into Gaza, Radio Cairo’s Swahili service asserted Egypt’s “firm position that it will continue to support the Palestinian cause” and reiterated its support for a mediated solution to the conflict.

Another prominent target was Ethiopia — Egypt’s historic rival and a competitor for the vital waters of the Blue Nile. In its vocal support for Somali nationalism through the 1950s and 1960s, Radio Cairo often gave a platform to nationalists from Ogaden, Ethiopia’s Somali-majority province, who argued for the reunification of Somali lands into a single state. One of the most prominent of these voices was Mohammed Husayn, an Ogadeni student at Al-Azhar and the controversial leader of the Somali Youth League. Egypt’s international broadcasts also gave support to nationalists on Ethiopia’s northern border. Woldeab Woldemariam was a frequent broadcaster on Radio Cairo in Tigrinya and Arabic, where he advocated for the liberation of Eritrea from its Ethiopian rulers.

The status of these subversive broadcasters was dependent on Egypt’s relationship with Ethiopia. Fayek recalls that the warming of relations in 1963 encouraged Radio Cairo to cease Woldemariam’s broadcasts as a gesture of good faith. However, the Voice of Free Africa’s clandestine nature allowed Radio Cairo to continue its attacks on Ethiopia, where announcers noted that Ethiopian “stubbornness” proved that “not all the problems in Africa originate from the [white] dogs.” By the late 1960s, one audience survey suggests, almost 70% of Tigrayan radio owners were regular listeners to Radio Cairo.

It is difficult to separate Egypt’s ongoing campaign of radio diplomacy, too, from its ongoing competition with Ethiopia. As the latter completes work on its landmark Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, the Egyptian government once again feels that its access to the Blue Nile has been threatened. While Egypt may no longer be willing to call for revolution in Ethiopia, the expansion of Radio Cairo’s broadcasts in Amharic, Somali and Afar — all widely spoken in Ethiopia — suggests a desire to regain control of the narrative in Ethiopia and its immediate neighbors. In his interview with Al-Monitor, Hani Raslan argued that directed radio programs offer a rare opportunity to counteract Ethiopian efforts to “distort Egypt’s position” in the eyes of audiences across the Nile Basin. At the same time, the legacy of Ethiopia’s prolonged border conflict with Eritrea and the recent Tigray War have increased public interest in the work of nationalists like Woldemariam, whom a recent biography hails as a “visionary Eritrean patriot.” A positive review of the biography on the Eritrean news website Awate suggests that Woldemariam’s daily broadcasts “aroused enormous public support for his demand for Eritrea’s independence.”

At times, Radio Cairo’s East African broadcasts sparked unexpected resistance. As the historian James Brennan points out, the service’s combination of Arab nationalism and pan-African solidarity contributed to ongoing ethnic tensions across the region. These were particularly pronounced on the so-called “Coastal Strip” — a 10-mile piece of land in modern Kenya which was historically controlled by the Arab rulers of Zanzibar. As Brennan notes, Egyptian services had initially depicted the strip as part of an anti-colonial Arab world but were forced to abandon this stance to appeal to Black African listeners. These tensions reached new heights in Zanzibar, where African nationalists accused Egyptian broadcasts of acting as a tool for Arab subversion. When the Zanzibar Revolution erupted in January 1964 and Arab Zanzibaris were targeted by the new Black African government, the Voice of Free Africa gave cautious support to the new regime while ignoring Radio Cairo’s own role in Zanzibar’s fractious racial politics.

As the Sisi administration returns to “radio diplomacy” in East Africa, therefore, it may need to look beyond the idealized image of Radio Cairo as an anti-colonial broadcaster. In the final years of colonial rule, services like the Voice of Cairo and the Voice of Free Africa certainly won friends and allies, connecting disparate anti-colonial nationalists and supporting creative efforts to bring about the end of colonial rule. The legacy of these broadcasts in Egypt and across East Africa continues to contribute to positive perceptions of Egypt and its role in the region. However, Egyptian broadcasters may also be forced to contend with the controversial role of their own broadcasts in subverting independent governments and worsening existing tensions between Arabs and Black Africans. While Radio Cairo remains a powerful tool for building soft power in East Africa, its complex history may prove a stumbling block for Egyptian interests in the region.

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