WATANI International 19 September 2010
The MB on TV
Wahid Hamed is one of the most significant drama writers in Egypt and the Arab World, with a reputation for exceptional skill in weaving plots into remarkable screenplays. Besides his renown as a writer, Hamed is famed for his unambiguous stance against political Islam and the concept of a religious State. His most recent work, the TV serial drama al-Jamaa, was aired on several TV channels—including national TV—throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during which viewing peaks, and was the epitome of the union of Hamed’s political views and his expertise.
Al-Jamaa, literally the Group, which tells the story of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), tracks the history of the first radical Islamic political movement in contemporary history. Even though it began in the late 1920s as a benevolent charity, the MB may be considered the ‘mother’ and ‘nurturer’ of all the violent Islamic groups of today. It later engaged in politics and is notorious for a chain of political assassinations committed during the 1940s. It also managed to promote fanaticism and hatred of Copts, and was responsible for several incidents of violence against them, among which was the burning of a church in Zagazig in 1947.
Since its establishment by Hassan al-Banna (1906 – 1949) more than 80 years ago, the MB managed to survive painful blows by Egypt’s ruling regimes during the years of the monarchy and those of the presidency of Gamal Abdel-Nasser which lasted between 1953 and 1970. It was only when Anwar al-Sadat assumed the presidency of Egypt in 1971 that the MB was given freedom to operate. Sadat was hoping the MB would counter the force of his strong leftist opponents but, as fate would have it, he fell victim to the Islamists; they assassinated him in 1980. Until today the movement thrives—albeit as a legally banned movement but one which claims strong grass-roots support—never abandoning its dream of ruling Egypt and the world through an Islamic State.
In flashback scenes which begin with the show of force conducted by the Hamas-like militias of the MB al-Azhar University students in 2006—which was instantly crushed by the security forces—the drama goes back to the days of Banna’s early childhood.
Hamed’s work, which is the first episode in a series intended to present the MB’s full history, begins with the foundation of the group and stops short of the assassination of Banna in February 1949, reportedly at the hands of the Interior Ministry. The drama is based on numerous references, which Hamed lists at the beginning of each episode, and which include the memoirs of none other than Hassan al-Banna himself. But this did not stop the MB from opening fire against the drama ever since it was known that Hamed intended to make the movement the topic of his next big work. This is not surprising, since the MB revere Banna and raise him to the rank of a saint—which Hamed definitely does not—and moreover love to assume the role of the victimised. They are famous for being self-righteous and manipulative, while the drama exposes and bares them.
No matter how drama is seen, it at best expresses the viewpoint of its writer. Dramatic impartiality is but a big lie; drama can never be impartial. If it ever is, it would end up colourless and tasteless. Drama adopts one definite, specific stance. As famously told at the tongue of one of Hamed’s characters: “If you read books that side with the MB you wish you were one of them, but if you read those that write against them you would wish some miracle would occur to rid us of them.”
Using the same Banna memoirs, the Brotherhood have announced they will be producing a dramatic work that will be ‘fair’ to him.
Religion corrupts politics
Yet Hamed presented Banna as a strong, charismatic character. So much so that critics of the MB accused Hamed that he had helped build up a following for Banna. Especially that, at the outset of the drama, Hamed revealed the MB was founded as an idealistic, religious movement to battle corruption and social ills. This rang a bell with today’s viewers who can readily identify with and respond to the ills portrayed and the need to eradicate them. Hamed depicted the security officials in a very positive, humane light, which served to make the drama lose credibility. So the drama started off, for all appearances, generating sympathy for the MB.
But not for long. Soon enough, the real face of the MB is laid bare. The “special organisation” established within the Brotherhood begins exercising its speciality practice, that of political assassinations. Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Maher is shot in 1945, Judge Ahmed al-Khazindar, who indicted MB members for the assassinations in 1948, and PM Mahmoud Fahmy al-Noqrashi also in 1948. Jewish-owned property and businesses in Egypt were assaulted and blown up. Such scenes, masterfully produced by the director Mohamed Yassin, sent home the message that religion corrupts politics and politics corrupt religion.
Coptic wariness and irritation with the MB, however, was only alluded to sparingly. Nor was the fanaticism or violence against Copts given fair coverage by Hamed.
Predictably, al-Jamaa aroused huge controversy, with some for and others against the manner in which the Brotherhood was portrayed. Some criticised the conspicuously missing private life of Banna, which featured clearly in his memoirs. His wife, children, and siblings—two of whom resisted his thought—got no mention.
At the end of the day, however, the drama was a huge success. The cast, led by the seasoned actor Ezzat al-Alaili, hugely contributed to the success. The music by Omar Khairat warrants not a mention but a huge applause. Director Mohamed Yassin managed a remarkable cinematic work.
Finally, al-Jamaa led its viewers into a state of controversy, creativity, rapture, and wonder. For a long time, it will remain unforgettable.