A Ramadan series brings Egypt's fight against extremists to TV screens

"The Choice" contrasts the lives of a martyred patriot and an extremist.
Thursday 30/04/2020
Actor Amir Karara plays the role of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansi. (Egyptian TV)
Captive audience. Actor Amir Karara plays the role of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansi. (Egyptian TV)

This Ramadan, fans of Egyptian TV drama have been gripped by a new series tackling the subject of religious extremism and its relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Titled “The Choice,” the series is based on the true story of an Egyptian army officer who was martyred in Sinai three years ago.

While the series says the events it depicts are real, some names and places have been changed for privacy considerations.

The work is an account of the life of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansi — played by actor Amir Karara — the commanding officer of the army's Thunderbolt Brigade in Sinai who was killed in battle while repelling a terror attack.

But the story also tells the parallel story of Mansi’s assassin, Hesham Ashmawy, an infamous former fellow officer who masterminded several terror attacks in Egypt before and after his escape to Libya, where he was eventually captured, returned to Egypt and sentenced to death. The role of Ashmawy is played by upcoming actor Ahmed al-Awadi.

The drama, which was supervised and supported by the Egyptian army's information services, clearly defended the government's anti-extremism narrative.

Good vs evil. Actor Amir Karara plays the role of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansi. (Egyptian TV)
Good vs evil. Actor Amir Karara plays the role of Colonel Ahmed al-Mansi. (Egyptian TV)

Director Peter Mimi combined live footage with dramatic scenes. The first episode opens with a handcuffed and bound Ashmawy disembarking from a military plane in the company of Egyptian intelligence officers after being captured in Libya and returned to Egypt.

The series tries to frame the story as part of the eternal conflict between the forces of good, personified by the character of Mansi, and the forces of evil, embodied by Ashmawy. The story contrasts the life and personality of an officer who believes his mission in life is to love and protect his country with that of another former fellow army officer who is rude and violent to his military comrades. In one scene, Ashmawy is seen mistreating a soldier just because the latter was singing country songs with his companions instead of reading the Quran.

Art critic Tarek el-Shenawy said the series has touched many Egyptians' souls and depicted events that are close to home.

According to TV ratings released in Egypt, the first episode of the military drama — a genre that has lost popularity within Egypt's cultural scene — drew some of the highest levels of viewership.

Shenawy told The Arab Weekly that the series' creators dealt with the main topics intelligently by digging deep into the social, intellectual and cultural motives of Mansi and Ashmawy. The mens' ties to the military showed how the institution can end up harbouring disparate reactions — both patriotism and treason.

The title of the series, "The Choice," seems to imply that a person is free to choose their path in life, either by thinking critically and questioning dogmas or by drifting to extremism and perdition.

The work also hints at the dubious relationship between the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists in Sinai, and takes jabs at the role of some inflammatory media outlets in supporting militant groups.

The work defends the view that Islamist groups have perverted the meaning of the word "jihad," using it to recruit and mislead followers in order to achieve their political objectives.

As expected, the Muslim Brotherhood’s "electronic army" and trolls viciously attacked "The Choice." They focused on scenes that showed how terrorists justify killing soldiers in Sinai.

Karara told the press that "The Choice" is a thorn in the side of takfirists (Muslims who accuses other Muslims of apostasy) and terror sponsors. He described the series as a dramatic work that commemorates the life of a person who deserves to be a role model for young generations and offers a comparison between a hero who defends his homeland and a traitor who sells it out.

The action scenes and special effects reflect the director’s favourite style, as well as the costly production behind the series. Director Peter Mimi is known for his war film, "No Surrender" (Original title: "Karmouz War"), which also stars Karara.