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A season of morality and police uniforms
How the Egyptian drama industry lost its hard-earned artistic and economic gains in Ramadan 2018
 
 
 

Days ahead of this year’s Ramadan TV season, fans of Egyptian television sensed an impending crisis, one that played out with the sudden removal of several anticipated series from the 2018 schedule. Some of the issues cited, such as shooting delays, were familiar. What was different, however, was the extent of direct state interference in both the schedule and the content of the shows that were broadcast, contributing to what many have called the weakest Ramadan season in many years.

Though particularly insidious this year, this kind of state control did not emerge out of the blue, there have been indications of it over the past two years. President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and other state bodies have issued a series of statements expressing their displeasure with the content of Egypt’s artistic works, criticizing TV series in particular. It seems these statements were initial steps toward cementing state control over Egypt’s media and culture industry, followed by the monopoly of state institutions and their business affiliates over the satellite TV channels considered to be the powerhouses of drama production. Most of these channels are now owned by state-acquired or affiliated production companies, namely Falcon, Egyptian Media Group and Eagle Capital, placing the production and broadcasting of TV series largely at their mercy.

The state took one step further with the creation of the Supreme Media Regulatory Council (SMRC) and its associated Drama Committee in 2016. The council swiftly started to exercise its stated mission of practicing post-screening censorship, instructing TV channels to cut certain scenes or lines of dialogue, despite them having already been approved by the Censorship Board, as happened with the popular series Sabea Gar (The Seventh Neighbor), which ran on CBC channel from October 2017 to March 2018.

It is not only through acquisitions and expanding the role of censorship authorities that the state has tried to influence Egypt’s TV landscape, it has also attempted to control the economy of drama production itself. For instance, producer Tamer Morsy of Synergy Productions had a stake in most of this past season’s TV series, while simultaneously holding the position of CEO of Egyptian Media Group, the current owner of ONtv network, and a shareholder of several other channels. In addition, the company entered into an agreement with a number of other channels not to sign any TV series with budgets exceeding LE70 million.

This year also saw a new player arrive on the scene: Saudi Arabian production and broadcasting bodies seeking to expand their share in the market. As a result, some series featuring big Egyptian names, such as Mohamed Heneidy’s Ard al-Nifaq (Land of Hypocrisy) and Yosra’s Ladayna Aqwalon Okhra (We Have Other Statements to Make) were broadcast exclusively on Saudi outlets, not Egyptian channels. This shift was accompanied by Saudi state interference in the content of the series, as shown by the decision to replace journalist and TV personality Ibrahim Eissa, who plays a secondary role in Land of Hypocrisy, with veteran TV actor Sami Maghawry, on account of Eissa’s outspoken stance against the Kingdom’s policies in the region.  

On to the next level of censorship

Over the past seven years, which the state and Sisi’s remarks refer to as a period of chaos and decline in Egyptian art, the Egyptian drama industry has tackled a number of bold topics, and there has been a noticeable improvement in terms of writing, visual style, performance and production. Some works that immediately come to mind are Kamla Abu Zekry’s Zaat (2013) and Segn al-Nisa (Women’s Prison, 2014), Tamer Mohsen’s Bidoun Thikr Asmaa (Without Mentioning Names, 2013), Taht al-Saytara (Under Control, 2015) and Haza al-Masaa (This Evening, 2017), and Mohamed Yassin’s Moga Harra (Heatwave, 2013).

This evolution was reflected in the extent and ways in which audiences interacted with TV series, spurring discussion and written analysis that didn’t just dissect broad themes, but engaged with details like camera angles, set and costume design and musical scores. However, given the state’s overbearing, restrictive position on media and cultural production, all of the works mentioned above could very well have been denied screening permits by the Censorship Board had they been made this year.

Still from Eagle of the South

Egypt’s media scene has become crowded with bodies that directly or indirectly censor the production of TV series, including sovereign state entities represented by the Interior Ministry, in addition to the Supreme Media Regulatory Council, artistic syndicates, the owners of satellite channels in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Censorship Board itself, which is, comparatively speaking, the most flexible censorship body that deals with drama productions. There is also occasional interference from religious authorities, represented by Al-Azhar. As such, it is not entirely surprising that most of the series this year revolve around police and military officers, and that the phrase “you son of a dog” is now considered too offensive for mainstream TV.

The police officer, or: Ramadan TV’s answer to superman

One of the outcomes of encroaching state control was the release of Kalabsh (Cuffs, 2017–2018), which was the first television series to be produced under the patronage of the Interior Ministry. The show’s screenplay was inspired by the Drama Committee’s instructions to spotlight the heroics of the Egyptian police through the story of an officer who fights corruption, hunts terrorists and aids citizens. The protagonist was to do all this, while simultaneously being a victim of injustice, perpetrated by human rights activists and through social media platforms. There were several other state-requested tropes in the series, among them the Armed Forces conscript who provides for his family, but is martyred in the conflict in Sinai.

(A scene from Eagle of the South)

Last year also saw the return of series about the General Intelligence Service, such as Al-Zeibaq (Mercury) and Al-Gamaa 2 (The Brotherhood 2). It was expected that this type of series would make an appearance this season too, however, it was announced that the second part of Mercury, and Al-So’oud ila al-Haweya (The Ascent to Hell), an adaptation of a book by Saleh Morsi based on General Intelligence Service files, and Al-Daher, which follows a military officer who falls in love with a Jewish girl during the Nasser era, were all postponed.

Despite these cancellations, Cuffs was by no means the only series aired this year in line with the state’s vision. In fact, many shows this Ramadan were nothing but reproductions of Cuffs, in one way or another. Most, at least, feature police officers with the same characteristics of Selim al-Ansary, Cuffs’ protagonist (played by Amir Karara): muscled, mustachioed men who display bravery and devotion, never mess up and barely sleep at night because they’re constantly worried about impending threats to the nation’s security.

We can find this character archetype in Malika, Raheem, Amr Waqea (De Facto), and, of course, Nisr al-Saeed (Eagle of the South). Eagle of the South is widely considered to be this year’s official state-sponsored TV series, since the producers, El Adl Group, secured its production rights with the help of the Egyptian Armed Forces. The casting of series lead Mohamed Ramadan conflicted with his contractual obligations to the Saudi-owned MBC channel. Producer Gamal al-Adl contested, however, that the MBC contract was illegitimate as, due to Ramadan’s mandatory military service, approval from the Armed Forces was required. The issue escalated to the point where Adl claimed that the Saudi company would be brought before an Egyptian military court should it hold Ramadan to his contract.

(A scene from Malika)

Eagle of the South has all the attributes the state would like to see in Egyptian drama: A brave, intelligent, superhero-type protagonist, Zein al-Qinawy (Ramadan), who fights the nation’s internal enemies, represented by the villain Hitler (Sayed Ragab), while his cousin fights the nation’s external enemies in Sinai. Within the framework of these battles — depicted in a manner that doesn’t differ much from material produced by the Armed Forces Department of Morale Affairs or the Ministry of Interior for training purposes — are other messages the state is keen on delivering. These are messages of a social nature, particularly about the importance of keeping traditional familial structures intact, and the importance of raising children with wholesome family values.

Because most series this year clearly followed the same manual, the results were, at times, ridiculously uniform. In Eagle of the South, Zein is falsely accused of killing a detainee and one of the deceased’s friends expresses outrage on social media, using the incident as proof of police brutality. There is an almost identical plot in Cuffs.

Even the series that did not feature a police officer in a main role still orbited the state’s central narrative. For example, Awalem Khafiyya (Hidden Worlds), starring Egyptian film icon Adel Imam, is a representation of what the state believes should be the role of a “responsible press.” Although Imam’s character is purported to be a “dissident” journalist, the show is just a dramatic means to portray the kind of press the state encourages. An ideal press, as we see in the series, supports the state, exposes the corruption of presidential candidates, and adopts an aggressive stance toward issues the state condemns, LGBTQ rights, for example. And, of course, the show would not be complete without an exemplary model of a policeman: Officer Raouf, played by Fathi Abdel Wahab.

(Scene from Hidden Worlds)

An absence of ensemble casts and writing workshops, and a return to individual stars

In Ramadan 2017, there seemed to be a shift toward ensemble casts, which many considered to be a sign of progress on both artistic and production fronts. This year, however, saw a return to series starring one main character, which the show is almost always named after, and around whom most of the events revolve, signalling a setback in terms of creative diversity and resourcefulness. This was the case in shows like Raheem, Tayea, Ayoub, Abu Omar al-Masry, Malika, Qanoun Omar (Omar’s Laws) and Laanet Karma (Karma’s Curse), among others.

The small number of shows with several strong actors in their cast — and, subsequently, the prevalence of writing that caters to one primary character instead — is a natural outcome of financial and artistic restrictions. Most shows’ budgets go toward the fees of the series’ main star, while the leftovers are spent on other production elements, resulting in poor quality productions.

Similarly, this year’s series saw a return to single-author scripts, after writing workshops in previous years showed some producers attempting to avoid the pitfalls of tight schedules, plot holes and writing blunders that are all too common in Ramadan shows. The results of this return were evident, as most shows reflected screenplays that were as shallow as they were unentertaining.

The council’s report

Perhaps the hardest thing to believe is that, despite this farcical TV season, complete with Egypt-loving men in uniforms, the state still isn’t happy. The SMRC published a report mid-way through Ramadan criticizing the excessive display of violence in some scenes, and the “negative portrayal of police officers” in others. Both Cuffs 2 and Eagle of the South, which were produced under the supervision of the Interior Ministry, received mentions in this regard. There was also talk about the third party in Ramadan TV drama production: commercials.  

(A Scene from Cuffs 2)

One of the council’s gripes with this year’s TV season was the length of its advertisements. The SMRC proposed a limit on the permitted duration for commercial breaks, a move which would effectively curtail profit generation for producers and channels, as they all have a stake in ad production and revenues. Such a step would cement further control of the state over content, and therefore over viewers who watch at home. It would be nothing short of a reproduction of the Maspero model pre-2011, where the state’s Production Sector handled everything to do with TV.

The drama industry has thus been dealt several blows on multiple fronts: Through restrictions on production companies by limiting their budgets for series (and subsequently on artists by reducing their salaries), and by limiting the issues that writers are permitted to engage with. There are also the usual obstacles imposed by government censorship, as well as the state’s increasing control over broadcasting platforms through the continuous acquisition of satellite channels. This has all resulted in an overly dull Ramadan TV season that is considered by many to be the poorest in years, from both an artistic and marketing perspective.

Egyptian drama has sadly regressed in terms of most of the economic and artistic gains it had managed to make in the past seven years, placing it among the most important, sophisticated and independent Egyptian industries. The current level of control exerted by state entities over production and broadcasting has reduced healthy competition, and this is why upcoming seasons aren’t likely to be much better than this one. We might even come to see a drop in the number of series released and production companies in operation, as well as further decline in the artistic quality of the works produced.

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Mohamed al-Aswany