Ramadan soaps 2013: The zeitgeist of Egypt's democratisation process

Mina Adel, Thursday 25 Jul 2013

Traditional Ramadan soap operas in Egypt have always reflected year-on-year changes in Egyptian society, but never more so than now, amid a complex field of dichotomies and aspirations

Nelly Karim in Zaat as a student during the 1970s

With the occurrence of political upheaval, indicators of polarisation often follow. The January 25 Revolution marked a new phase in Egyptian history. Egyptian society became diversified, and the people more mobilised in various ways.

The 2013 season of Ramadan soaps should be treated as historical "artefacts" that facilitate access not so much to the social, political, economic and cultural developments of contemporary Egypt, but to the prevailing zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, in the context of revolutionary struggle and its discontents.

Rather than examining Egyptian history before, during or after the January 25 Revolution through political documents or secondary source materials, to see the nature and causes of prevailing discourses and imagined communities, Ramadan soaps provide a different yet equally interesting — if not preferable — way to explore this zeitgeist.

Beyond the drama

The tens of soap operas that appear on the small screen this month are not simply entertainment but mediums through which one an discern how politics permeates nearly every aspect of culture and society, and how culture and society can be both responses to existing political and social polarisations and agents in the production of new ones.

Esm Mo’akat (Temporary Name), for instance, starring Youssef El-Cherif and Sherry Adel, presents a man who is suffering from amnesia. The man gradually tries to restore his memory, which is a hard task full of suspense and ambiguity. Through his mission, the protagonist is obstructed by a sequence of tragic difficulties and is exposed to many attempted murders.

What is interesting about Esm Mo’akat is that its events unfold in parallel with presidential elections following the January 25 Revolution. This positioning is important, and even decisive. The elections seem to be the principal motor of events. The social relations and struggles between characters are generated and determined based on the competition between three presidential candidates presented in the series.

The cold war of the “high politics” of presidential elections adds to the internal dynamics of the “low politics” of concerned families and their affiliated kinships, friendships, and business partnerships.

Intertwined narratives

The 25 January Revolution laid the basis for a democratisation process through which, firstly, new political forces and parties emerged, namely secular leftists and liberals, and secondly, other — and as it seemed — more organised ones, which had been informally there for decades and that took the chance to dominate the political scene after Mubarak (mainly Islamists and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood).

Similar to Esm Mo’akkat, Al-Da’eya (The Preacher), starring Hany Salama and Basma, focuses on the secular/Islamist divide in “high” and “low” politics.

Basma is a musician at the opera who openly opposes the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood and participates in counter-demonstrations against them. She is the neighbour of Hany Salama, a preacher and an anchor of a TV show on a religious channel known for his conservative ideas about arts and culture.

The series, written and recorded mostly before the 30 June popular demonstrations and subsequent military ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi from the presidency, could be looked upon from a variety of angles, where the dissident theme of the series is created and presented by a cast of dissident artists, namely Mohamed El-Adl and Basma.

Basma and Mohamed El-Adl, the script writer of El-Da’eya, were known for their on-the-ground resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood, through their participation in demonstrations and by remaining outspoken in their views. El-Adl was one of the artistic and cultural figures that stormed the culture ministry's headquarters and took part in a subsequent sit-in that lasted more than three weeks in opposition to then culture minister Alaa Abdel-Aziz and his policies. The artists accused the minister of “Brotherhoodisation” the Egyptian culture and of deforming Egyptian national identity and culture.

As such, El-Adl embodied his resistance to the Muslim Brotherhood and produced this artistic piece, through which Basma replays her rebellion.

El-Da'eya stands as an important counter-discourse (which in reference to Egypt's latest events, can be broadly classified as the voices of secular-leftists) in the spirit of Michel Foucault's concept of "subjugated knowledges," where a dominant discourse (in this case, Morsi's government policies) prevails, but not completely, amid a contentious field of power and knowledge production.

Soaps and politics

A few other series also adopt this "discourse versus counter-discourse" pattern, delving into Egypt's political scene over the past months, such as Ala Kaf Afrit (On a Tipping Point), and Hekayet Bent Esmaha Zaat (The Tale of a Girl Named Zaat) based on a novel by Sonallah Ibrahim.

Ala Kaf Afrit, starring Khaled El-Sawy, presents protagonist Fadel Abo El-Roos, a man from the business class, confronted with the transformative force of the January 25 Revolution.

Similar to layers that run through El-Da’eya, El-Sawy has leftist orientations and supports the rights of workers. Meanwhile, ‘Ala Kaf ‘Afrit offers a thumbnail of the post-January 25 Revolution struggle between the corrupted capitalist cronies of Mubarak’s regime and the counter-discourse of “bread, freedom, social justice and human dignity.”

The girl Zaat (meaning self) signifies Egypt itself. She was born with the uprising of the 23 July 1952 Revolution that ousted the monarchical regime and gave birth to the first Egyptian republic.  

Through the period 1952 to 2011, Zaat tackles many of the political and economic upheavals that Egyptian society experienced, preceded and succeeded by dichotomies among the Egyptian people. For example, the 1952 Revolution witnessed a struggle between the new rising middle class, farmers and workers, on the one hand, and feudal landlords and foreign entrepreneurs on the other hand, due to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalisation and agricultural reform policies that redistributed Egyptian wealth.

Zaat passes the 1977 uprising against inflation and the removal of subsidies on basic goods. The liberal "open door" economic policy of President Anwar El-Sadat constituted a rupture between the petit bourgeoisie, that benefited this policy, and the masses.

Zaat emphasises internal 1970s dichotomies between socialists, secular Arab nationalists under Nasser, and the Islamisation of Egypt that boomed under Sadat. These dichotomies are magnificently presented in the minutest details of Zaat and her family’s life, such as changes in clothing styles and the spread of the veil in addition to Westernisation in consumer patterns.         

Not all Ramadan soap operas have political inclinations; many have preferred to keep to “moderate” subjects pre-25 January 2011 Ramadan series often worked from. Hekayet Haya (The Story of Haya), El-Shak (The Doubt), Niran Sadika (Friendly Fires), for example, maintain to normal problems of romantic and familiar social relations, mixed often with vexatious tragedy for a sympathetic victim.

Other depoliticised series are purely commercial and entertaining, embracing popular songs that have infiltrated many movies, new dances, the excessive use of celebrities and sexual glamour and comic expression.

The zeitgeist of the street

The absence of political content from many series in itself reflects polarisation in Egyptian society during the current democratisation process. Not all Egyptians are interested in politics, or interested in seeing political struggles played out in dramas on their TV screens.

One thing is certain: Ramadan is time when the conditions of the Egyptian street are both illuminated and dramatised. It is the time of the harvest, so to speak, where one can detect and trace modifications that took place in Egyptian society from one year to the next.

Societal divisions may be exaggerated if compared to actuality, but this does not mean that the art world is separated from “real” world. It illustrates the intentions of series stakeholders in subjectively constructing — rather than objectively discovering — the basis of new counter-discourses within imagined communities, according to prevailing economic interests and/or ideological tendencies, unfolding within the democratisation zeitgeist.

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