In Egypt’s Big Ramadan TV Drama, the President Is the Hero

CAIRO – At the height of the traditional Ramadan TV season, big-budget, star-studded shows draw millions of Egyptians every night of the holy month with low drama and humor. But one episode of the show that was most politically charged stood out.

The government-produced hit series “The Choice 3” aims to faithfully document the 2013 rise to power of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s dictatorial president, after times of violent turmoil and deep national divisions.

But it was episode 25, which aired on Tuesday and featured the country’s military conducting an arms-smuggling operation that created the biggest shock. On the night it aired, the real-life president broke the fourth wall: Every word of the film, Mr. el-Sisi assures the people of Egypt in a speechmulti-way.

“Many of us are probably wondering, what was the goal of making this series?” said the president. “The goal is that we record honestly, faithfully and honorably in a moment without honor, without truth.”

But critics say that far from portraying the honest truth, the show rewrites history by smearing the president and bringing down his opponents.

During his nearly decade as president, Mr. el-Sisi transformed Egypt from a country that endured some political debate and artistic license, even under the rule of the strong, into a where fear forces silence. Critics jailed large and small, criminalizing protests and stifling the press, the government strangled nearly all political opposition.

It was also systematically cooperate Egypt’s film and television industry, which has dominated the screens of generations of people across the Middle East, its productions regularly challenge censors with sensitive or sensitive topics. political feelings.

But the government has never gone this far.

Although performed by some of the biggest names in Egypt’s entertainment industry, “The Choice” openly credits the Ministry of Defense as a collaborator.

Belal Fadl, a famous Egyptian screenwriter who criticized the film, said: “The real enemy of the Egyptian state now is anyone who opposes the state. “In war, you have to use whatever weapon you have, and now they have drama as a weapon.”

The first season of “The Choice” tells the true story of a special operations officer fighting a jihadist and the second season deals with terrorism. The third season covers the events surrounding Mr. el-Sisi’s rise to power and is shown only in Egypt, not the wider Middle East.

It blends fiction with what it claims to be fact, stitching together never-before-seen clips of key historical figures, seemingly secretly recorded by Egyptian intelligence, into each episode. .

If Mr. el-Sisi is the hero of “The Choice”, its villain is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim group’s candidate won over Egypt the first democratic presidential election in 2012, after the country’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, had was overthrown amid mass protests during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.

But Mohamed Morsi, the president of the Brotherhood, appeared deeply divided, his truncated tenure marked by upheaval. With millions of Egyptians calling for his ouster, the army, then led by Mr. el-Sisi as defense minister, Power is confiscatedmassacred nearly 1,000 people on a single day in August 2013 at a meeting of pro-Morsi protesters to protest the military takeover.

Under Mr. el-Sisi, showrunners initially enjoyed the same flexibility they have had since Gamal Abdel Nassar, a former president, decided to allow artistic freedom in the late 1960s, as long as is that they avoid third rail topics like the 2013 Morsi massacre supporters.

Since 2017, however, a company owned by the state security services has had a monopoly on the airwaves, taking control of production companies, TV channels and news agencies and bringing the news agencies to the air. other manufacturing companies out of business.

Episodes of various shows are sent directly to security officials for review, according to industry insiders. Police corruption and abuse no longer appear in the scripts; Military heroes and daring spies have taken their place. Artists who do not support the government line have been smeared as Brotherhood sympathizers in the state-affiliated media or prevented from resuming activities in Egypt.

“The fact that there is centralized control over the media in Egypt means that they have the ability to control the producers, the actors, the writers, every stage of the production to create,” says Joey. exactly the story they want to tell about themselves. Shea, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute specializing in Egypt.

Mr. Fadl, the screenwriter, left Cairo for New York in 2014 after his work on a TV show was highly criticized by security forces for abuses by security forces that resulted in his arrest. unlucky. He currently runs a YouTube show about the Egyptian entertainment industry.

Over the last few years, Fadl and other critics say, executives from the government production company have stepped up oversight of the show’s themes and storylines.

That is the origin of “Choice”.

The first season pioneered gloss, skillful interweaving fact and fiction have been its trademark ever since. The finale of the first season, which aired during the month of Ramadan two years ago, showed a real video of one of the main characters filmed shortly before his execution in 2020. He was once forced. crimes in connection with a series of terrorist attacks.

“This series is based on true events, with some names and locations changed,” the presenters note appeared onscreen at the beginning of Season 3. “It is a narrative of a part of Egypt’s history that we have either witnessed with our own eyes or told by others who have lived through these events. ”

In the current installment, which includes Mr. Morsi’s final 96 hours in power, Mr. Morsi and other Brotherhood characters are portrayed as cunning conspirators, their movements accompanied by terrifying music.

Mr. el-Sisi is presented as a humble family man, measured and cool under pressure. The actor who played him, Yasser Galal, nailed his style, viewers say, thanks to his soft voice.

The show is careful to emphasize that Mr el-Sisi is religious – but his brand of Islam, unlike Mr. Morsi’s, is not his political orientation.

“Whether it is the president, the commander of the army or any other position,” el-Sisi’s character tells of Morsi in one episode, turning down an invitation to join the Brotherhood, a leader must is “a nationalist, and that’s all.”

Egyptians look forward to the whole year for Ramadan shows, watching the new episode of a hit series after breaking the nightly fast is a tradition that goes back decades.

“These series are a very powerful tool,” said Ms. Shea, an analyst. “It’s a compelling, dramatic TV show.”

“The Choice” was widely viewed, attracting many fans with its gripping drama and leaked historical videos. But it has also drawn widespread ridicule on social media, where users lean toward its heavy propaganda.

For audiences who lived through this history less than a decade ago, the film’s ending is no mystery. In prison, Mr. Morsi broke down and die in a courtroom in Cairo in 2019.

But the Brotherhood remains the number one enemy of the Sisi government, with political opponents frequently accused of ties to the Brotherhood and anyone sympathetic to the Brotherhood vulnerable to firing, blacklisting or detained on terrorism charges.

So it is with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate who was arrested in 2018 and found guilty in March of holding secret meetings with the group.

On the same day Mr. el-Sisi spoke about the performance, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer representing Mr. Aboul Fotouh, decided to replace the president at his word. He announced that he had filed for a retrial, based on new evidence he said showed his client had disassociated himself from the Brotherhood long before the events in which he was tried.

The evidence? Four secretly recorded clips from “The Choice.”

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