One of the most popular TV dramas that aired in Egypt recently during Ramadan was built on a lie. The second season of "The Choice" ("Al-Ikhtiar" in Arabic) proudly echoes government propaganda about the Muslim Brotherhood and specifically the massacre of roughly 1,000 protesters in Cairo in 2013—a mass killing "on a scale unprecedented in Egypt," according to Human Rights Watch. The series is a sign of how much President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's regime has co-opted Egyptian media, including the entertainment industry, turning soap operas and other TV dramas into government mouthpieces.
The obvious aim of "The Choice," which rewrites the history of the notorious and widely covered events in Cairo's Rabaa al-Adawiyah Square and al-Nahda Square, was to exonerate Sisi and his regime for those massacres, which followed the coup that ousted Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. Covering up the Egyptian armed forces' involvement in the killings and minimizing the role of the Egyptian police, the series instead shows a soft and tolerant dispersal of the sit-ins by brave security forces, while blaming all violence on armed protesters portrayed as terrorists and extremists.
The creators and producers of "The Choice" deliberately emphasized the regime lie of an extensively armed protest by supporters of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood , even though Egyptian authorities denied that themselves in the summer of 2013. Then-Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim, at a press conference on Aug. 14, 2013, said that security forces had seized 15 weapons from the sit-in at Rabaa al-Adawiyah Square—which, as Human Rights Watch has noted, "would indicate that few protesters were armed and further corroborates extensive evidence… that police gunned down hundreds of unarmed demonstrators." In a speech days after the massacre, Sisi himself, then the defense minister, acknowledged the reality of the widely peaceful protests, while still justifying the killings. "I am not saying everyone was firing," he said, "but it is more than enough if there are 20, 30, or 50 people firing live fire in a sit-in of that size."
"The Choice" was produced by a production company, Synergy, that is an entity of United Media Services, a media firm that the Egyptian state reportedly set up in 2017. Two of United Media Services' four board members have ties to the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate. As Reuters reported in 2019, the conglomerate "has taken control of news outlets, TV production companies and channels—in all, at least 14 so far—giving it unrivalled influence over the TV schedule. United Group has enthusiastically enforced government censorship rules."
It is no surprise, then, that "The Choice" imposes a false narrative about the Rabaa massacre, depicting Egyptian police and security forces as heroic, practically angelic characters. As its Egyptian director, Peter Mimi, even told the press earlier this year, "The series is a patriotic and national project to raise awareness for future generations." Mimi touted the archival footage of protests in 2013 that are included in the series, but those brief clips are interspersed with fictional scenes, which only add to the propaganda.
"The juxtaposition of carefully selected short clips and images from the actual events with those produced especially for the TV series—in addition to the use of real names for some characters, and interviews with soldiers and family members of Egyptian security personnel—can have the effect of masking, if not manipulating, the truth and blur the line between fact and fiction," Abeer al-Najjar, an associate professor of Media and Journalism Studies at the American University of Sharjah, noted in her criticism of "The Choice."
While its second season offers a regime-approved history of the Rabaa massacre, the first season of "The Choice" focused on the Egyptian military's counterterrorism campaign in the Sinai—from the military's perspective, of course. Sisi was a big fan. He publicly praised the series and its cast last year, saying they "gave a wonderful and credible picture of a reality we witness and will continue to live" and calling for more shows like it, about "the heroic acts of the army and police."
It was not the first time that Sisi had called for Egypt's entertainment industry to toe the regime's line. In 2015, while giving a speech to a group of police officers during an official Police Day celebration, Sisi digressed into his thoughts about Egyptian TV and cinema. Two famous Egyptian actors, Yusra and Ahmed el-Sakka, were in the audience at the Police Academy in Cairo, and Sisi addressed them directly, in front of all the police. He said it was their responsibility to "deliver works that inspire people and give them hope, with moral values and ethics," and that he would even "expect this in the next Ramadan television series." Sisi added, ominously, "You will be held accountable." Sakka stood up in the audience and promised Sisi he wouldn't disappoint him.
Since then, media censorship has increased, and Sisi's demands have been fulfilled with TV dramas like "The Choice," and many others. One of the first propaganda dramas to air on Egyptian television was the series "The Eagle of El-Se'eed" or "The Eagle of Upper Egypt," in 2018, in which a policeman who embodies the values of humanity, rationality, justice and altruism faces off against a drug lord. The series was later picked up by Netflix. Prominent Egyptian actors have also kowtowed to the regime by producing films and series that are pure propaganda. In 2018, Sakka even played Sisi in a film, set between the 2011 revolution and the 2013 coup, that glorified Egypt's ruler.
Synergy has quickly emerged as the busiest production company, churning out government-friendly dramas for Ramadan, when TV viewership soars in Egypt and across the Arab world. Another new company, the Egyptian Media Group, which was established by an opaque investment firm that is also owned by the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, has become another major media conglomerate, owning many channels. But it is United Media Services, which controls Synergy, that is monopolizing most of the production of Egyptian TV dramas. United Media Services now owns the largest percentage of private satellite channels and state-run channels and newspapers in Egypt, most of which were nationalized after the 1952 revolution.
Meanwhile, Sisi's regime has created three agencies to monitor media production: the Supreme Council for Media Regulation, the National Press Authority and the National Media Authority. They all "have been acting as de facto media regulators," according to Reporters Without Borders. The Supreme Council for Media Regulation in particular has censored the content of TV dramas and other programs, in addition to print media, and defined the general ethical standards for what should and should not be shown on screen.
Co-opting Egypt's media and entertainment industry is a deliberate regime strategy, based on the conviction that, in addition to military might and coercion, the authorities must also control what people read, hear and watch on their screens. Control of media production, of course, is nothing new in Egypt. Going back to the era of the Free Officers and Gamal Abdel Nasser after 1952, the government had a direct hand in Egypt's film industry, which flourished in the 1950s and 1960s. The industry was nationalized in 1966 and increasingly subject to censorship. But even then, few films fell to the level of such overt propaganda, like productions under Sisi today.
Given the history of government control over the media, Sisi's regime needed nothing more than to exert tighter authority over existing institutions, while terrorizing the few independent newspapers and news outlets that barely exist anymore in Egypt. The regime has also blocked hundreds of websites in recent years that it deems incompatible with its vision of a "patriotic" Egypt.
This is far more restrictive than the system under Hosni Mubarak, whose regime still exerted broad control over the media but allowed some space for TV dramas and talk show programs to operate more freely. Mubarak himself was the main red line. Media of all types had to avoid criticizing him and, later, his son Gamal—even if many opposition outlets often tested or went beyond that red line.
Under Mubarak, television dramas were generally committed to their role as entertainment, not charged with documenting the government's version of history, as Sisi's regime has defined it, or providing Egyptians with patriotic lessons and adhering to defined "moral guidelines," like Sisi has. Private channels during the later years of the Mubarak era even enjoyed an amount of relative freedom to criticize some government ministers.
That media environment under Mubarak did not reflect a belief in freedom of the press or free expression, but instead a sclerotic system led by an old man who no longer really controlled things. That resulted in competing centers of power within the regime that asserted their presence in various, often rival media platforms.
Sisi is trying to avoid any repeat of that situation. By consolidating the regime's control over all aspects of the media—most glaringly now, Egypt's entertainment industry—the authorities have turned TV dramas into another arm of the dictatorship. Actors, writers and other artists who do not go along are at home without work, or trapped in a prison cell, or living in exile. But although the regime is desperately trying to rewrite Egypt's recent bloody history, the truth of what really happened in Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, and every other horror since Sisi's coup, cannot be forgotten.
Photo credit: A polling station in Giza decorated with giant electoral posters of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, March 25, 2018. (Photo by Mohamed El-Shahed/AFP via Getty Images)