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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Egypt: Drama as a Political Tool

Egypt: Drama Political Tool
Vehicles drive along a highway beneath a billboard showing an advertisement for the Ramadan television series “Al-Ikhtiyar 3” (The Choice 3) with Egyptian actor Yasser Galal posing as President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in the Egyptian capital’s twin city of Giza on April 26, 2022. Khaled DESOUKI / AFP

Khaled Mahmoud

In an unprecedented move in the history of Egypt, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi greenlit a biopic TV series depicting the dramatic events of the 30th of June. The same events paved his ascension to power after overthrowing the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by the late President Mohamed Morsi.

Mobilising the Regime’s Resources

The Egyptian regime flexed its resources again as The Choice was renewed for another season. The third season of the hit TV show received the highest viewership even though it premiered during an endless barrage of Ramadan shows.

The Choice puts Sisi as the producer and director of the show. Historically, the state media relations with Ramadan or political shows were never this overt.

Nonetheless, the controversy surrounding this show nests a more significant controversy. Classified footage utilised throughout the show confirmed a secret history of unseen recordings revealed to the public for the first time on TV.

This reveal dispelled the secrecy from the official archive of the regime in a specific historical era. However, it was unprecedented for Egyptians to closely examine history for the first time through secret recordings of what was happening in the corridors of government at the time.

The show gave the Egyptians a never-seen-before opportunity. The published recordings took place mainly in the Heliopolis Palace, the official residence of the Egyptian presidency, and the Ministry of Defence, the staunch pillar of the Egyptian regime.

Secret Archive

No Egyptian president has ever allowed classified information to be broadcasted, even after death. Egyptians have long been denied access to see the country’s decision-makers performing their work.

There marks a significant shift as Egyptian rulers have always kept their official archives away from the public.

The average Egyptian could simply sit at home or in a coffee shop and see the inner workings of the power elite.

The declassified recordings reveal many aspects about the people in them. There is a slight chance that these recordings, in their entirety, will become public in a historic leap shattering all conventional standards.

Tantawi and Anan

Actual footage, albeit edited, was used to pin decision-makers down in their political reality. This includes featuring prominent stars like Ahmed Badir as the Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, commander-in-chief of the Egyptian Armed Forces, former minister of defence and chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. SCAF came to power temporarily after late president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in the wake of the events of 2011.

While this was the first time Tantawi was portrayed in a TV show, the former Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Sami Anan, was largely forgotten. It might be contributed to the turbulent relationship he has with Sisi.

During the 2018 “Hekayet Watan” conference, Sisi said: “I will prevent the corrupt from ruling you. Those corrupt individuals, whom I know, must be warned.”

He added, “If I knowingly ignore a corrupt thief, Allah will hold me accountable.” Sisi then concluded, “Egypt is too dear, great, proud, and big for bad people to rule it.”

In 2021, Anan appeared in a prominent restaurant in Cairo for the first time since he was released in 2019. He was detained for two years for running for the 2018 presidency, in which Sisi won a second term.

Anan spent several months arrested in a military prison before transferring to the military hospital due to health complications. Later, he moved to the Armed Forces Medical Complex in Maadi, south of Cairo.

Ten days after he announced running for the presidency, the military accused him of committing violations and severely breaching rules and regulations.

He was charged with running for the presidency without obtaining the approval of the armed forces. Additionally, he was charged with “explicit incitement against the army” and “falsification of official documents regarding the termination of his service.”

Subsequently, according to a decision by the Egyptian National Elections Authority, Anan’s name was removed from the voter base after he was arrested at his office in Zamalek and taken to the Military Prosecution in Nasr City. Around 30 members of his campaign were also arrested.

According to sources, former United States President Barack Obama suggested two names to Mubarak to succeed him, and Anan was one of them. However, Mubarak refused and ended the phone call after announcing his intention to step down from power.

Art in Service of Politics

Egypt: Drama Political Tool
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi takes part in a meeting on the second day of a European Union (EU) African Union (AU) summit at The European Council Building in Brussels on February 18, 2022. JOHANNA GERON / POOL / AFP

The first two seasons of The Choice were the most viewed TV show in their respective years, making it the focus of attention and controversy. It blended politics and art and collided with different paradigms, explaining what happened in Egypt during this time era.

The idea for the TV series came from a speech that Sisi gave one day. Then, on the 11th of October 2020, during the 32nd educational symposium of the Egyptian Armed Forces, he addressed The Choice protagonists and urged them to produce more work saying: “One show is not enough, not even two, three and four.” Sisi asked them to present “real pictures and facts” because “people saw the truth and honesty with which history was presented.”

The president indicated that much is still required because the current and future generations can see “how many heroes Egypt has provided.”

Sisi is the one who wanted the show to be produced following his surprise statement on the success of the Libyan National Army forces led by Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar in arresting Hisham Ashmawi in the Libyan city of Derna.

At the time, Sisi pondered the difference between the “terrorist” Ashmawi and his colleague, the “heroic martyr” Ahmed al-Mansi, saying: “What is the difference between Hisham Ashmawi and Ahmed al-Mansi? Both are officers, and both were in the same squad.” He went on to say that “the difference between them is that one of them betrayed, and the other truly understood the requirements of preserving the Egyptian state and the people of Egypt.”

The comparison was between Mansi and Ashmawi, whose execution was announced by the Egyptian Military spokesperson. This prompted Sisi to spread awareness because “true awareness of the battle circumstances teaches us how the enemy has changed and remains among us.”

On directing the TV series, Peter Mimi expressed the same sentiment saying, “it is considered a documentary, it spreads awareness, and addresses the generation that did not witness the events. It also corrects many concepts.”

Expensive Budget

Some regarded the third season as one of the biggest media productions ever as its budget is 10 times that of other TV shows. However, the actual figures have not been announced.

In the third season, Abdel Aziz Makhyoun portrayed the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badie and Sabry Fawwaz played the ousted President Mohamed Morsi. Additionally, the Muslim Brotherhood leader Khairat el-Shater was played by Khaled el-Sawi. The trio, Ahmed Ezz, Karim Abdel Aziz, and Ahmed el-Sakka, appeared as General Intelligence, National Security and Military Intelligence officers.

In portraying the president with great skill, Yaser Galal reached a complete copy of the president down to his tone. He confirmed to local media that it is not the result of technical wizardry, saying, “Of course, it’s my voice.” He said he had to practice a lot before reaching the president’s exact tone of voice.

His statements were corroborated by the sound engineer who worked on the show. He said no equipment was used, and it is the actor’s diligence and continuous training.

Galal’s makeup allowed him to personify the president and show a high competency. “For the first time, Egypt witnesses the president being portrayed on screen while in power.”

The series follows what can be considered the most critical 96 hours in the history of contemporary Egypt. The period extends from the 25th of January, 2011, until the 30th of June, 2013 revolution.

Different Points of View

The Egyptian Minister of Awqaf, Mohamed Mokhtar Gomaa, is a big fan of the series. Since its premiere, he has repeatedly cited it as a critic of the Muslim Brotherhood. Gomaa believes that upon seeing how “the terrorist group’s leader, Mohamed Morsi, threatens an Egyptian that he will mobilise 30,000 people in two hours to eliminate him, you realise that we were not dealing with a head of state, but a gang leader.”

He also considered that The Choice proved with conclusive evidence that the Muslim Brotherhood was the true ruler of Egypt. Furthermore, Khairat el-Shater and his men were puppet masters. Their top priority was to favour and empower the Muslim Brotherhood’s agents.

He also said the show “reveals the extent to which the Muslim Brotherhood and its chairman bullied the state, which is not surprising … The show just irrevocably revealed their nature.”

Many showed solidarity with the events depicted, stressing that “their loyalty is to Egypt and not to a particular regime.” Some accused the Muslim Brotherhood of “undermining Egyptian security during their period in power.” Furthermore, others spoke of facts shown in the series. In contrast, opponents of The Choice claimed the work “does not present the facts.”

Regardless, the series provides a different and additional reading into the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood. Besides, the secret leaks have become a hot topic of controversy.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s political party summed up the show with what it described as “the insistence of the regime on employing drama to serve the agenda of the military authority.” It also considered that “the goal is propaganda for Sisi and the distortion of the image of ousted late President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. To this end, all state institutions and capabilities are employed to hijack history and the truth” to perpetuate what it described as a “false version of events.”

However, experts said that the series revealed what they described as “the Brotherhood’s habit of promoting false narratives and fictitious tales.” At the same time, some considered that the leaks “expose the Brotherhood.”

From another point of view, the series poses a threat to the Brotherhood’s philosophical, political and organisational future. It strips it of the “historical victimhood” repeated throughout its 80-year lifespan.

The Egyptian historian Abdel Baki Abdullah, professor of civilisation and history at the Islamic University of Minnesota, believes that “there are conditions for documenting any historical era in dramas. The most important is a commitment to impartiality, realism and balance in depicting historical events.”

Film and Television History of Presidents

Egypt: Drama Political Tool
Egyptian actor Ahmad Zaki poses for a picture after a make-up session for his role in a film on the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, 28 April 2000 in Cairo. This is Zaki’s second role as an Egyptian leader, after his successful performance two years ago as Sadat’s predecessor, the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser. AMR MAHMOUD / AFP

While former President Hosni Mubarak appeared in three films starting in 1951, other works depicted late President Mohamed Abdel Nasser personally. His successor, late President Anwar al-Sadat, was also portrayed in several TV and cinema work.

It was surprising for Sisi to criticise “Al-Irhab wal Kabab,” which filmmakers and critics consider one of the landmarks in Arab cinema. He saw that it “made the country an opponent of the citizen, rather than an element that exudes passivity.”

The Producing Company

According to The Economist, “Egypt’s TV and film industry was long the envy of the Arab world. During the 20th century, movies were among the country’s biggest exports. From Rabat to Baghdad, Arabs learned to mimic Egypt’s distinctive dialect by way of its wildly popular musicals and comedies. The trade gave Egypt cultural influence – and its rulers a propaganda tool.” Some believe that the company producing The Choice is under state control.

United Media Services is the company in question. According to Reuters, since it was established in 2017, UMS has acquired news outlets, production companies, and TV channels, giving the regime unparalleled control over broadcasting. The company itself doesn’t deny that. Their mission statement is to “restore Egyptian media to its rightful pioneering and societal role and to develop the Egyptian media system by supporting media industries and vocational training and producing content that educates, entertains and inspires the Egyptian community.”

According to its official, UMS seeks to “achieve advancement of the media market in Egypt using the latest technologies and the development of the Egyptian personality” to “highlight national achievements and projects by reviewing the positives, highlighting the negatives, and offering appropriate solutions to them.”

UMS, by its own numbers, has 11 TV channels, 10 newspapers and news websites, and five radio stations, making it the largest media group ever in Egypt.