A well-dressed, clean-shaven man sits at a table in a posh restaurant. Accompanying him is an attractive young woman whose attention he seems to hold with ease. He explains his deep regret that he never pursued their relationship more deeply: His budding career as a security officer had left him little time for worldly pleasures.
Meanwhile, across town, a violent clash between rival student gangs ends with a young man's body lying dead on the pavement. It looks like a new CSI spin-off -- except the action is taking place on the hot streets of Cairo. And these scenes aren't from another American cop drama. They're from the first episode of Egypt's controversial Ramadan series, "Al Gamaah" ("The Group").
"Al Gamaah," which purports to be a sort of Egyptian version of "24" or "The Wire," is actually a government-funded series of morality tales about the country's banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The series can be summed up easily: A noble and courageous Egyptian security officer launches an investigation into the Brotherhood's past, and digs up some startling skeletons, as members of the illegal organization skulk around like Bond villains. The pilot episode ran on Arab satellite networks on the first night of Ramadan, and episodes continued nightly for the duration of the Islamic holy month (the Middle Eastern equivalent of American sweeps week). The public response has varied from admiration to total outrage.
Entertaining at times, the show was little more than heavy-handed propaganda. But it had some unintended ironies. In giving the Muslim Brotherhood a primetime treatment, the Egyptian government only made it obvious that its own affairs aren't quite ready for the spotlight.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, making it the oldest existing Islamic movement organization in the Arab world. Despite the more militant splinter groups that have emerged in recent years, the Brotherhood itself has a long tradition of renouncing violence and calling for democracy, the rule of law, and an end to the national state of emergency that has been in place in Egypt since 1981. It operates the largest network of social services in Egypt and participates in elections (though its candidates must run as independents), winning 88 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. It was also the organization that incubated future leaders of al Qaeda such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.
For years, the Egyptian regime has tried to limit the Brotherhood's impact, most recently by rewriting the laws on eligibility requirements so the group couldn't contest the parliamentary elections scheduled for next month. "Al Gama'ah" is the latest salvo in a war that has now lasted for decades.
The show's advocates argue that it offers a true appraisal of the Muslim Brotherhood. They defend its creator, the well-known and frequently controversial secularist TV and film director Wahid Hamid, claiming that he's an independent voice with no allegiances to the government. The Brotherhood's leaders, however, are up in arms. "Al Gamaah," they say, is a deliberate attempt by the regime of Hosni Mubarak to smear the group's reputation. And indeed, when Muslim Brotherhood leaders revealed that the regime had paid 25 million Egyptian pounds for the production of the series, a government official coolly responded that the figure was "only" 22 million.
The show's hyperbole was especially revealing. For example, "Al Gama'ah" depicts members of the Brotherhood as paranoid to a farcical extreme. Their reliance on coded messages, secret meeting locations, and decoy cars is meant to make them seem suspicious. But it also serves as a reminder that Egypt's political environment leaves opposition groups no other options. Any party, regardless of its intentions, would have to resort to secrecy in order to organize politically.
Similarly, the surveillance power of the state security agency, depicted as near-omniscient, is intended to demonstrate that no organized group, no matter how subversive or secretive, can evade the watchful eye of the regime. The show makes a clear distinction between those who warrant suspicion and deserve no right to privacy, on the one hand, and the majority of law-abiding citizens on the other. The wealth of information retrieved from strategically placed wiretaps appears to justify selective government intrusion into the homes and businesses of suspected Brotherhood members. But apparently the producers didn't realize that viewers might instead just be frightened or outraged by the government's trampling of personal freedom.
Then there's the outlandish portrayal of the Muslim Brotherhood's leaders, who are reminiscent of 1980s Chuck Norris villains. They are angry, unpredictable, and prone to violent outbursts. Ominous music follows them wherever they go. Their piety is about as superficial as their shiny suits or German cars. They eat lamb at their parties in a country where people are often hungry and where meat is a luxury.
In sharp contrast, the state security agent is a caricature of another sort: a sterling-souled hero. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to undo the bad reputation earned by the intelligence service over the last six decades. Since the reign of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's revolutionary leader, the mabahith has been a dreaded force. Innocents have routinely been swept away by "dawn visitors" from the intelligence service, and stories of torture and corruption are commonplace. The star agent in "Al Gamaah," however, would make even the most goody-two-shoes superhero roll his eyes. He is a model son and neighbor, courteous to those he interrogates, and devoted to lofty ideals, such as truth, justice, and love of country. The Mubarak regime could not ask for a more honorable representative -- which is perhaps how audiences know it's fictional.
The show takes even more troubling liberties with Egyptian history. In a subplot made up of flashback scenes depicting the early years of the Muslim Brotherhood, its founder, Hasan al-Banna, is shown as a political opportunist. He incites his followers to violence, accepts bribes, and even cooperates covertly with the British occupation.
While he is certainly not beyond reproach, Banna tends to be respected even among fierce critics of the Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, "Al Gamaah"'s haphazard treatment of the period does truth no favors. In one particularly glaring misrepresentation, the show attributes to Banna the development of takfir, the controversial practice of excommunicating other Muslims. In fact, takfir, which is condemned by many mainstream Islamic scholars as a justification for violence, only emerged among Muslim Brotherhood fringe groups 20 years after the leader's death. Banna's surviving family members have filed a lawsuit against the government requesting that the program be pulled from TV networks. The suit claims that Banna's family was never consulted in the development and production of the series and that the negative portrayal has totally distorted the truth.
Despite the overwhelmingly cynical slant of "Al Gamaah," the show does, on occasion, pose provocative questions. In one scene, a shop owner and Muslim Brotherhood elder tells a deli server to place Danish cheeses back on display now that the controversy over the Prophet cartoons has died down, suggesting that the Brotherhood is more concerned with outward appearances than it would like to admit. Two useful critiques of the Brotherhood also emerge. The show points out the generational gap between the group's leadership and the majority of its young followers, who are often unable to get anything done within the party because of its rigid hierarchy. The show also highlights the Brotherhood's lack of a coherent political program, a vulnerability that sprouts up during every election cycle. When an anguished father confronts a son who has been arrested for joining the Brotherhood, he cries out, "What do they offer that the rest of us Muslims don't have?" In the episode, the son remains silent. In real life, a frequent criticism of the Brotherhood is that they lack specific policy proposals.
The government's hope, clearly, is that "Al Gamaah" will make young Egyptians think twice about joining the opposition. But the tactic may instead prove costly to the regime. Any public discussion of the Muslim Brotherhood may just lend it more visibility and credibility. Web searches for "Hasan al-Banna" spiked dramatically in the month of August, when the show began. Young Egyptians are reportedly flocking to buy Banna's writings, while independent newspapers are publishing fresh reports on the historic investigation into his assassination. There are even rumors now that the Muslim Brotherhood is in the planning stages of its own rival TV series. If and when that show airs, it will surely be as slanted an account as Wahid Hamid's "Al Gamaah," although the villains and heroes are likely to have swapped sides.
Somewhere in between the competing narratives, there's probably some truth to be found. But as "Al Gamaah"'s star character Agent Ashraf says, "There is a difference between opinion and truth. When I find the truth, I'll tell you my opinion."