CAIRO – At the height of the traditional Ramadan television season, big-budget star-studded programs capture millions of Egyptians every night of the holy month with high drama and low comedy. But an episode of the most politically charged show stood out.
The government-produced hit series “The Choice 3” truthfully pretends to tell of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s takeover in 2013, Egypt’s authoritarian president, after a period of fierce unrest and deep national division.
But it was the 25th episode that aired on Tuesday, showing that the country’s military was averting an arms smuggling campaign that was causing the biggest uproar. The night it was broadcast, the real president broke the fourth wall: Every word in the series, Mr el-Sisi assured the Egyptians in a speech, was true.
“Perhaps many of us ask, what was the purpose of making this series?” said the President. “The goal was that we record honestly, loyally and honorably in a time when there was no honor, no truth.”
But critics say the show is far from portraying the honest truth, rewriting history by denouncing the president and demonizing his opponents.
For almost a decade as president, Mr el-Sisi has transformed Egypt from a country that tolerated some political debate and artistic permission, even under the rule of strong men, to a country where fear forces silence. By imprisoning big and small critics, criminalizing protests and mouthing the press, the government has stifled almost all political opposition.
It has also systematically chosen Egypt’s famous film and television industry, which has dominated the screens of generations of people throughout the Middle East, and its productions often test censors with unfair or politically sensitive topics.
But the government has never gone that far.
Though made by some of the biggest names in Egypt’s entertainment industry, “The Choice” openly credits the Ministry of Defense as a collaborator.
“The real enemy of the Egyptian state now is anyone who stands against the state,” said Belal Fadl, a prominent Egyptian screenwriter who is critical of the show. “In war you have to use every 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 who fought a jihadist and the second who dealt with counter-terrorism. The third season covers the events surrounding Mr El-Sisi’s takeover and is shown only in Egypt, not the wider Middle East.
It mixes fiction with what it presents as facts, and never splices before seen clips of key historical figures, seemingly preoccupied with Egyptian intelligence in secret, in each episode.
If Mr el-Sisi is the hero of “The Choice”, its 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 Mohamed Morsi, the president of the Brotherhood, proved deeply divisive, his shortened term of office marked by upheavals. With millions of Egyptians calling for his eviction, the army, then led by Mr el-Sisi as defense minister, seized power and massacred nearly 1,000 people in a single day in August 2013 at a sit-in by pro-Morsi protesters to protest the military takeover.
Under Mr el-Sisi, showrunners initially enjoyed much the same flexibility as they had since Gamal Abdel Nassar, a former president, decided to allow artistic freedom in the late 1960s, provided they avoided third-party topics orbit such as the massacre of Morsi in 2013 supporters.
Since 2017, however, a company owned by the state security services has monopolized the airwaves, taken control of production companies, TV channels and news media and put other production companies out of operation.
Episodes of various shows are sent directly to security officials for review, according to industry insiders. Corrupt and violent officers are no longer in the scripts; military heroes and daring spies have taken their place. Artists who did not embrace the government line were smeared as fraternity sympathizers in state-affiliated media or prevented from working in Egypt again.
“The fact that there is such a centralized control over the media in Egypt means that they have the ability to control the producers, the actors, the writers, every stage of the production to produce exactly the story they want to tell about themselves, said Joey Shea, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute specializing in Egypt.
Mr. Fadl, the screenwriter, left Cairo for New York in 2014 after his work on a television program heavily critical of security forces’ abuses left him blackballed. He is now running a YouTube show about the Egyptian entertainment industry.
In the last few years, Mr Fadl and other critics have said, state-owned production company executives have intensified their oversight and arranged show topics and story lines.
It was the creation of the “Election”.
The first season was groundbreaking for the smart, skilled mix of fact and fiction that has been its trademark ever since. The finale of the first season, which aired during Ramadan two years ago, showed a real video of one of the main characters taken moments before his execution in 2020. He had been accused of being involved in a series of terrorist attacks.
“This series is based on true events, with some names and places changed,” reads a showrunner’s note that appears on screen at the beginning of season 3. “It’s a tale of a part of Egypt’s history that we witnessed. to with our own eyes or was told by others who lived through these events. “
In the current season, which covers Mr. Morsi’s last 96 hours in power, Mr. Morsi and other figures from the Brotherhood portrayed as shifting swindlers, their movements accompanied by ominous music.
Mr. el-Sisi is shown as a humble family man, measured and cool under pressure. The actor portraying him, Yasser Galal, has nailed his manners, viewers say, down to his soft voice.
The show is careful to emphasize that Mr el-Sisi is religious – but that his brand of Islam, unlike Mr Morsis, does not pursue his policies.
“Whether it’s a president, an army commander, or any other position,” Mr el-Sisi’s character tells Mr Morsis in one episode, rejecting his invitation to join the fraternity, a leader must be “nationalist, and that’s all.”
Egyptians look forward to Ramadan shows all year round, and it’s a decades-old tradition to watch the new episode of a hit series after breaking the fast every night.
“These series are a very powerful tool,” said Ms. Shea, the analyst. “It’s engaging, dramatic television.”
“The Choice” has been widely viewed and has attracted many fans for its compelling dramatizations and the leaked historical videos. But it has also attracted widespread ridicule on social media, with users stroking the harsh propaganda.
For viewers who went through this story less than a decade ago, the end of the season is no mystery. Morsi, who was sent to prison, collapsed and died in a courtroom in Cairo in 2019.
But the Brotherhood has remained the No. 1 enemy of the Sisi government, with political opponents routinely accused of Brotherhood ties and anyone with the Brotherhood’s sympathies vulnerable to gunfire, blacklisting or detention on terror charges.
Such was the case with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former fraternity leader and presidential candidate, who was arrested in 2018 and convicted in March of holding secret meetings with the group.
The same day that Mr. el-Sisi spoke about the show, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer representing Mr. Aboul Fotouh, to take the floor. He announced that he had filed a motion for a retrial, based on new evidence which he said showed that his client had removed himself from the Brotherhood long before the events for which he was charged.
The proof? Four secretly recorded clips from “The Choice”.