H.ESHAM ASHMAWY was run twice. Egypt’s most wanted man, an army officer turned jihadist, was hanged from the public in March 2020. Two months later, millions of Egyptians watched the “execution” of an actor who played him on “The Choice,” a television program about terrorism produced by the state secret service. To promote the episode, the spy agency posted videos of Mr. Ashmawy’s actual execution. “The Choice” (pictured) was one of the most watched programs last year during Ramadan, the high season for Egyptian television.
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Egypt’s television and film industry has long been the envy of the Arab world. During the 20th century, films were one of the country’s greatest exports. From Rabat to Baghdad, the Arabs learned to imitate Egypt’s distinctive dialect through its hugely popular musicals and comedies. Trade gave Egypt cultural influence – and its rulers a propaganda tool. When the cinemas first opened in the 1930s, King Fuad was playing newsreels in which he applied before the feature films. President Gamal Abdel Nasser, in turn, made sure that films portray the monarchy he overthrew as corrupt and evil.
But Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s obsession with controlling entertainment is extreme, even by Egyptian standards. Two years after he and other military officials toppled the country’s first democratically elected president in 2013, Sisi warned television stars that if their work did not reflect the state’s positive outlook, they would be “held accountable”. Mr Sisi, now president, nationalized the media out of name and let his men control which shows were being broadcast. In 2016, a state intelligence company began buying Egypt’s largest private television network. As of 2018, one of its subsidiaries, Synergy (maker of “The Choice”), has produced most of the major shows that aired during Ramadan. “It’s a monopoly,” says one filmmaker.
Egypt has always had censors. Under Hosni Mubarak, president from 1981 to 2011, they allowed films to depict police brutality, corruption and even homosexuality. Estimated films from that time would be blocked today, producers say. Sexual innuendos, which used to be common, are forbidden. Extreme poverty cannot be shown lest people believe that Egypt has problems. And the security services have to be portrayed as good guys. The regime believes that old films showing dirty police officers protested against the police in the 2011 Arab Spring. That the protests may have been inspired by real dirty police officers does not seem to have occurred to Mr. Sisi’s henchmen. “The regime sees what happened ten years ago as a cultural failure,” said Ezzedine Fishere, a former diplomat under Mubarak.
Government-sponsored war films and heroic police dramas are popular enough, but Egyptian television is much less interesting than it was before the coup. And it faces growing competition. For years, Syrian and Turkish dramas broadcast by satellite vied with local soaps for Egyptian eyeballs. Now there are new production centers in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Shahid (owned by the MBC group in Saudi Arabia) offer viewers even more choices. One sign that Egypt’s soft power has declined is that Arab millennials typically understand the Egyptian dialect less than their parents.
However, Mr Sisi’s regime focuses on influencing the Egyptians. “The Choice” makes dubious claims about the Muslim Brotherhood, which held power before Mr. Sisi. “The Swarm,” also by Synergy, glorifies an Egyptian air strike that killed 40 jihadists and seven civilians (this part is not mentioned). “They’re putting in better talent, bigger budgets, and bigger stars,” says a Cairo-based director. “Even if it’s propaganda, the quality is much better.”
The second season of The Choice, which airs this month, will cover the Rabaa massacre in 2013 when hundreds of Brotherhood demonstrators were slaughtered by security forces (under the command of Mr. Sisi). Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, described the event as “one of the world’s largest single-day killings of protesters in recent history.” The show was shot from the perspective of the heroic police, of course. ■
This article appeared in the Middle East and Africa section of the print version under the heading “Good Cops Only, Please.”