When the well-known Egyptian writer Wahid Hamed said three years ago that
The actor who plays Hassan al-Banna, Iyad Nasar, plays him full of emotion and human depth as a pious man who preaches Islam and the word of Godhe was going to write the screenplay for a television series about the early days of the Muslim Brotherhood and its founder Hassan al-Banna, the Egyptian public were excited to see what would emerge. Its expectations have in no way been disappointed, since, as soon as the first episodes were broadcast during Ramadan, the series has led to a continuing controversy.
The series has a wide historic sweep: it starts with the events of 2006 when supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated on the campus of the al-Azhar University in Cairo against the expulsion of three members by the university's director. The action then returns to 1912, to the childhood of Hassan al-Banna, and ends in 1949 with his murder.
Since it was announced, the series has led to passionate debate, increasing in intensity until Hassan al-Banna's son, Seif al-Islam, went as far as to make serious accusations against Wahid Hamed, the production company, the Egyptian broadcasters and the Egyptian Information Minister.
His accusation was that the series showed a false and historically distorted picture of both the Muslim Brotherhood and his father. Seif al-Islam said that his father was portrayed as a wicked, opportunistic and violent man who quickly declared others to be unbelievers.
Response in the form of another series
Seif al-Islam told Qantara.de, "The aim of the series is political and not artistic. It's intended to give a favourable picture of the government and to demonise the Muslim Brothers ahead of the parliamentary elections in November."
He pointed out that the writer of the series and the production company had not been prepared to sit down with him to talk about his father. They also failed to seek any approval from relatives of the other founders of the Brotherhood.
Some consider the series the finest in the history of the Arab media, others say "The Brotherhood" is nothing but state-sponsored propaganda | A court will deal with the case at the end of this month. But that annoys the family, since all the episodes will have been broadcast by then. So the family have decided to move in a different direction: they commissioned a television production company which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood to produce a series called "Hassan al-Banna's journey is not over".
The series is intended as a direct reply to "The Brotherhood". It will be shot in Jordan, Syria and the Gulf States, since the Egyptian authorities will not be prepared to issue a film permit. But it is turning out to be a problem to find well-known actors for the series. Actors are worried that, if they take part in the series, they could suffer repression from the Egyptian government.
Gamal Nasr, media adviser to the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, Mohammed Badi, has criticised "The Brotherhood" for only offering the standpoint of its author. It's well-known, he says, that Wahid Hamed, from his earliest films and series onwards, had always had a dismissive attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood and towards the increasing role of religion in public life.
Mohammed Badi himself believes that the series has been made in coordination with the Egyptian security services. As a result, Wahid Hamed shows a very mild picture of the way the security forces and the police deal with members of the Brotherhood. Badi says he can only laugh at they way they are portrayed; he is sure that the public knows that the police really deal with the Brothers with cruelty and violence.
The critics of the series have now discovered Facebook. They've started an Internet campaign and set up Facebook groups to, as they put it, "fight Wahid Hamed's lies".
"My work is an artistic work," says Wahid Hamed, writer of the series' screenplay. "It is intended to make people think. By no means is it supposed to propagate a particular religious line" | Every episode of "The Brotherhood" is carefully examined by these groups. But the discussions have not always been objective. The users have just waited for mistakes on which they could jump. The analysis often gives way to insults against the author or gossip about the actors.
It wasn't long before there was a movement in the opposite direction, in defence of "The Brotherhood." Its supporters saw it as an outstanding artistic production, which revealed truths which the Muslim Brotherhood had long tried to hide.
Magdi Abd al-Ghani, a journalist on an official Egyptian government newspaper, told Qantara.de that he found the series excellent: "It portrays an accurate picture of the reality of the Muslim Brotherhood and the way they think. In reality, the harsh criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood is a result of the fact that they do not like to reveal much about the way they think, nor about their organisation or their financial practices."
Hassan al-Banna as man – not prophet
Abd al-Ghani says the series is neutral in the way it portrays the Brotherhood and its founder. He says it makes al-Banna out to be a politically committed individual who makes mistakes like everybody else. But it's just this kind of portrait which annoys the Brothers, since they prefer to present him as an exemplary man of virtue.
Wahid Hamed now refuses to respond to the accusations of his critics. He told Qantara.de that he will only deal with them when all the episodes have been broadcast. But he does deny that his series has a political motive: "My work is an artistic work," he says, "which is intended to make people think. By no means is it supposed to propagate a particular religious line."
Entertainment instead of a political message
If its opponents could set up Facebook groups, so could the series' supporters. Members of the group "The Brotherhood – a call to think and discuss" describe the series as the finest in the history of the Arab media. It shows, they say, how the Muslim Brothers tick and how they try to manipulate people under the cover of religion.
"The Brotherhood," they say, reveals how modern television preachers are only interested in financial profit. It points to the links between the Muslim Brothers and Saudi Wahhabism, and it uncovers the attempts of the Brothers to promote the use of the niqab by women and the duty of wearing a beard for men.
They say "The Brotherhood" demonstrates its neutrality by showing the Egyptian regime in a critical light. There's one scene for example, in which a Muslim Brother, played by well-known actor Ezat al-Alaily, says, "The government produces the suffering of the people, and the Muslim Brothers build their popularity on that suffering. But in reality, no-one is interested in the people."
Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood (1906-1949). "In reality, the harsh criticism from the Muslim Brotherhood is a result of the fact that they do not like to reveal much about the way they think, nor about their organisation or their financial practices," according to the journalist Magdi Abd al-Ghani | As well as the supporters and the opponents of the series, there's a third group. According to statistics, most of the ordinary people haven't seen the series. It runs at the same time as comedies and soaps on other channels, and it's intellectually demanding, so most people rather watch something else.
Most of those who have been following the series want to be entertained without thinking too much about the political sub-text. It's the emotionality of the series which grips the viewers, and not so much the political statements behind it. The actor who plays Hassan al-Banna, Iyad Nasar, plays him full of emotion and human depth as a pious man who preaches Islam and the word of God. And that's a performance which is attractive to many Egyptians.
The popularity of the Muslim Brothers is increasing
The political analyst Mohammed Gamal told Qantara.de that the series was not having the effect its makers intended. "In spite of all their intentions," he said, "'The Brotherhood' is increasing the popularity of the Muslim Brothers. Although they are trying to discredit the myth surrounding them, they are trying to do so with philosophical arguments which most of the ordinary people can't understand."
Instead of supporting the government line that the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical and militant organisation, the series is actually instead turning into free propaganda for the movement. It's thanks to the series that the sale of books dealing with the history of the Brothers and al-Banna has shot up. The series has successfully put an end to the attempts by the government to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of the media.