In the Egyptian TV series "The Choice", the president is the hero

CAIRO — At the height of the traditional Ramadan TV season, big-budget, star-studded shows are captivating millions of Egyptians every n...


CAIRO — At the height of the traditional Ramadan TV season, big-budget, star-studded shows are captivating millions of Egyptians every night of the holy month with drama that’s both dramatic and comedic. But one episode of the most politically charged show stood out.

The hit government-produced series “The Choice 3” purports to accurately chronicle the 2013 rise to power of Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Egypt’s authoritarian president, after a period of violent unrest and deep national division.

But it was the 25th episode, airing Tuesday and featuring the country’s military foiling an arms smuggling operation, that created the biggest stir. On the evening of its broadcast, the real president broke the fourth wall: Every word of the series, Mr. el-Sisi assured the Egyptians in a speechit was true.

“Maybe a lot of us are wondering what was the point of doing this show?” said the president. “The goal was for us to record honestly, loyally and honorably in a time when there was no honor or truth.”

But critics say far from portraying the honest truth, the series rewrites history by targeting the president and demonizing his opponents.

In nearly a decade as president, Mr. el-Sisi transformed Egypt from a country that tolerated political debate and artistic license, even under the rule of strongmen, to one where fear forces silence. Imprison critics big and small, criminalizing demonstrations and muzzling the press, the government has stifled almost all political opposition.

He also has systematically co-opted Egypt’s film and television industry, which has dominated the screens of generations of people across the Middle East, its productions frequently testing censors with racy or politically sensitive subject matter.

But the government never went that far.

Although directed by some of the biggest names in the Egyptian entertainment industry, “The Choice” openly credits the Ministry of Defense as a collaborator.

“The real enemy of the Egyptian state now is anyone who opposes the state,” said Belal Fadl, a prominent Egyptian screenwriter who criticizes the series. “In wartime you have to use whatever 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 fighting a jihadist and the second dealt with counter-terrorism. The third season covers the events surrounding Mr. el-Sisi’s rise to power and airs only in Egypt, not the wider Middle East.

It mixes fiction with what it presents as fact, pinning never-before-seen clips of key historical figures, apparently recorded by Egyptian intelligence services in secret, into each episode.

If Mr. el-Sisi is the hero of “The Choice”, his villain is the Muslim Brotherhood. The candidate of the Islamist group won the first democratic presidential election in 2012, after the country’s longtime dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was toppled amid mass protests during the 2011 Arab Spring uprising.

But Mohamed Morsi, the president of the Muslim Brotherhood, has proven to be deeply divisive, his truncated mandate marked by upheaval. With millions of Egyptians calling for his ouster, the army, then led by Mr. el-Sissi as defense minister, takeovermassacring nearly 1,000 people in a single day in August 2013 during a sit-in organized by pro-Morsi demonstrators to protest the military coup.

Under Mr el-Sisi, showrunners initially enjoyed the same flexibility they had since Gamal Abdel Nassar, a former president, decided to allow artistic freedom in the late 1960s, provided that ‘They avoid third-rail topics such as the 2013 Morsi massacre.

Since 2017, however, a company owned by the state security service has monopolized the airwaves, taking over production companies, TV stations and news outlets and putting other production companies out of business.

Episodes of different shows are sent directly to security officials for review, according to industry insiders. Corrupt and abusive cops no longer appear in scripts; military heroes and daring spies took their place. Artists who did not take the government line were vilified as Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in state-linked media or barred from working again in Egypt.

“The fact that there is such centralized control over the media in Egypt means that they have the ability to control producers, actors, writers, at every stage of production to produce exactly the story they want. would like to tell about themselves,” Joey said. Shea, non-resident researcher 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 highly critical of security force abuses left him in the dark. He now runs a YouTube show about the Egyptian entertainment industry.

In recent years, Mr. Fadl and other critics said, executives at the government production company have stepped up their oversight, ordering program topics and scripts.

This was the genesis of “The Choice”.

The first season pioneered the slick, clever mix of fact and fiction which has been his trademark ever since. The first-season finale, which aired during Ramadan two years ago, showed real video of one of the main characters taken moments before his execution in 2020. He had been accused of taking part in a series of terrorist attacks.

“This series is based on true events, with some names and locations changed,” reads a note from the showrunners that appears onscreen at the start of Season 3. of Egypt that we have witnessed with our own eyes or has been told by others who have experienced these events.

In the current season, which covers Mr. Morsi’s last 96 hours in power, Mr. Morsi and other Brotherhood figures are portrayed as devious schemers, their movements accompanied by eerie music.

Mr el-Sisi is presented as a humble, measured and cool family man under pressure. The actor portraying him, Yasser Galal, nailed his mannerisms, viewers say, right down to his smooth voice.

The show is careful to point out that Mr. el-Sisi is religious – but that his brand of Islam, unlike Mr. Morsi’s, does not guide his politics.

“Whether it’s a president, an army commander, or any other position,” Mr. el-Sisi’s character tells Mr. Morsi in one episode, rejecting his invitation to join the Brotherhood, a leader must be “a nationalist, and that’s it.”

Egyptians look forward to Ramadan shows all year round, watching the new episode of a hit series after breaking the nightly fast is a decades-old tradition.

“These series are a very powerful tool,” said Ms. Shea, the analyst. “It’s gripping and dramatic television.”

“The Choice” has been widely viewed, attracting many fans for its compelling dramatizations and leaked historical videos. But he has also drawn a lot of mockery on social media, where users skewer his authoritarian propaganda.

For viewers who experienced this story less than ten years ago, the end of the season is no mystery. Sent to prison, Mr. Morsi collapsed And died in a Cairo courtroom in 2019.

But the Muslim Brotherhood remained the number one enemy of the Sisi government, with political opponents routinely accused of Brotherhood ties and anyone with Brotherhood sympathies vulnerable to dismissal, blacklisting or detention for terrorism.

So did Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former Muslim Brotherhood leader and presidential candidate, arrested in 2018 and convicted in March of holding secret meetings with the group.

On the same day Mr el-Sissi spoke on the show, Khaled Ali, a human rights lawyer representing Mr Aboul Fotouh, decided to take the president at his word. He announcement that he had filed a petition for review, based on new evidence which he said showed his client had disassociated himself from the Brotherhood long before the events for which he was being tried.

The proof? Four secretly recorded clips of “The Choice”.

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Newsrust - US Top News: In the Egyptian TV series "The Choice", the president is the hero
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