In Egypt’s big Ramadan TV series, the president is the hero

The hit government-produced series “The Choice 3” claims to accurately chronicle the 2013 rise to power of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian president, after a period of violent unrest and deep national division.

But it was the 25th episode, airing Tuesday and featuring the country’s military foiling an arms smuggling operation, that created the biggest stir. On the night it aired, the real president broke the fourth wall: every word in the series, el-Sisi assured Egyptians in a speech, was true.

“Maybe a lot of us are wondering what was the point of doing this show?” said the president. “The goal was for us to record honestly, loyally and honorably in a time when there was no honor or truth.”

But critics say far from portraying the honest truth, the series rewrites history by targeting the president and demonizing his opponents.

In nearly a decade as president, el-Sisi transformed Egypt from a country that tolerated political debate and artistic license, even under the rule of strongmen, to a country where fear compels silence. By jailing critics big and small, criminalizing protests and muzzling the press, the government has stifled almost all political opposition.

He also systematically co-opted the Egyptian film and television industry, which dominated the screens of generations of people across the Middle East, his productions frequently testing censors with racy or politically sensitive subject matter.

But the government never went that far.

Although directed by some of the biggest names in the Egyptian entertainment industry, “The Choice” openly credits the Ministry of Defense as a collaborator.

“The real enemy of the Egyptian state now is anyone who opposes the state,” said Belal Fadl, a prominent Egyptian screenwriter who criticizes the series. “In wartime you have to use whatever weapon you have, and now they have drama as a weapon.”

The first season of “The Choice” told the true story of a special forces officer fighting a jihadist, and the second dealt with counter-terrorism. The third season covers the events surrounding el-Sisi’s rise to power and airs only in Egypt, not the entire Middle East.

It mixes fiction with what it presents as fact, pinning never-before-seen clips of key historical figures, apparently recorded by Egyptian intelligence services in secret, into each episode.

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

But Mohammed Morsi, the president of the Muslim Brotherhood, has proven to be deeply divisive, his truncated mandate marked by upheaval. With millions of Egyptians calling for his ouster, the army, then led by el-Sissi as defense minister, seized power, massacring nearly 1,000 people in a single day in August 2013 during a a sit-in by pro-Morsi demonstrators to protest against the army. to resume.

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

Since 2017, however, a company owned by the state security service has monopolized the airwaves, taking over production companies, TV stations and news outlets and putting other production companies out of business.

Episodes of different shows are sent directly to security officials for review, according to industry insiders. Corrupt and abusive cops no longer appear in scripts; military heroes and daring spies took their place. Artists who did not take the government line were vilified as Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in state-linked media or barred from working again in Egypt.

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

Fadl moved from Cairo to New York in 2014 after his work on a TV show highly critical of security force abuses left him in the dark. He now runs a YouTube show about the Egyptian entertainment industry.

In recent years, Fadl and other critics said, executives at the government production company have stepped up their oversight, commanding show topics and storylines.

This was the genesis of “The Choice”.

The first season pioneered the deft and deft blend of fact and fiction that has been its trademark ever since. The first-season finale, which aired during Ramadan two years ago, showed real video of one of the main characters taken moments before his execution in 2020. He had been accused of taking part in a series of terrorist attacks.

“This series is based on true events, with certain names and locations changed,” reads a note from the showrunners that appears onscreen at the start of Season 3. of Egypt that we have witnessed with our own eyes or has been told by others who have experienced these events.

In the current season, which covers Morsi’s last 96 hours in power, Morsi and other Brotherhood figures are portrayed as devious schemers, their movements accompanied by eerie music.

El-Sissi is presented as a humble, measured and cool family man under pressure. The actor portraying him, Yasser Galal, nailed his mannerisms, viewers say, right down to his smooth voice.

The show is careful to point out that el-Sisi is religious – but that his brand of Islam, unlike Morsi’s, does not guide his politics.

“Whether a president, an army commander, or any other position,” el-Sissi’s character tells Morsi in one episode, rejecting his invitation to join the Brotherhood, a leader must be “a nationalist, and that’s all”.

Egyptians look forward to Ramadan spectacles year-round; Watching the new episode of a hit series after breaking the nightly fast is a decades-old tradition.

“These series are a very powerful tool,” Shea said. “It’s gripping and dramatic television.”

“The Choice” has been widely viewed, attracting many fans for its compelling dramatizations and leaked historical videos. But he also aroused much mockery on social networks, on which users skewer his muscular propaganda.

For viewers who experienced this story less than ten years ago, the end of the season is no mystery. Sent to jail, Morsi collapsed and died in a Cairo courtroom in 2019.

But the Muslim Brotherhood remained the number one enemy of the el-Sisi government, with political opponents routinely accused of Brotherhood ties and anyone with Brotherhood sympathies vulnerable to dismissal, blacklisting or detention for terrorism.

So did Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, arrested in 2018 and convicted in March of holding secret meetings with the group.

The same day el-Sisi spoke on the show, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer representing Aboul Fotouh, decided to take the president at his word. He announced that he had filed for review, based on new evidence which he said showed his client had disassociated himself from the Brotherhood long before the events for which he was on trial.

The proof? Four secretly recorded clips of “The Choice”.

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