In his desire to wield sweeping power, president Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has suppressed politics, cowed the media and jailed legions of opponents. Now he is extending his iron grip to a new corner of Egyptian society: the country’s cherished soap operas.
Every year during the holy month of Ramadan, Egyptians crowd around their televisions to gorge on big-budget mini-series starring the country’s top actors, including weepy melodramas, police procedurals and sweeping historical epics. The best are exported across the Middle East.
But the crop of shows currently in production for Ramadan are being subjected to suffocating controls. Sisi’s officials are dictating scripts and capping wages, directors and actors say. A military-linked production company has taken charge of some of the biggest shows.
Filmmakers have been told their stories should follow approved themes, like praising the army and the police, or vilifying the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Those who don’t play by the rules don’t get on air. “For Sisi, this is not just about politics or power,” said Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a writer and former diplomat whose novels have been adopted into TV serials. “He wants to re-educate the Egyptian public.”
The soap opera clampdown is the cultural edge of a far-reaching and intrusive brand of authoritarianism that has taken root in Egypt under Sisi, reaching new levels even for a country that has been governed by military-backed strongmen for decades.
Hosni Mubarak, who governed for 30 years until his ousting in the 2011 Arab Spring, also presided over an oppressive, often cruel system. Even so, he allowed space for other centres of power, like his political party and the senior judiciary, which could result in surprising actions. Now and then, judges issued rulings that discomfited him. Newspapers could criticise him to a point. In 2005, the opposition Muslim Brotherhood won a fifth of the seats in parliament.
That space, limited as it was, has been virtually shut down under Sisi, who came to power in a 2013 military takeover. He governs through a small clique of advisers, mostly drawn from the military, the security services and his family, that enjoys huge economic clout, sees the world through a security prism and has sought to stamp out every breath of dissent. Egyptians can be arrested for politically incorrect Facebook posts.
“I would frankly feel safer talking politics in Damascus than in Cairo, ” said Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut. Sisi’s personalist autocracy, he continued, “tries to dominate the public space so completely that nobody dares say anything, even in private, that might be deemed dissent by those in power.
“That fear is what all totalitarian systems try to instil: that even when the system cannot eavesdrop on you, it can hear you.” A government spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Sisi’s approach has met with little resistance from US president Donald Trump, who is scheduled to host him at the White House next week. Where Washington once was a modest brake on the excesses of Egypt’s strongmen, Trump has lavished praise on Sisi in previous encounters – even complimenting his taste in footwear – but has said little about the tightening vice of repression in Egypt.
Sisi’s governing circle is dominated by military men he trusts. The army’s engineering authority has been charged with overseeing ambitious projects worth billions of dollars, including an extension of the Suez Canal that was completed in 2015 and a new administrative capital that is under construction in the desert east of Cairo.
Military courts operate with little public oversight, prosecuting actors and political opponents as well as terrorism suspects. Intelligence agencies quietly manipulate the workings of parliament, which is currently debating sweeping constitutional changes that would extend Sisi’s term until 2034 and could also bring the senior judiciary directly under his authority, a power Mubarak never had.
Television talk shows, once a ferment of raucous debate, have become so predictably pro-government that many Egyptians are tuning out. The foreign ministry, once a bastion of Egypt’s proud diplomatic tradition, is viewed as a much reduced force.
“Sisi is not Kim Jong-un or Saddam Hussein, ” said Amy Hawthorne of the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington. “But he’s inching Egypt toward that kind of regime.”
The hand of the security agencies also extends deep into the economy, often blurring the line between national security and commerce. As ride-hailing company Uber has expanded in Egypt, it has faced government demands to provide access to personal information about its customers. In February, as the security agencies stepped up those demands, the Uber app started to crash in Egypt, said an official with knowledge of talks between Uber and the Egyptian government.
With Ramadan just a month away, the number of mini-series currently under production has been cut in half
But it is in his pursuit of culture and the arts that Sisi has really stood out. Last month, celebrated author Alaa al-Aswany, who wrote The Yacoubian Building, said a secret military court had prosecuted him for “inciting hatred against the regime” – a prosecution all the more striking because Aswany was once an avowed Sisi supporter.
In January, Amr Waked, an actor who starred in the Hollywood movie Syriana, said in a Twitter post that he had been sentenced to eight years in prison for criticising Sisi. Last week, the Egypt’s Actors Union expelled Waked, who lives in Europe, and another prominent actor for “high treason” after they attended a congressional briefing in Washington that examined Sisi’s plans to amend the constitution.
Then there are the soaps. Sisi first weighed in on them in 2017 with a speech in which he praised the “positive principles” of older, state-produced TV shows, and criticised recent productions. In the following years, state officials started to press filmmakers through both censorship and quiet pressure.
This season, though, the meddling has created an industry crisis, by several accounts. With Ramadan just a month away, the number of mini-series currently under production has been cut in half, to about 12 or 15, one director said. The Egyptian Media Group, a company with links to the General Intelligence Service, has established the dominant TV production company and bought several of the biggest TV networks, according to Mada Masr, one of the last independent news outlets left in Egypt.
A senior director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said scriptwriters were ordered this winter to follow certain guidelines: to glorify the military, to attack the Muslim Brotherhood and to promote conservative family values that encourage young Egyptians to obey their elders – and presumably avoid the kind of questioning that led to the 2011 Arab Spring, the director said.
The directive is a sign of another major difference between Sisi and Mubarak, said Ezzidine, the analyst, who lives in the US. While Mubarak often seemed content to simply manage Egypt’s dysfunction, Sisi appears intent on reshaping the country’s moral and intellectual fibre. He has lectured citizens on their manners and their physical fitness. Now he wants to purge what he views as dangerous currents of thought.
Sisi’s defenders say Egypt needs a strong leader to protect the country from the chaos that has engulfed Libya, Syria and Yemen, and to enact long-overdue yet unpopular harsh economic reforms, like recent cuts to fuel and electricity subsidies. Egypt’s stability has contributed to a 16 per cent increase in tourism in the past year, and the energy sector is booming after major gas discoveries in the Mediterranean.
Sisi and the army have painted themselves into a corner by destroying anyone they could talk to
Even so, many Egyptians are straining under the combination of austerity and repression. The day after a train barrelled into Cairo’s main station in February, killing at least 22 people, a man named Ahmed Mohy walked into the middle of Tahrir Square, scene of the 2011 protests, with a sign that read “Step down Sisi”.
Mohy (34), a pharmacist, was outraged by the train crash, which he saw as a sign of mismanagement of basic services. He hoped to attract more protesters. But he was arrested within minutes and bundled into a police van alongside a friend who had filmed his solo protest.
‘Destiny as men’
In the back of the van, Mohy recorded an impassioned, sometimes tearful video message that was posted on Facebook. He would probably be tortured for speaking out, he said, but he insisted it had been worth it. “Maybe they will inject us, maybe they will kill us, maybe they will burn us,” said Mohy, whose Facebook page is filled with his poetry. “But we are facing our destiny as men.”
With tens of thousands of opponents already in jail, such acts of public resistance are rare, and Sisi’s authority faces few obvious challenges for now.
Sisi’s view is that his strength comes from divine providence. In a 2013 interview, he told a journalist that a voice had come to him in a dream and said, “We will grant you what no one has had before.” But some analysts warn that, in seeking to exert such tight control over the Egyptian state and society, Sisi might be sowing the seeds of his eventual undoing.
Presiding over such a top-heavy system that has alienated so many sectors of society could leave Sisi vulnerable on the day his system inevitably faces an unforeseen shock, said Sayigh, the senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre.
“Sisi and the army have painted themselves into a corner by destroying anyone they could talk to,” Sayigh said. “When the day comes where they need others in government or business, they may have nobody to support them.”