Walk the streets of Cairo or village lanes in Egypt any early evening and you will see the flicker of television screens and hear the dialogue and music of the current serial (musalsal). Read the newspapers and you will find articles and cartoons that can only be understood if one is following these televised dramas. The serials, usually composed of 15 episodes aired daily, seem to set the very rhythms of national life. Extensive access to television and limited broadcast hours and channels mean that the audience can sometimes include a majority of Egyptians.

If the serials produce a national community, and television in Egypt, as in many Third World countries, is state-controlled, how does the entertainment provided to these large audiences articulate with national politics and policies? Although debates and talk shows airing political views take up some broadcast time on Egyptian television, much more popular, and thus perhaps influential, are the melodramatic serials. Meant to entertain, they are by no means free of political messages. Who controls these messages and who is excluded? Do the powerful Islamist groups also influence television drama? [1]

Writing after the June 1992 assassination of Egyptian human rights activist Farag Fawda, Karim Alrawi noted that the decision to assassinate Fawda was taken following a debate last February at the Cairo Book Fair between secularists and supporters of the Muslim Brothers, a debate that was filmed but never broadcast. He attributes the failure to broadcast to “the influence of the Islamic lobby on the state-controlled media.” He notes that neither the Islamic university, al-Azhar, nor the Muslim Brothers condemned the assassination. “Instead,” he writes, “they have criticized the government for allowing secular writers access to the media.” [2] Alrawi’s concern mirrors the widespread sentiment that access to and control over the media, especially television, is a crucial political question in Egypt.

A look at several key serials of the late 1980s reveals that although the writers and producers of the most sophisticated of the Egyptian serials have a certain independence from the government (reflected in the social criticism characteristic of their productions), they nevertheless participate in a shared discourse about nationhood and citizenship. This consensus is most directly presented in the treatment of the place of religion, one of the most pressing political contests in Egypt today.

Questions about the place of Islam are at the center of Egyptian public life. Armed attacks and periodic government crackdowns on Islamist groups alternate with attempts at cooptation and accommodation. Signs of a self-consciously Islamic cultural identity are growing. The contest is sharply drawn, and is reflected and managed in the mass media, especially television, in subtle ways. Mamdouh al-Laythi, director of the sector of the Union of Television and Radio responsible for the production of films and serials, confirms that this is a concern of television producers, and says that subject matter has to change with viewers’ concerns, Among the problems facing people in the 1990s, he listed the housing shortage, family planning, drug addiction and religious extremism.

Values and Culture

Opposition between the secular television producers and the forces of “religious extremism” can be detected in several popular serials of the last few years. With one important exception (the controversial Hilmiyya Nights), these serials maintain a noticeable silence on the Islamist movements, and deliberately ignore the alternative vision these movements offer of Islam’s place in Egypt’s future — for specific political reasons.

Consider the work of Muhammad Fadil, arguably Egypt’s foremost television director, and productions by Usama Anwar ‘Ukasha, a thoughtful writer dedicated to providing high quality television fare. Their collaboration has resulted in two programs of immense popularity that have also generated intense debate in the press and at public meetings around the country. Both works can be seen as critical commentaries, skillfully embedded in an entertaining mix of melodrama and comedy, on contemporary Egypt. One serial, The White Flag, was aired in 1989 after several years of trouble with the censors; another, The Journey of Mr. Abu al-‘Ila al-Bishri and subtitled A Comedy About People and the Morals of These Times, was broadcast several years earlier.

The protagonists of both serials are dignified, highly moral men in their late fifties or early sixties who have spent their lives in public service, one as an ambassador in Europe and the other as an irrigation inspector in provincial Egypt. Both are well-educated and cultured. The ambassador returns to Alexandria after a long stint abroad; the engineer returns to a Cairo he has not visited for years. Both find a changed Egypt, and are forced to confront the contemporary forces of corruption threatening Egyptian society.

In The White Flag, the educated man of taste, with an appreciation for his national heritage, art, books and Tchaikovsky, is pulled into a war with a crass (if ultimately irresistible) nouveau riche real estate developer. Aided by her unscrupulous lawyer, some misguided thugs and a host of bribed public officials and newspaper editors, this very determined woman tries to force him to sell her his historic seafront villa in Alexandria so she can put up apartment buildings on the site. In The Journey of Mr. Abu al-‘Ila, the earnest man goes to Cairo to try to sort out his relatives — all embroiled in family and financial difficulties. He suddenly comes into some wealth and is then ruined by the schemes of everyone around him scrambling for his money. He, too, encounters corrupt officials, dishonest lawyers, greedy businessmen, people who have bought their way into professions through bribes and cheating or who now use their skills for selfish ends. As one character puts it, “They are all running, running after money. No one stops to catch his breath or ask himself where he is going or what he is doing.”

The Journey of Mr. Abu al-‘Ila also treats the problem of the corrosion of family values. Older brothers abdicate family responsibilities, mothers fail to discipline their children, wives argue with their husbands, children do not respect their parents. “Where is the family spirit that binds you together?” the protagonist complains to his relatives. “Where is the respect of young for the old and the compassion of the older for the younger? Where is the mother’s concern for her children? Where is the children’s fear of their mother? Where is it all?”

The serials directed by Fadil and written by ‘Ukasha are more clever, subtle and complex than the works produced by most other television professionals. But they differ little in their catalogue of social ills: Other recent serials show individuals and families struggling against bureaucratic red tape, the near impossibility of getting anything done without connections and/or bribes, the housing crisis and high prices. The tough circumstances of today’s expensive world are always depicted as tempting the younger generation to compromise their values and disrespect their parents. They seek degrading, unrespectable or even illegal work (such as waiting on tables, acting or drug dealing) or they try to marry for money. The serials, in other words, are often about the struggles of good, decent people and families striving to remain so in trying times.

What may be unique about these two popular serials is that they personify morality and immorality not by the contrast between tradition and modernity or local versus Western but between two social classes. One class consists of those who took advantage of the economic liberalization and “opening” that Anwar al-Sadat initiated in the 1970s. These people are portrayed in the serials as fat cats who drive around in late-model Mercedes while others cannot afford to marry, and who wear fancy suits and sit in glass and steel office buildings, dealing in construction, taking and offering bribes, and embezzling while others are unemployed. The young people of this class are spoiled and self-centered, dazzled by money and glamor, trying to become movie stars, pop singers and boutique owners.

The other class consists of educated professionals — not just irrigation engineers and diplomats, but lawyers, architects, doctors, medical students, university students, philosophy teachers, school principals, responsible journalists, serious artists and translators. Some have risen from the bottom of society through education; others have been comfortable all their lives. The qualities they share are honesty and concern for others and for society.

No opposition is set up between Westernization and an authentic indigenous identity, however defined. Both classes are presented as having appropriated much that could be considered modern and Western; the difference is in what they have incorporated into their lives. The nouveau riche villains have borrowed foreign cars, pop music, English words they do not know how to use, gaudy telephones and garish wallpaper. The protagonists have taken as Egyptian values literacy and an appreciation for art and heritage. Mr. Abu al-‘Ila’s library contains books by Aristotle, Taha Hussein and Voltaire. The villa in The White Flag, full of art treasures like Chinese vases, was also the site of meetings of the early Egyptian nationalists.

What is startling in these works, in the context of the current situation in Egypt, is the absence of religion as a source of morality, and the avoidance of overt signs of Muslim piety and identity in the protagonists. Silence on the Islamist movement as a modern alternative is broken only to mock. The villain of The White Flag wears clothes that are a travesty of the new Islamic modest dress that has become a fashionable sign of piety. Her head is wrapped “modestly” in a turban and she carries the title (hagga) of someone who has been on the pilgrimage to Mecca. But her turbans are of gold lame, sometimes further graced by brightly colored pompoms. Her speech is crude. The gaudy plaque of religious calligraphy that decorates her office is overshadowed by a huge television set and a photograph of herself smoking a water pipe. Nothing in her behavior suggests genuine piety.


The everyday forms of piety that are so much a part of life in Egypt are occasionally reflected in the popular serials: Older characters or simple peasants are sometimes shown praying or using religious phrases. Except in the fourth installment of Hilmiyya Nights, however, one never sees the young in the cities asserting an Islamic identity in the serials. The obscuring of this crucial group can be tracked through dress. There is a stark contrast between what the fashionably outfitted, bareheaded actresses wear in the serials and what real urban women wear. Educated and semi-educated women on the streets, in schools, in health clinics and in offices (including those of the Union of Television and Radio itself) are more often than not wearing the hijab and full-length modest Islamic dress.

This is not to say that religious programming on television does not exist; there is an increasing amount of it. But it is generally kept segregated from the more popular shows, especially the serials. Qur’an recitations open and close the television day; the call to prayer interrupts programming; there are numerous religious discussions and programs; the Friday mosque prayers are televised; there are even religious television serials — didactic and stilted historical costume dramas about the early days of Islam, always in the classical Arabic that few people really understand and fewer speak.

A look at who is involved in television indicates why this segregation occurs. Television was introduced to Egypt in 1960 under Gamal Abdel Nasser and used, along with radio, as an instrument of national development and political mobilization. This ideology of mass communication in the service of national development persists for some, like the director whose serials I have been describing. He diagnoses the problem of citizens of this “developing nation” as “cultural illiteracy,” and sees television drama as the best instrument for eliminating such illiteracy.

Many urban intellectuals within the television industry, people like Fadil and ‘Ukasha who came of age during the Nasser period, see their vision of modernity and progress under threat today from both the newly wealthy and the religious groups. Their serials uphold the secular national institutions of the post-colonial state, promote the ideals of informed citizenship, and deplore what they view as abuses of basically good institutions like the law, government, education and the family. Although somewhat controversial, the social criticism they offer remains within the bounds of the familiar paradigms of the official political parties.

Not so for the Islamists. They speak directly to the same corruption and consumerism the serials deplore. In their meetings, pamphlets, magazines and Friday sermons in the thousands of private mosques for which the Ministry of Religious Endowments cannot provide preachers, they offer an alternative path to modernity — a path that rejects the West and the secular nationalist vision that derives from it, as well as those Egyptians who have associated themselves with the West. This alternative vision has widespread appeal in part because it seems to offer people a moral way to deal with the times.

What Fadil, ‘Ukasha and other television professionals appear to be contesting, in excluding the Islamist vision from the serials, is not the value of religious faith and piety but the place where Muslim discourse is relevant. The segregation of religious and popular programming produces a sense of the separation of spheres, declaring the irrelevance of religion in the public domain of political development, economic progress and social responsibility. The same television professionals who refuse or are unable to portray the appeal of the Islamist vision, or who criticize openly, may be personally pious. But they carefully construct boundaries rejected by the Muslim activist groups.

If the back page of al-I‘tisam, the magazine of the Muslim Brothers, is any indication, these groups resent this exclusion and are quick to condemn television. Articles published in 1989, for example, criticized female television announcers for the impious display of their beauty, the falsification of history by erasing the role of the Islamic forces in Palestine and by glorifying Nasser and his notorious intelligence service, and the scandalous behavior of a number of major actors and actresses recently arrested for drug trafficking. That last article hyperbolically describes the mass media in contemporary Egypt as “a humiliated slave girl in the palace of the sultan who needs a protracted war of liberation in order to become her own mistress.” Television is commended for airing one program that will be counted as a “good deed” — a religious program on the beautiful names of God — but the programmers are criticized for scheduling it so late at night that “only those suffering from insomnia watch it.”

The magazine is even critical of the voice of official Islam in Egypt, Sheikh Jad al-Haqq, rector of al-Azhar University. A junior faculty member at a provincial university takes him to task for remaining silent about Egypt’s participation in the Miss Universe pageant. He notes sarcastically that even after shamelessly exposing her body in a bikini in front of the world media, the Egyptian beauty did not win. In a fatwa on the arts, Sheikh Jad al-Haqq moderately stated that “Islam does not forbid entertainment or enjoyment.” [3] To be permitted, though, the themes should follow the principles of Islam and its instructions; styles of performance should not stimulate any lustful desires; performances should not be in venues where instinctual desires will be stimulated or which are associated with alcohol or drugs. Unlike critics in al-I‘tisam, he notes that “acting can be used as a tool to educate society through discussing issues that are threatening to the harmony of a successful society.”

This judgment would condone the work of the socially conscious television drama producers I have been describing. Here, as in many other arenas, the position of the highest official in the religious establishment in Egypt does not challenge the government, insofar as television represents the position of the government that controls it.

Nostalgic for Nasser

Yet the serials are not simply a mouthpiece for the Egyptian state. Since some of the best directors can finance their productions through independent financing, the state television bureaucracy has at its disposal only the power of censorship, together with the preemptive self-censorship that accompanies it. On the other hand, the need for independents to sell their programs to the conservative, Arab states of the Gulf has become another powerful force for self-censorship.

Unlike many other serials, the works of Fadil and ‘Ukasha are often controversial because they are so critical of social conditions in Egypt and, by implication, of government policy. Fadil has always been known and respected for this political criticism. His first serial, Cairo and People, aired after Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, focused on cases of corruption and the abandonment of national ideals in the Nasser period. Written by two judges, some of the stories were inspired by court cases. As Nour al-Sharif, the famous film actor who got his start on this show, explained, “The serial harshly criticized the defects and mistakes that led to the defeat and what followed.” When asked whether Fadil, the director, was supporting or attacking government policy in that series, he replied, “Cairo and the People was not opposed to the political theory of the time; it was against the weaknesses and errors in the way the theory was being applied.”

With the significant shifts in government policy pursued by Nasser’s successors, Sadat and Mubarak, Fadil and ‘Ukasha seem to have become even more critical. Their productions now nostalgically invoke the period of socialist ideals and nationalist vision through charged symbols of the Nasserist era, like the great singer Umm Kulthoum or the Aswan High Dam. In fact, an upsurge of interest in the Nasser period is noticeable in a number of the popular serials aired during the last few years. Hilmiyya Nights, an extremely popular serial written by ‘Ukasha and shown during Ramadan over the past five years, is an epic of modern Egyptian history that follows the rich and poor families of Hilmiyya, a popular quarter in Cairo, from the days of King Farouq to the present. Its positive depiction of Nasser and the period before Sadat was controversial. In 1990, for example, every major periodical carried stories and editorials condemning or defending the serial.

Identity Politics

This revival of interest in Nasser’s day is surely related to growing disaffection with the social and economic changes brought on by Sadat’s infitah (economic opening) and a popular rethinking of the peace treaty with Israel that accompanied this policy. An extraordinarily popular serial called Ra’fat al-Haggan, whose first two installments were shown during Ramadan in 1989 and 1990, illustrates the revival best. Based on a book by Salih Mursi, it claimed to tell the true story of an Egyptian spy successfully planted in Israel for 20 years, beginning in the 1950s. The hero is a handsome James Bond character, except he is a chain smoker and works at a low-tech level — placing pieces of string over his door to detect break-ins and writing in invisible ink. He is backed by a team of dedicated and patriotic Egyptian intelligence officers. Unlike most Egyptian television serials, this was a political rather than a family drama. It offered, however, only the simple message of identity politics, which guaranteed its appeal to a wide constituency.

The opening scene sets the terms. Shown writhing in pain, the protagonist is dying of cancer in his home in Germany. He confesses to his German wife: “I’m not an Israeli, I’m an Egyptian. I’m not a Jew, I’m a Muslim.’ His widow then goes to Egypt in search of the truth about her husband. The rest of the serial unfolds the story of his life, through flashbacks accompanying the narrative his handler recounts to her.

What matters in this scene, and another in the same episode, is that our hero, although initially a small-time crook, is a patriotic Egyptian who has sacrificed himself for his country. His cleverness in outwitting the Israelis, his irresistible attractiveness to a bevy of beautiful Israeli women (played by glamorous Egyptian actresses) and the triumph of the Egyptian intelligence service is meant to inspire national pride. Any political message besides this general love of country is noticeably absent. There is nothing to indicate the tenor of Egypt’s internal politics at the time, although one hears some of Nasser’s emotional radio broadcasts about the 1956 war. More intriguing, neither the politics nor history of the Palestine conflict are presented, even though the hero is living in Israel.

The serial, perhaps inadvertently, conveyed a double message. Although its primary purpose was to promote national pride and identity, an effect produced by reviving memories of the Nasser period during which Israel was unequivocally the adversary on which heroic Egyptians should spy, it also seemed to normalize the traffic with Israel that Sadat initiated. Israelis were portrayed as sometimes corrupt (the men) and immoral (the women all fall in love with Ra‘fat, even when they are married), but generally normal and, in the case of women, quite attractive people. The roles were played by familiar and well-liked Egyptian actors. Our hero regularly greeted his new friends with “shalom” and “mazel tov”; his use of these terms taught them to children and adults all over Egypt. As one cartoon in the magazine Ruz al-Yusuf suggested, the serial also filled people’s heads with a host of previously unfamiliar names like Charlie, David, Yacov, Keohane, Levy and so forth. Significantly, the censors found little to criticize in the script and only minor changes were required by the Egyptian intelligence.

Concerning Islam, the most fascinating aspect of the serial is the way it asserts that Islam is an essential part of our hero’s Egyptian identity even though he is not living a religious life. In Israel he is regularly shown drinking wine over meals and gambling (to obtain secrets); moreover, since he is passing himself off in Israel as an Egyptian Jew, he even attends temple. Yet two moving scenes claim his Muslim identity. The first occurs right after Ra‘fat’s death. His body has been prepared for burial and lies in a casket. The Egyptian intelligence officer who has taken special charge of him cannot bear the thought that he will have a Jewish burial and that no Egyptians will attend to honor him. So he flies to Europe and, disguised as a rabbi, manages to get into the house while everyone is away. As he stands before the casket he slips off his shoes, as one would do to pray in a mosque, and pulls out from his breast pocket a copy of the Qur’an. With tears in his eyes, he recites over the corpse of the hero the proper verses for praying over the dead.

We will see this officer cry in another episode as well, the one in which, late one night, he first discovers the file of Agent 313 and thus the existence of Ra‘fat in Israel. Although others in the intelligence service have lost faith in Ra‘fat because he is not sending worthwhile information, this young officer in training is moved by what he finds when he looks through the file; he decides to take responsibility for the young spy. When he opens the folder, he finds an envelope marked, “To be opened after my death.” It begins, and we hear Ra‘fat’s voice repeating after him, “In the Name of God the Merciful the Compassionate. Truly we are God’s and to Him we return.” This is our hero’s will, to be executed, he says, if he does not return alive to the land of his beloved Egypt. In a broken voice, with mournful music playing in the background, Ra‘fat goes through, one by one, the sums to be given to each of the members of his family, even those brothers who mistreated him after the death of his father. He ends, by now practically sobbing, with the Muslim profession of faith: “Thus I will have cleared myself of all guilt in front of God, after I sacrificed everything in the service of the cherished homeland. God is Great, and for the glory of Egypt, I testify that there is no god but God and that Muhammad is his prophet.”

The protagonist has, in this document, neatly linked Egyptian patriotism with Islamic identity. The serial thus asserts that those in the more militant Islamic movements today — and by implication perhaps their brethren jailed during the Nasser era — have no grounds for accusing their secular government of being less than fully identified with Islam. This program can be seen as part of a struggle to reappropriate Islamic identity for secular nationalists, a struggle in which the state-controlled mass media, as in much else, are instrumental.


[1] This article is adapted from “Finding a Place for Islam: Egyptian Television Serials and the National Interest,” forthcoming in Public Culture (Spring 1993). Full acknowledgments can be found there.
[2] Guardian, June 23, 1992, p. 19.
[3] Al-Azhar Magazine, July 5, 1988.

How to cite this article:

Lila Abu-Lughod "Islam and Public Culture," Middle East Report 180 (January/February 1993).

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