CAIRO — At the height of the traditional Ramadan TV season, millions of Egyptians captivate millions of Egyptians every night of the holy month with lots of drama and little comedy. But one episode of the most politically charged show stood out.
The government-produced hit series “The Choice 3” truthfully claims to describe the 2013 rise of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s authoritarian president, after a period of violent unrest and deep national division.
But it was the 25th episode, which aired Tuesday, in which the country’s military foiled an arms smuggling operation that caused the biggest uproar. The night it aired, the real president broke the fourth wall: Every word of the series, assured Mr. el-Sisi to the Egyptians in a speech, was true.
“Maybe many of us are wondering, what was the purpose of making this series?” said the chairman. “The goal was for us to record honestly, loyally and honorably at a time when there was no honour, no truth.”
But critics say that far from portraying the honest truth, the show is rewriting history by glorifying the president and demonizing his opponents.
In nearly ten years as president, Mr. el-Sisi transformed Egypt from a country that tolerated some political debate and artistic freedom, even under the rule of strongmen, into a country where fear forces silence. By locking up critics big and small, criminalizing protests and muzzling the press, the government has silenced almost all political opposition.
It has also systematically co-opted Egypt’s storied film and television industry, which has dominated the screens of generations of people in the Middle East, and its productions often test the censors with spicy or politically sensitive subjects.
But the government has never gone that far.
Though created by some of the biggest names in the Egyptian entertainment industry, “The Choice” openly recognizes the Ministry of Defense as an associate.
“The real enemy of the Egyptian state now is anyone who opposes 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 season was about counter-terrorism. The third season covers the events surrounding the rise of Mr. el-Sisi in power and is only shown in Egypt, not the wider Middle East.
It mixes fiction with what it presents as fact, adding in each episode never-before-seen clips of important historical figures, apparently captured in secret by Egyptian intelligence.
If Mr. el-Sisi is the hero of ‘The Choice’, the 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 ousted amid mass protests during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.
But Mohamed Morsi, the Brotherhood’s president, proved deeply divisive, his shortened term marked by unrest. With millions of Egyptians calling for his impeachment, the military, then led by Mr el-Sisi as defense minister, seized power, massacring nearly 1,000 people in a single day in August 2013 during a sit-in by pro-Morsi -protesters to protest the military takeover.
Under Mr el-Sisi, showrunners initially enjoyed much the same flexibility they had since Gamal Abdel Nassar, a former president, decided in the late 1960s to allow artistic freedom, provided they avoided third-rate topics like the 2013 Morsi massacre. supporters.
However, since 2017, a company owned by the state security services has monopolized the airwaves, taken control of production companies, TV channels and news channels, and bankrupted other production companies.
According to industry insiders, episodes of various shows are sent directly to security officials for review. Corrupt and abusive agents no longer appear in the scripts; military heroes and daring spies have taken their place. Artists who did not embrace the government line were vilified in state media as sympathizers of the Brotherhood or banned from working in Egypt.
“The fact that there is such centralized control over the media in Egypt means that they can control the producers, the actors, the writers, every stage of production to produce exactly the story they want to tell about themselves,” says 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 TV show that was highly critical of abuses by the security forces had him blacklisted. He now runs a YouTube show about the Egyptian entertainment industry.
In recent years, Mr Fadl and other critics said, government production company executives have intensified their oversight by organizing show topics and storylines.
That was the genesis of ‘The Choice’.
The first season pioneered the slick, skillful blending of fact and fiction that has been the trademark ever since. The finale of the first season, which aired two years ago during Ramadan, showed an actual video of one of the main characters, taken just before his execution in 2020. He was 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 note from a showrunner who appears on the screen at the start of Season 3. “It is a story of some part of Egypt’s history that we have seen with our own eyes or been told by others who have lived through these events.”
In the current season, which last 96 hours in the power of Mr. Morsi, Mr. Morsi and other Brotherhood figures portrayed as scheming schemers, their movements accompanied by ominous music.
Mr. el-Sisi is depicted as a humble family man, measured and cool under pressure. The actor portraying him, Yasser Galal, has nailed his mannerisms, viewers say, to his soft voice.
The show carefully emphasizes that Mr. el-Sisi is religious, but that his brand of Islam, unlike that of Mr. Morsi, is not the driving force behind his politics.
“Whether it’s a president, an army commander or any other position,” Mr. el-Sisi to Morsi in one episode, turning down his invitation to join the Brotherhood, a leader must “be a nationalist, and that’s all.”
Egyptians look forward to the Ramadan shows all year round, watching the new episode of a hit series after breaking the fast is a decades-old tradition.
“These series are a very powerful tool,” said Ms. Shea, the analyst. “It’s captivating, dramatic television.”
“The Choice” has been widely watched and attracted many fans because of its compelling dramatizations and leaked historical videos. But it has also sparked widespread ridicule on social media, where users puncture his heavy-handed propaganda.
For viewers who experienced this history less than a decade ago, the end of the season is no mystery. Morsi 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 having ties to the Brotherhood and anyone with Brotherhood sympathies vulnerable to dismissal, blacklisting or detention on charges of terrorism.
So it was with Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate who was arrested in 2018 and convicted in March of holding secret meetings with the group.
The same day Mr el-Sisi spoke about the show, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer representing Mr Aboul Fotouh, decided to take the president at his word. He announced that he had filed a motion for a retrial, based on new evidence that he believed showed his client had broken away from the Brotherhood long before the events for which he was on trial.
Proof? Four secretly recorded clips of ‘The Choice’.