Conspiracy and espionage have been featured in Egyptian television drama since the 1980s, reflecting the long-standing conflict with Israel which lasted from 1948 to 1979, though intelligence work went on after that. One popular series in that genre was Dumou Fi Oyoun Waqiha (Tears in Insolent Eyes), starring Adel Imam, written by Saleh Morsi and directed by Yahia El-Alamy. It was based on real-life Egyptian General Intelligence files.
Broadcast in Ramadan 1980, it was followed by another in 1988, also based on intelligence files, also by Morsi and El-Alamy but starring Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz, which proved even more popular, Raafat Al-Haggan. One such show has offered suspense and stimulated patriotic sentiment every other year or so, most recently Al-Zaybaq (The Mercury, 2017) directed by Wael Abdalla and starring Karim Abdel-Aziz and Sherif Mounir.
This year director Ahmed Alaa Al-Dib and screenwriter Baher Dwidar made Hagma Mortada (Counterattack), also adapted from Egyptian General Intelligence files and starring Ahmed Ezz, Hesham Selim and Hend Sabry. The drama is set in 2007 and proceeds simultaneously in Belgrade, Baghdad and Cairo. It opens with an Egyptian intelligence agent, David, being chased by police in Belgrade. It is a gripping scene, though it doesn’t tie into the story itself.
We are soon introduced to Refaat (Selim), a Cairo-based intelligence officer who operates networks in Baghdad and Belgrade, Seif (Ezz), an intelligence agent who works at a coffee shop in Baghdad and, together with two other colleagues, gathers information on Islamic Jihadist groups in Iraq, and Dina (Sabry), an agent who works at an international foundation in Belgrade. Thus we have three main plot lines reflecting each character and setting.
It is not clear what information Dina is attempting to gather in the Serbian capital, though the organisation in which she works seems to have covert activities (possibly to do with Israel). Seif’s work in Baghdad following the killing of Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi. is much clearer, and so is life at the Egyptian General Intelligence headquarter back in Cairo. A human touch is immediately introduced through the concerns of Seif’s father (Salah Abdalla) and his mother (Magda Zaki), the latter somewhat exaggerated, as well as the suggestion that Seif and Dina are romantically involved. In one scene Dina dreams that Seif is shot dead and tries to find out if he survived a subsequent blast in Baghdad, but her superior refuses to tell her...
Another, related genre that emerged in the 1980s is the war on terror show, which took its cue from the assassination of president Anour Al-Sadat in 1981. Often this did not go past making a case against Islamic extremism in the course of a drama like Al-Aela (The Family, 1994), directed by Ismail Abdel-Hafiz, in which the late Wahid Hamed inserted extended debates into the dialogue intended as an ideological defence against the new fundamentalist doctrine.
Set in 2009, this year’s Al-Qahera, Kabul (Cairo, Kabul), written by Abdel-Rehim Kamal and directed by Hossam Ali seems to take the same approach. In the first two episodes four Egyptians are gathered in a city in eastern Europe: Ramzi (Tarek Lotfi) who is about to be declared the caliph of a militant Islamist multi-national organisation based in Afghan mountains, Tarek (Khaled Al-Sawi), a brigadier in the State Security police; Khaled (Ahmed Rezk), a filmmaker whose documentary about international terrorism is having its premiere in that European city, and Adel (Fathi Abdel-Wahab), a famous TV presenter and journalist who works for an international TV channel broadcasting in Arabic. By the end of the first episode the audience know that these four men were friends who grew up in the same building in Al-Sayeda Zeinab neighbourhood in Cairo.
The second episode shows all four together in Adel’s living room in Belgrade, now that he has invited them over to talk about the old times. The whole episode is just a conversation between them interspersed by flashbacks. One of these is extremely direct and banal, showing the four of them as children playing on the roof of the building, taking turns to say how they would take control of the world when they grew up. Khaled says magic, Tarek says justice, Adel says money and Ramzy says becoming caliph.
Perhaps what is shocking and interesting in this episode is that at the end Khaled is killed by an anonymous shooter in front of the Adel’s building. The script later shows that the killing was ordered by Ramzy on Tarek and Khaled lost his life by mistake. This twist raises the hope that the series will not be too predictable.
The writer uses the old technique of dialogue to criticise the extremists’ views on life and religion. He created the character of Hassan (Nabil Al-Halafawy), Ramzy’s old uncle who lives in the same building and takes life and religion very easily. In almost every episode he is seen explaining to Ali (Tarek’s brother who is still living at their parents’ apartment) how religion is about love and life, affirming tolerance in Islam. What is beautiful about this series is the relationship between Ramzy and Manal (Hanan Motawei), Hassan’s daughter. Those scenes show that the terrorist leader has a human side and used to have normal feelings. Both Lotfi and Motawei give powerful performances.
Al-Qahera, Kabul makes the commonplace assumption that international terrorism is conducted by intelligence organisations. In a scene before the meeting of the four characters, Ramzy meets with an anonymous man wearing a Masonic ring, and it is he who gives him the green light to declare himself caliph...
Last year, the TV series Al-Ikhtiar (The Choice), directed by Peter Mimi and written by Baher Dwidar, made an impression by comparing two main characters: commando officer Ahmed Mansi and officer-turned-terrorist leader Hesham Ashmawy. Al-Ikhtiar was mainly about the army’s war on terror, while this year Al-Ikhtiar 2 – also directed by Mimi – focuses on the police. Written by Hani Sarhan, the new series too has two protagonists: National Security Agency officer Zakaria Younis (Karim Abdel-Aziz), and Special Forces Police officer Youssef Al-Refai (Ahmed Mekki).
Al-Ikhtiar 2 opens in 2013 with Zakaria investigating what was to be known as the Madinat Nasr terrorist cell which planned attacks on the electrical transmission towers. The episode shows how they also planned to plant a bomb among protesters against the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president Mohamed Morsi after 30 June and 3 July 2013. At the same time Youssef is dealing with terrorists in northern Sinai.
Last Ramadan the 28th episode of Al-Ikhtiar achieved the highest viewership due to an almost hour-long reenactment of the Rafah terrorist attack that took place on 7 July 2017 in which 26 officers and soldiers as well as 40 terrorists died. This time too Mimi generated much debate, notably on social media, by showing the inside of the sit-in protesting Morsi’s ouster at Rabaa Al-Adawiya Square in Madinat Nasr, with the fifth episode dedicated to the event of clearing the sit in by special forces which caused the death of 600 protesters and 43 soldiers according to the Ministry of Health.
The episode was extremely intense, showing not only the protesters-police crossfire but also the burning and destruction by Muslim Brotherhood supporters of churches and other civilian facilities outside Cairo. The human touch comes through in Youssef’s relationship with his fiancée Alia (Asma Abul-Yazid) whom he is too scared to marry lest he should die in Sinai. The show also depicts Zakaria’s relationship with his wife and children, but less successfully.
Both Hagma Mortada and Al-Qahera, Kabul deal with the few years before the Egyptian revolution in 2011. It seems that the TV drama makers’ approach is about the roots of the new wave of terrorism that erupted immediately after the Arab Spring, focusing on the widespread idea that Islamic militant groups are either established or funded by intelligence entities. Al-Ikhtiar 2 on the other hand deals with more recent conflicts and how they were managed.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly