Egypt has a long history of radio and television series, many of which are broadcast across the Arabic-speaking world. Since the launch of Egyptian Radio in 1934, the country has produced thousands of series that have attracted audiences of millions and made the Egyptian dialect the most common and understood in Arab countries.
The first Arab series
Marzouk Effendi Family was the first Arab series ever. It began broadcasting on Egyptian Radio in 1959 as part of the To Housewives programme established by the media activist Safia al-Muhandis. It took the form of standalone but connected episodes that examined Egyptian and Arab public affairs and recent events. Each episode was five minutes long and featured family members of Marzouk, a struggling employee. Among the topics addressed were immigration, addiction, unemployment and marriage. More than 200 Egyptian and Arab actors participated in the series over its initial 60-year run, the most prominent of whom were Fouad al-Muhandis, Tawfiq al-Daqan and Farid Shawky. The series was suspended in 2009 but resumed broadcasting in 2013 and continues to this day.
Television dramas emerge
After the launch of Egyptian Television in 1960, televised dramas emerged. The first television series, Harib min al-Ayyam (‘running away from time), was produced on the eighth anniversary of the end of the Egyptian monarchy and began broadcasting on 23 July 1962. Based on a story by Tharwat Abaza, it starred Abdullah Ghaith, Tawfiq al-Daqan, Hussein Riad and Madiha Salem. The series centred around a poor drummer who is ridiculed and ill-treated by the people in his village. According to the story, theft was widespread in the village, but the inhabitants were unable to identify the culprit. At the end, it turned out the drummer was behind all the crimes. The series was so popular in Egypt that its writer claimed in an interview that the cabinet scheduled meetings so they would not coincide with the time the series was broadcast. He also said that he was arrested after episode seven for referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser, then president, as a drummer, although he was released after 48 hours.
Naguib Mahfouz, who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, is regarded as one of the best contemporary Arabic writers. Among his many works, he published 34 novels and hundreds of short stories, several of which were turned into series and films. The Morning and Evening Talks series, produced in 2001, is based on his book of the same name. Set in Cairo, it traces the fortunes of three families over five generations, as well as painting a vivid portrait of Egyptian life in the 20th century from a range of perspectives.
Other series that have been popular with Egyptian and Arab audiences include Al-Hilmiyah Nights, a six-part series that first began broadcasting in 1987 and ended in 2016, about Mayor Suleiman Ghanem who comes from the countryside to avenge the death of his father. The series was written by Osama Anwar Okasha, directed by Ismail Abdel Hafiz and starred Yahya al-Fakhrani, Salah al-Saadani and Safia al-Omari.
A high point in the history of Egyptian drama was Mountain Wolves, which was first broadcast in 1993. The series is set in the village of Haton al-Jabal in Upper Egypt, where the old customs are strictly observed. The chief of the Hawwarah tribe breaks these customs by marrying off his daughter to a stranger, prompting his brother to pursue and kill her.
Egypt has also produced a number of widely viewed spy dramas, most of which are based on real events. The most famous of these is Raafat al-Hagan, which was inspired by the story of Egyptian spy Refaat Ali Suleiman al-Gammal, who spent 17 years in Israel performing clandestine operations. The three-part series, which aired in the late 1980s, covered most of al-Gammal’s life, from before he was recruited to his assignment to infiltrate the Jewish community in Egypt, his transfer to Tel Aviv and his death in Germany in 1982. Actor Mahmoud Abdel Aziz played the title role while a large number of actors, including Yousra and Youssef Chaaban, made up the supporting cast.
Also based on a true story is Tears in the Eyes of a Rude Woman about an Egyptian intelligence operation against Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service. The series starred Adel Imam as Jumah al-Shawan, a poor young man who works at the Port of Suez to support his family. He receives a tempting offer and discovers it came from Mossad. He tells the Egyptian security services, who ask him to accept the offer and pass true and false information to Israel’s intelligence services. He worked as a double agent in Egypt for six years before successfully stealing espionage technology from Mossad for the benefit of the Egyptian intelligence.
Egypt’s drama archives contain many series that have brought to life some of the country’s best-known historical personalities. Some focus on religious and Islamic characters such as Muhammad is God’s Messenger and Imam of Preachers, about Sheikh Muhammad Metwali al-Sharawi, in addition to series centred around literary characters such as writer Taha Hussein and artistic ones such as singer Umm Kulthum, or series talking about King Farouk.
Decline of the drama industry
The drama industry in Egypt is significant, consisting of millions of workers, technicians, actors, writers and directors. Nearly 40 series were produced in 2018 alone. The high season for the industry is the month of Ramadan, when drama series are typically aired across the Arab world. However, the increasing government control of the Egyptian media in recent years has negatively impacted both the volume and quality of the dramas produced.
According to art critic Adam Mikiwe, the decline is, in part, due to the lack of competition and the axing of high-paid actors such as Adel Imam and Yahya al-Fakhrani to cut production costs.
The industry has also been the target of regular government interference. For example, People of Alexandria was banned because its writer, Bilal Fadl, opposed the regime. The writer of Abu Amour al-Masri, Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, had his name removed from the credits for expressing positions that differed from the regime. Although he subsequently won a court case to reclaim authorship, the series had already aired.