Avenger’s mission

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 7 May 2024

Hani Mustafa reviews Al-Serb (The Squadron), the new film by Ahmed Galal



For over a decade the Arab World has suffered terrible attacks by vicious and violent Islamic jihadist groups. First, following the British-US invasion of Iraq in 2003, they were linked to Al-Qaeda. In 2014, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State (aka ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) was named the caliph of an Islamic caliphate not linked to Al-Qaeda any more. Between 2013 and 2017, ISIS intensified its campaign of terrorism, seizing territories from Al-Mosul in Iraq to Al-Raqqa in Syria. During these years some other Islamic militant groups in Libya declared their affiliation to ISIS and conducted terrorist attacks on Libyan targets. Many of these fighters had initially left Libya after the fall of Gaddafi’s regime to join the ranks of Islamic extremists in Syria. Subsequently, they returned to Libya, forming a faction of the Islamic State. ISIS in Libya conducted two attacks resulting in the kidnapping of 21 Coptic construction workers who were working in the field in Derna, in December 2014 and in January 2015. On 15 February 2015, ISIS released a horrifying video depicting the beheading of these 21 Egyptian Christians on a beach in the Libyan city of Sirte, which was under the control of the Islamic State at the time.

The film Al-Serb (The Squadron), directed by Ahmed Galal written by Omar Abdel Halim – a Synergy production – is the latest to document a confrontation between the Egyptian armed forces and Islamic militant groups. This isn’t the first time for Egyptian producers to tackle such a subject. For many years TV series sought to illustrate the brutality of Islamic extremists and how the Egyptian authorities and even the people dealt with it. In the past four years the TV audience was treated to Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice), directed by Peter Mimi and written by Baher Dwedar (Season 1, 2020) and written by Hani Sarhan (Seasons 2 and 3, 2021-2022), Al-Katiba 101 (Battalion 101), directed by Mohamed Salama and written by Eyad Saleh in Ramadan 2023. Al-Serb however is the first film to tackle this issue.

Based on the horrific incident of the killing of the 21 Egyptians in Sirte, the film was released on 1 May. Perhaps the distributors wanted to take advantage of Coptic Easter to maximise exposure to a young, action-loving audience.

In a pre-credit scene, the film depicts Islamic militant intrusions on the eastern borders, showing continuous Egyptian Air Force patrols of the border, when a battle occurred between two Egyptian helicopters and a few four-wheel drive cars driven by Islamic militants with their weapons. This scene shows different aspects of the situation during the years when extremists used the long eastern border to smuggle weapons to be used against the government from Libya into Egypt, after the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood. This scene records an overall idea of the security situation regarding this part of the country.  

The script depicts two classical aspects of the drama of the conflict between good and evil. One is ISIS in Derna, the side of the Islamic extremist group led by the an emir, Abu Asaad Al-Hamrawy (Mohamed Mamdouh) and his top military officer who is nicknamed Al-Aqrab (the Scorpion) (Mohamed Diab). The film shows that the group has gained control not only over the area of Derna but also over some of the oil fields there.

The second aspect shows Ali Al-Masry (Ahmed Al-Sakka), who seems in the first few scenes to be a smuggler and human trafficker using the chaotic situation in Libya to his own benefit, later turning out to be an Egyptian special forces officer serving as an undercover agent for the Egypt’s military intelligence in Libya. When the drama develops in the film the scriptwriter and the filmmaker use this character as a milestone for Rambo-like action scenes, especially in the ending sequence of the film when he becomes part of the Libyan Army’s ground attack on the ISIS camp.

It seems that the scriptwriter didn’t have much time to create a fully layered background and character profile for each character on both sides of the story. The script itself may have been much longer than what was ultimately shown on screen. It is possible that the film’s initial cut could have been three hours or longer, but the filmmaker decided to reduce it to a runtime of only 100 minutes. For example, the background of Al-Hamrawy is mentioned briefly in some scenes, especially when Khadija (Saba Mubarak), an investigative journalist living in Derna, says that she knew him before by the name of Saad. The script then suggests that he was in a relationship before he became an Islamic extremist. On the other hand, Al-Aqrab did not have any kind of background even though he is the top military officer of the group. It is clear that providing some kind of background history for the main characters can give the narrative some thickness.

Ali manages to work with Al-Hamrawy and Al-Aqrab in smuggling the oil from the oil field that they controlled. He also recognises Khadija, whom he frees when Al-Hamrawy tries to kidnap her towards the end of the film. However, the dramatic line of Ali and Khadija was abruptly cut short, especially since she is working on a report about smuggling of military clothes and weapons from Libya to the Islamic extremists in Egypt.

Another female character was added to complete the picture of the militant group, the emir’s wife or Om Al-Mujahideen (Nelly Karim). One scene only shows that she is responsible for preparing the women kidnaped by the group to become the wives of the fighters. When she tells the women their job is to please their husbands, one of the women replies that she wants them to become prostitutes. This scene is not new. It was made even better in TV series like Betloua Al-Rouh (Soul Rising) directed by Kamla Abu Zekri in 2022 and Al-Seham Al-Mareqa (Rogue Arrows) directed by Mahmoud Kamel in 2019.

The script shows part of the living conditions of the Egyptian construction workers who were kidnapped by the extremists, but these scenes included lots of cliches, with their employer Mohamed (Amr Abdel-Gelil), also an Egyptian, treating them as own family. When his place is attacked by the extremists his own son is killed during the raid, showing that terrorism doesn’t differentiate between muslims or christians.

The script shows some scenes from the head of military intelligence (Mustafa Fahmi), Air Force commander (Sherif Mounir), and the head of general intelligence (Ahmed Fouad Selim) while they prepare all the necessary information to deal with the situation in Libya before and during the kidnapping and the execution of the 21 Egyptians. It features the announcement of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi of a week of mourning and that Egypt reserves the right to retaliate at the suitable time and place. The next day, the Egyptian armed forces launch an airstrike on the camps of ISIS in Derna and Sirte.

Many film stars – Aser Yassin, Mahmoud Abdel-Moghni, Karim Fahmi, Mohamed Farrag, Ahmed Salah Hosni, Ahmed Hatem, and Ahmed Fahmi – appear in the film very briefly as an expression of their support for the political leadership’s decision to retaliate.

What seems clear is that the script is filled with numerous incomplete characters and plot lines that created a chaotic story on top of excessive cliches in the spoon feeding speeches in the dialogues of top officials and even Egyptian workers in Libya. No doubt the retaliation was an appropriate response to a terrible and unconscionable incident, but the film leaves much to be desired.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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