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Egypt’s army is fighting Islamism by supporting Ramadan TV series

By Abir Sorour
Posted on Wednesday, 5 May 2021 20:30, updated on Thursday, 6 May 2021 14:13

Screen shot from TV series ‘Al-Ikhtyiar 2’

After going on a mission to catch Islamist militants, a well-built special-forces officer calls his sweetheart, letting her know that he must end their relationship because his job as a police officer subjects him to the constant threat of being killed.

This scene, from Al-Ikhtiyar 2 (The Choice 2), is part of Egypt’s TV series that airs an episode each day for the duration of the month of Ramadan.

This year’s production is a sequel to a successful first part that focused on military operations in North Sinai. It follows two main characters: state security officer Zakaria and a central security officer Youssef Al-Rifai.

The series attempts to humanise the two officers who work for Egypt’s most controversial security division, which is often accused of committing severe human rights violations.

But this year, between sipping coffee, eating Ramadan desserts and puffing on shishas (water pipes), many Egyptians are watching doses of sentimental propaganda that shows police and army heroics as defending the nation. These are the people who bear the weight of the country’s worries while struggling to have family relationships due to the constraints of their jobs.

This trend of humanising often vilified security officers, has become increasingly popular since 2016, when the Egyptian military began to take over the public sphere in the post-2013 era.

After nationalising the independent press, TV and radio stations and dominating the public sphere through controlling syndicates, NGOs and political parties, the Egyptian military infiltrated the country’s successful and popular entertainment business.

The media machine

Since 2013, any person watching TV, whether it be a cooking show or a soap series, has been treated to a break in programming for a brief video produced by the Morale Affairs Department at the Ministry of Defence, to honour the heroic actions of the country’s security personnel.

The intense military music and professional shots show them in action as they brave bearded Islamists who organise protests and bear arms. These are the saviours, caretakers and protectors of Egypt, the video says.

Across all types of media, this effort has been glorified as a means to “take back the Egyptian state” from the Muslim Brotherhood, which was in power under then president Mohamed Morsi until 2013. It also serves as a warning to those seeking democratic change through protests and opposition movements.

President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his media machine have used such arguments to paint the pro-democracy 2011 January protests, which toppled his former boss Hosni Mubarak, as nothing more than a plot by the Muslim Brotherhood to take power and install Islamist rule.

One series used to back up this theory is Hagma Mortada (Counter Attack, 2021). It argues that the 2011 revolution was nothing more than a ploy by foreign intelligence agencies to divide the Middle East – Egypt included – and to spread Islamist militants across the region to agitate civilian and sectarian conflicts.

But, of course, according to the series, the Egyptian intelligence services were aware of such evil plots and attempted to quell them. The series goes as far as to argue that large numbers of the youth who participated in the 2011 protests travelled to eastern Europe to take “pro-democracy” skills courses and that the pre-2011 secular political parties were part of these “plots”. The Egyptian state often repeats this narrative to whitewash the main reasons for the 2011 uprising: opposing Mubarak, poverty and police brutality.

In an article published on the news site Egypt Today – owned by the General Intelligence Service (GIS) – “Hagma Mortada revealed how Egyptian intelligence is very alert in terms of monitoring everything such as tensions on the street, especially among young people, those working with foreign institutions and international media outlets.”

Screen shot from TV series ‘Al-Ikhtiyar 2’

Currently, the Egyptian military controls a large number of private media institutions. This includes TV channels, newspapers, radio stations and production companies, in addition to the already politically conservative state-owned media outlets.

For example, the Synergy Production Company, owned by the GIS, released 15 series during this year’s Ramadan, ranging from romances, comedies, action series to terrorism thrillers – Al-Ikhtiyar 2 and Hagma Mortada included.

Constructing a positive image

The bloody dispersal of pro-Morsi sit-ins and the killing of hundreds of protesters in the second half of 2013 gave rise to radical militant activities, with different groups targeting officers, government officials and judges.

This opened the door for numerous security operations and raids all over the country, leading to the deaths of more than 7,000 civilians, alleged militants and security personnel, primarily in North Sinai. These operations further created distrust for many Egyptians, who were already protesting against police brutality in 2011.

These anti-Islamist and pro-security TV and film productions aim to create a new and positive image of the security forces. The one etched in the minds of many Egyptians is of police officers shooting at protesters and military officers executing civilians in North Sinai.

In Al-Ikhtiyar 1 is built around the story of military special forces officer Ahmed Al-Mansi. He is portrayed as a modest, caring, masculine and religious person. Yet he is also capable of becoming a killing machine and military mastermind on the front line against militants in North Sinai.

Screen shot from TV series ‘Al-Ikhtiyar 2’

The series fails to include any of the numerous violations often committed by the Egyptian army in North Sinai against civilians, such as extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, forced evacuations and illegal arrests.

Instead, viewers only see the well-choreographed security operations in a complicated conflict.

No action is wrong if it’s against militants

The actor Amir Karara, who plays Mansi, is not new to such roles. The series of Kalabsh (Handcuffs), which aired from 2017 to 2019, was produced by the GIS-owned Synergy.

In it, Karara played an abusive investigations officer who tortures and intimidates civilians, yet he is made out to be the triumphant protagonist. His harsh methods are deemed justified, as he must deal with the corruption and atrocities committed by drug dealers, spies and militants.

While the first part of Al-Ikhtiyar was dedicated to heroic actions of the military, the second part focuses solely on the police in the post-July 2013 military coup d’état that ousted Morsi.

This post-2013 violence, beginning with the Rabaa massacre, is arguably one of the deadliest moments in Egypt’s modern history.

In Al-Ikhtiyar 2, the narrative is simplified, whereby killings and arrests are accepted when placed in the context of counterterrorism. Like many US films in which we see incredibly complicated geopolitical, military conflicts from the eyes of one white US soldier and his blond wife and children, the same simplistic formula carried through in Al-Ikhtiyar 2. But instead we see Egypt’s post-coup security scene from the eyes of an upper-class state security officer and his pretty, posh wife.

Controlling the discourse, controlling the narrative

The month of Ramadan is now marked by families coming together after Iftar (breaking their fasts) to watch a variety of drama, action and comedy productions that last the entire length of the holiday (30 days).

Series such as Al-Ikhtiyar are becoming increasingly controversial as they attempt to normalise the military and police operations that often include extrajudicial killings, by providing a ‘humanistic’ side to those officers. These are the officers who have been involved in counterterrorism operations since 2013 and their narrative of events is what matters.

In today’s political context, it is illegal to present a different narrative about police and military officers, whether it be about the status of prisoners or anything that is seen to criticise the status quo.

Dozens of activists, journalists, lawyers, doctors, writers, LGBTQ+ people and protesters remain jailed or spend years in detention on accusations ranging from belonging to a terrorist group or simply for speaking up against the government narrative.

Meanwhile, hundreds of websites and sources of information are blocked in Egypt for reporting on human rights violations.

The series and films are state-created propaganda to entertain Egyptian audiences and get them to sympathise with the new heroes of the country, created by military-owned companies and their TV affiliates.

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