Abdel Nasser’s Cinema and Sisi’s Series: The Transformation of Art into Propaganda Against Enemies

Ahmad Safadi

During Abdel Nasser’s era, cinema was the most popular form of entertainment. However, during Sisi’s era, television series have become dominant, serving as a medium that enters every household without exception.

Among the characters that made us laugh in the cinema were Al ‘Askari Ismail in the movie “The Secret Police,” Ragab in “Ismail Yasseen in the Navy,” and Termes in “Ismail Yasseen in the Army.” All the protagonists of the Ismail series depicted life in Egyptian military camps during the second half of the 20th century.

These naive characters played by Ismail Yasseen were often subjected to mockery, ridicule, and manipulation, getting involved in various problems that made them easy to project onto the public reality for the purpose of humor, especially targeting military personnel and police officers. However, President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime welcomed these portrayals and allowed them to be filmed in military camps.

During Abdel Nasser’s time, films did not overly portray sensitivity in depicting the military nor did they strive to create mythical images of them. This contrasts with President Abdel Fattah el Sisi’s regime, which focuses on presenting military and police personnel as ideal figures, safeguarding the state and the people from perceived enemies who deceive others in the name of religion.

The comparison between Abdel Nasser and Sisi concerning freedoms closely tied to artistic production is often a topic of discussion on social media and in cultural spaces due to the comprehensive nature of both regimes and their limitations on freedoms, stemming from their military origins.

Abdel Nasser has been accused of solidifying military rule and transferring power from the monarchy to the armed forces. On the other hand, Sisi is accused of aggressively seizing the gains of the 2011 Egyptian revolution — particularly the freedoms it brought —  and restoring power to the military establishment even more prominently.

There is also a similarity in how both of them dealt with art. Abdel Nasser established the General Cinema Authority in 1957 as a governmental tool for artistic production. Its role was expanded in the 1960s as it became the dominant force in film production despite retaining private production.

Similarly, Sisi established the United Media Services Company, which controls all artistic, television, and journalistic production. However, this time, it was not subordinate to traditional government bodies like the Ministry of Culture but rather under the General Intelligence Agency, allowing a strong military influence over artistic production.

There is a similarity in how both Abdel Nasser and Sisi dealt with art; they both targeted enemies of their respective regimes. However, there are differences in the issues and the nature of the enemy that each regime fought against, as well as the methods and strategies used.

Cinema was the prominent form of entertainment during Abdel Nasser’s era, while television series were the dominant form of entertainment during Sisi’s era. 

During Abdel Nasser’s era, cinema at the time aligned with his political discourse. It depicted enemies of the political system and society, which included the old ruling class and their followers, referred to by Abdel Nasser as the “half percent society.”

Abdel Nasser’s cinema: combatting the monarchy, colonialism, and feudalism

Cinema during Abdel Nasser’s time targeted the corrupt monarchy, political parties, the British occupation, and feudal landowners, reflecting the social injustices and class divisions that resulted from these factors. The films at the time promoted the corruption of the monarch, the army, and the political parties, and it also shed light on how Egyptians were subjected to injustices as a result of class divisions and the lack of social justice. 

Despite the fact that Abdel Nasser and his colleagues were officers in the military during the monarchy, they propagated the idea that the army was corrupt and that the July officers aimed to reform it. This idea was present in the Declaration of the Revolution itself, which accused traitors of “conspiring against the army and placed its command in the hands of an ignorant, traitorous, or corrupt individual, leaving Egypt defenseless.”

The corruption within the army was depicted in several films, with a prominent focus on the issue of corrupt weapons during the 1948 Palestine War, which symbolize the bribery, favoritism, and betrayal within the military. Some of these films include “Al-Eman,” “God is with Us,” and “Land of Heroes.

These films provide either hidden or explicit justification for the idea that a group of officers decided to cleanse their institution from betrayal and corruption. Because this institution is led by the king, and has been conspired on by capitalist class, which trafficked corrupt weapons, these officers have the right to cleanse their institution and, consequently, the state managed by this class and its king.

As for the king’s personal moral corruption, it was a clear theme in Nasserist media. Interestingly, we should mention the film “The Story of My Love” by Farid Al-Atrash, which he claimed personally reflected his own story.

Al-Atrash also spread the rumor that he had a relationship with Nermine, but King Farouk loved her, married her against her will, which is narrated in the film without directly naming the king. He alluded to the king as a person “in the Al-Alali district.” In some scenes, the person who took his lover away looks like King Farouk. Critic Mahmoud Qassem confirms this in his book “Political Film in Egypt.”

The corruption of the political class within the parties is evident in many films such as “Sunset and Sunrise,” which focuses on the idea of political oppression of Egyptian nationalists by the political police. It also reveals the corruption of party members who vie for ministerial positions and posts.

The film “Cairo 30” suggests that moral deviation was a means of social advancement in the royal era, to the extent of selling one’s honor to the ruling capitalist class. Members of this class exploited their influence to satisfy personal desires.

One of the most significant films that discussed the corruption of the political class before the July Revolution was “In Our House There’s a Man.” In this film, the Egyptian prime minister, aligned with the British occupation, is killed by the film’s hero, who escapes and hides in a friend’s house. He eventually dies after blowing up a British military camp.

The concept of social injustice and the tyranny of the feudal class is discussed in many films, but perhaps most prominently in “The Land” and “Redeem My Heart.” The latter directly addresses how the feudal class treated Egyptian peasants with disdain. However, after the July Revolution, Egyptian peasants reclaimed their land, and even the son of a peasant, Ibrahim,  became an officer in the army and married the daughter of a pasha, Princess Angie, symbolizing both the army replacing the old ruling class and that the army belongs to the peasants.

The film “Beginning and End” addresses this issue less directly but more harshly and professionally. Its story doesn’t involve rhetorical methods that attack the ruling regime; rather, it illustrates the suffering of the poor in the royal era through an Egyptian family from the lower middle class that falls into poverty after the father’s death.

The family struggles to survive, with the eldest son joining the military academy and becoming an officer in the army. The sister turns to prostitution, the older brother to drugs, and the youngest brother, who becomes an army officer, disowns his family to maintain his social status in the new class he joins. The prostitute commits suicide after her true identity is exposed, and the officer, who indirectly led to her suicide, commits suicide as well.

It’s evident from the above that the cinema at the time aligned with Gamal Abdel Nasser’s political discourse, portraying enemies of the political system and society as the old ruling class and their supporters. Abdel Nasser referred to them as the “half percent society.

Contemporary enemies of Abdel Nasser’s time during his rule were also portrayed in films, but the focus was on external enemies (colonial powers and their allies, as Abdel Nasser stated).

Some of the most important films that portrayed enemies of the revolution from outside Egypt included “Gamila,” which supported the Algerian revolution against the French occupation, and “The Yemeni Revolution,” which opposed the Yemeni royal regime. “Port Said” celebrated the heroism of Egyptian popular resistance against the tripartite aggression (England, France, Israel) on Port Said in 1956. This film didn’t try to exaggerate the role of the army or the police in this resistance but rather focused on the people’s heroism.

During Abdel Nasser’s era, Egyptian cinema did not delve into the internal political struggle in Egypt. Interestingly, although the Muslim Brotherhood was accused of attempting to assassinate Abdel Nasser in 1954 and engaged in a political war with him – which eventually led to the imprisonment of their leaders and possibly hundreds or even thousands of them,   they were absent from the cinematic landscape during Abdel Nasser’s time, unlike during Sisi’s era.

Sisi’s series: A war against the Muslim Brotherhood and the picture perfect army and police

Abdel Fattah el-Sisi built his popularity on the idea of saving Egypt from the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood, following a widespread popular movement on June 30, 2013. Unlike Abdel Nasser, who adopted socialism and Arab nationalism, Sisi did not present a cultural or political project with an ideological character. Instead, he constructed his regime around the idea of rescuing the nation from falling into the hands of Islamic terrorists.

Sisi promoted the notion that the military is the backbone of the state and its governing pillar. He claimed that without the military, the country would have succumbed to Islamic organizations led by the Muslim Brotherhood. Thus, any criticism of the military, and by extension, the police, was considered an insult to the nation itself.

This idea is almost exactly what the drama produced by the United Media Services Company aims to promote. This company dominates Egypt’s artistic, journalistic, and television production market and actively promotes this narrative.

Perhaps the series “The Emperor” was the first to directly promote the heroism of the military and police during Sisi’s era. It received significant production support in 2016.

The series depicts a conflict between a terrorist group in Sinai and the police in a border tunnel in the city of Rafah on the Egyptian-Palestinian border. All terrorists are killed except one, Al-Qaisar, the Emperor, who surrenders to the police, gets imprisoned, and escapes, only for the conflict to evolve.

The following year, the series “Handcuffs” presented a model of a principled officer, viewed by some as ruthless due to his strict approach, but nonetheless upright and disciplined. He is falsely accused of killing a young man in prison due to torture but eventually proves his innocence.

The series carries a clear message, defending police abuses and torture of detainees, which Egypt has long been accused of.

After the success of the series in 2017, subsequent seasons were produced in 2018 and 2019. In the second season, officer Salim Al-Ansari is promoted after proving his innocence and is put in charge of the Scorpion Prison (one of the most notorious political prisons in Egypt). However, he faces harm and several of his family members are killed by criminals.

In the third season, he battles a terrorist cell trying to assassinate him, then becomes part of the Presidential Guard, and eventually establishes a private security company. This season serves as a direct promotion of Sisi as the Minister of Defense during the era of President Mohamed Morsi, depicting him as a patriotic and non-ambitious figure who deals with the corrupt leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and ultimately responds to the demands of the protestors, leading to the removal of the Islamist president.

Several series produced by the United Media Services Company serve to directly promote Sisi’s regime and attack its enemies, such as “The Choice,” divided into three parts spanning over three years. The first part portrayed the heroic officer Ahmed Mansi, who fights terrorists in Sinai and is eventually martyred. He is presented as a perfect individual in all his actions.

The second part highlighted the police’s heroism and directly confronted the Muslim Brotherhood. It focused on the dispersal of the Rabaa sit-in and the events in Kerdasa. The police’s response was depicted as ideal, highlighting the officers’ sacrifices.

The third part provided direct promotion for Sisi himself as the Minister of Defense during Morsi’s presidency. Sisi was portrayed as a noble and national figure who did not seek power. He dealt with corrupt leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood and eventually responded to the people’s demands, leading to the removal of the Islamist president.

Every Ramadan season usually features one or more series either attacking Islamists or promoting the military and police’s heroism. Examples include “The Group,” which portrays the history of the Muslim Brotherhood, “Abu Omar Al-Masry,” depicting an Egyptian jihadist’s story, “Al-Qahira Kabul,” “The Returnees,” “War,” and others, all directly addressing religious extremism and Islamic groups. In addition, there are series that indirectly celebrate authority and power.

Abdel Nasser allowed criticism of authority; does Sisi share this approach?

During Abdel Nasser’s era, criticizing authority or the July Revolution was not allowed. However, after the defeat on June 5, 1967, films directly criticizing the political system emerged, like “Miramar” and “The Rebels.” Abdel Nasser himself was symbolically criticized as being “a bit of fear” himself.

In her book “Cinema Authority… Control Authority,” Amal Arian Fuad explains that Abdel Nasser personally approved these films, as they faced initial censorship. Mahmoud Qassem believes that Abdel Nasser’s assurance of his continued presence in power following the protests against his presidency’s withdrawal did not scare him, in fact doing the opposite, causing him to allow room for critiquing his regime.

Yet, upon closer examination, this criticism seemed to be a  part of reviews initiated by the very authority led by Abdel Nasser. This was evidenced in the March 30, 1968 statement that guaranteed a margin of freedom. Thus, the cinema did not dare to address anything beyond what was permissible.

As for the United Media Services Company’s series, they have not contained any criticism of President Sisi or his regime thus far. The security apparatus, which led a crackdown on the arts, according to Human Rights Watch, still has a strong grip on artists.

There are new variables in Egyptian life, with the severe economic crisis at the forefront. Egypt is witnessing the unprecedented devaluation of the Egyptian pound, the cost of living has risen significantly, and the inflation rate reached 41 percent in June 2023, according to figures from the Central Bank of Egypt. Experts and international institutions believe that these numbers underestimate the actual situation and that Egypt’s real inflation is ranked in the top 20 of worst inflation rates in the world.

This crisis, along with other major crises in Egypt, prompted President Sisi to initiate a national dialogue that brings together recognized opposition political parties. Despite the criticisms directed towards it, does this dialogue indicate the possibility, even if slight, of a margin for artistic freedom, similar to what happened after the 1967 defeat and the March 3rd statement?

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