EGYPT: Can controversial television series work in favor of Muslim Brotherhood?
Will a television miniseries about the history of Egypt's biggest political opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, undermine or promote the group's image in the eyes of millions of viewers in the Arab world?
Named "Al Gama'a" or "The Group" and written by prominent scriptwriter Wahid Hamed, the prime-time serial has been airing every night on state-owned and private satellite television channels throughout the holy month of Ramadan, when television viewing and advertisement rates reach their annual peak.
"Al Gama'a" traces the movement from its founding by spiritual leader Hassan Banna in 1928 as an anti-British and anti-colonialist political group through the various phases it has gone through to become a powerful political, social and religious phenomenon, influencing people in various countries across the Middle East.
Since the first day of a production that cost $6.1 million, "Al Gama'a" stirred rage among Brotherhood members and followers, including Banna's son, who doubted whether Hamed, known for his secular views and opposition to political Islam, could render an objective portrayal of the group and its founder.
A few episodes in, the Brotherhood's fears were confirmed.
Hamed begins the story with a state security investigation of a 2006 incident in which young Brotherhood activists allegedly use Azhar University's campus as a venue for carrying out a martial arts demonstration. One of the prosecutors working on the case decides to seek help from an older judge, who tells him more about the Brotherhood's establishment and main beliefs. The narrative then flashes back to Banna's life and struggles.
Muslim Brotherhood supporters have blasted the series, saying it depicts the security officials who allegedly jailed, tortured and executed members of the group as kindly gentlemen interrogating suspects over tea and coffee.
"He showed the police as more merciful than nurses," said Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a young journalist who has been previously jailed for belonging to the Brotherhood. "It is unbelievable and outrageous."
According to Brotherhood politburo member Essam Eryan, who has also spent time in prison as one of the movement's icons, his "investigation included torture and insults."
Muslim Brotherhood activists also say the series accuses Banna of responsibility for a number of political assassinations in the 1940s that they deny the group was behind.
"Hamed is injecting poison in the honey by laying the groundwork against the group and by showing my father as a fanatic since he was in his childhood, which isn’t true," Seif-al-Islam Banna said.
The Brotherhood's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie, called the series an "attack against the group, and other members are convinced that "Al Gama'a" is an attempt by the government to undermine the Brotherhood ahead of the parliamentary elections in November.
"This is a deal between the government and Hamed to defame the Brotherhood," said Mohsen Radhi, a Brotherhood member and parliamentary lawmaker.
Another Brotherhood MP, Hamdi Hassan, dubbed the series a "security production, rather than an artistic production."
Television and film critic Tarek Shenawy said that the government would have never allowed a series about the Brotherhood to be shown on television unless it was happy with its content.
Hamed rejected the accusation that he was a government dupe. Preparations for the series started in 2006 and filming began in January. It wasn't supposed to be ready by the time of elections, but he finished ahead of schedule, he said.
In any case, elections in Egypt are decided by lies and bribes, he said.
"What members of the Brotherhood brigade are saying has no basis in truth," he said.
Eryan however, insists that "defaming campaigns" like "Al Gama'a" will never hamper the group's chances in the elections.
"The series is not against the Brotherhood or any other institution; the series is about the truth," he added.
Members of the Brotherhood, which is banned from politics, run as independent candidates in Egypt's parliamentary elections. They won a fifth of the seats in the People's Assembly (Egypt's lower house) in 2005.
Despite the Muslim Brotherhood's fear of defamation from the airing of "Al Gama'a," some experts believe that the series may end up promoting the Islamist group.
"What the series did was turn a dinosaur into a living political phenomenon," said Ashraf Sherif, a political science lecturer at the American University in Cairo. "Now the Brotherhood is no longer a banned group as the government insists; they have entered every house, street and cafe in Egypt."
Others argue that the magnetic performance of Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar, who plays Banna, can increase the latter's popularity among younger generations.
"Nassar's acting is so good that he made me and many others love Banna despite some of the flaws in his character," said Ahmed Ghoneim, a 26-year-old engineer. "I'm sure that if I lived during his time, I'd have been convinced by Banna's thoughts and would have certainly joined the Brotherhood."
-- Amro Hassan in Cairo
Photo: Actor Eyad Nassar as Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan Banna. Credit: Egyptian TV