Ramadan soap operas stir controversy in Egypt

More than 30 Ramadan soap operas are airing this year, tackling topics from terrorism and corruption to revolution and the police.
Sunday 03/06/2018
Billboards for TV Ramadan series are seen in the streets of Cairo, on May 15. (AFP)
From the studio to the courthouse. Billboards for TV Ramadan series are seen in the streets of Cairo, on May 15. (AFP)

CAIRO - No sooner had the television series “Roba Rumi” (“Quarter of a Kilo of Rumi Cheese”) begun airing than it was the target of several lawsuits.

The court cases were filed by people who say the series, one of many airing during Ramadan, humiliates them. The plaintiffs include lawyers who allege the series makes fun of them, antiquities specialists who claim the drama accuses them of corruption and historians who say the programme incites disrespect for the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

“The viewers need to understand that we have deep respect for everybody in society,” said Bayoumi Fouad, who plays one of the main characters in “Roba Rumi.”  “This is a mere work of art that mimics reality but in a comic manner and everybody knows this.”

These are among the controversies that Ramadan soap operas have generated this year, a by-product of special programmes, often featuring some of Egypt’s biggest stars, that run every night during Ramadan.

One of the series threatened to cause a diplomatic row between Egypt and Sudan for portraying a Sudanese village as a hotspot for Islamist terrorists. The Sudanese government summoned the Egyptian ambassador in Khartoum to protest the way “Abu Omar al-Masri” portrayed parts of Sudan and accused the series of defaming the Sudanese people.

The diplomatic furore forced the show’s network, On-E, to issue a statement seeking to calm tensions. “The makers of ‘al-Masri’ series understand well the importance of art in bringing people together and do not aim to provoke any crises,” the statement said. “They also understand the importance of Egyptian-Sudanese relations and the crucial strategic partnership between the two countries.”

“Roba Rumi” tells the story of a low-ranking antiquities official, played by Fouad, who tries to steal an antiquity from a newly discovered tomb to solve his financial problems. However, Fouad’s character is struck by the “curse of the pharaohs” and is transformed into a rat. The series focuses on his two inept sons’ attempts to break the curse and return their father to human form.

Another Ramadan series in hot water is “Khefet Yad” (“Sleight of Hand”), in which a character disguises himself as a Coptic priest while running from police, which angered many Coptic Christians. It led scriptwriter and actor Mufid Mounir to say the programme “meant no offence and that respect towards the clergy is obligatory even in a comedy series aiming for fun.”

At a time when there has been international attention on the freedom of expression in Egypt, the issue of Ramadan series seeking to spark a debate on real-world ills, such as corruption, poverty and terrorism, is a hot-button issue.

Entertainment critics say art should be viewed with a mind towards artistic rules, not by rules of society.

“Everybody watching knows that these are works of art that should not be judged by the rules of reality,” said TV critic Tarek al-Shennawi, ¨but the fact that all these objections are raised shows there is little tolerance for criticism in our country.”

Soap operas have long been a major part of Ramadan in Egypt.

More than 30 Ramadan soap operas are airing this year, tackling topics from terrorism and corruption to revolution and the police.

TV producer Essam Shaaban estimated the amount of money spent on soap operas this year was $56.5 million. “The producers have made huge profits as well,” Shaaban said. “A large number of the soap operas succeeded in securing broadcast deals with a large number of private channels, including other Arabic countries’ channels.”

Most of the Ramadan soap operas are aired on privately owned channels. They have earned $120 million through deals with advertising agencies, local media said.

These massive figures are reviving hopes that Egypt can return to its traditional leading role in Arab culture, particularly in terms of its film and television industry. While Egyptian entertainment had once enjoyed a peerless position, deteriorating artistic qualities of Egyptian works allowed for cultural influences from other countries, particularly Turkey and Lebanon, to step in.

Some of the works aired this year, critics said, showed that Egyptian drama is coming back very strongly.

“Some of the works are very good and demonstrate a real departure from the artistic decades of the past,” Shennawi said. “The same works will also give rise to a new generation of TV professionals who will take this country’s dramas many steps forward in the coming years.”

However, growing intolerance to artistic creativity upsets actors such as Fouad, who said he was disappointed by angry reaction to his work.

To avoid trouble, he suggested — sarcastically — that producers get approval from the professional unions before turning the scripts into TV programmes.

“Artists want to live their life in peace,” Fouad said. “I cannot go to jail for playing a role in a TV work.”