The series had the makings of a hit — a handsome-but-troubled hero, a star-crossed romance and plenty of international intrigue.
But it came as a surprise when the Ramadan soap opera “Abu Omar al-Masry” sparked a real-life diplomatic incident. In mid-May, Sudan recalled its ambassador from Cairo, complaining that the Egyptian-made miniseries — about a bleeding-heart lawyer who joins a terrorist group — painted “a negative stereotype” by depicting foreign extremists living within its borders.
It wasn’t the first time a TV show has made headlines in the Middle East. In the last few years, as audiences demand better scripts and production values, television in the Arab world has gotten bolder and more controversial. This is especially true during the Muslim holy month, when producers and advertisers blow more than half their annual budgets on mosalsalat, big-budget miniseries targeting millions of families who, after fasting all day, stay glued to their sofas into the small hours.
“It’s like the Super Bowl, but it lasts a month,” said Joseph Fahim, a Cairo entertainment critic.
In quieter times, the serials were mostly escapist melodramas following predictable clichés of love and family. But since 2011, TV has mirrored the upheaval in the region, with provocative story lines that touch on issues such as religious hypocrisy, corruption and homosexuality.
Much of the talent from Egypt’s storied film industry — once known as Hollywood on the Nile — has moved to the small screen, “where the money is,” Fahim said.
The growing commercial success of Ramadan serials in particular has given them “some kind of leeway, in terms of content,” he added, even as state censors have cracked down on virtually every medium.
“Series have totally changed in the past seven years,” said the Egyptian actress Nelly Karim, seated in the small hours of a recent morning in a makeshift dressing room in a sprawling villa some 30 miles outside the capital, where shooting was taking place on her latest project, a thriller partly set in Moscow.
In recent Ramadan shows, Karim has played a guard-turned-inmate in “Women’s Prison” (2014), a portrait of a real-life Cairo jail; and a heroin addict who relapses in “Under Control” (2015), which made waves with its nuanced portrait of addiction.
Both scripts were written by Mariam Naoum, who counts herself lucky to have entered the industry as TV in Egypt was embarking on a “golden era.”
“I’m trying to shake the water,” said Naoum, who is known for penning many of Egypt’s bravest social dramas.
She was also behind “Heat Wave,” the story of a violent cop and his activist brother, which featured a lesbian relationship and a man who is sexually abused with a police baton — daring fare in a country where on-screen kissing is taboo.
The series was made in 2013, as Egypt grew increasingly uneasy under Islamist President Mohamed Morsi. “The Preacher,” about an Islamic televangelist, was one of several serials that year that skewered conservative Islam. It finished filming the day before millions took part in protests that would end in Morsi’s ouster by the military.
Ironically, since then, Naoum acknowledges, “the ceiling of freedom is getting lower.”
In the past year, especially in the run-up to the March reelection of President Abdel Fattah Sisi, Egyptian authorities have raided libraries, banned films and blocked hundreds of websites. February saw the abrupt cancellation of “Saturday Night Live Arabia” for using “sexual phrases and insinuations,” despite its careful avoidance of political jokes.
But drama makers in the Middle East have a long tradition of finding inventive ways to convey their politics through their art, said Rebecca Joubin, an associate professor of Arab studies at Davidson College who studies television in the region.
“It’s a question of the survival of the industry and the continuation of the idea that there is always a message,” said Joubin.
She said that TV creatives from countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt are pushing new formats involving more transnational collaboration and experimenting online and with series that air outside the traditional Ramadan season.
“Seventh Neighbor,” about a group of residents in an upscale Cairo apartment building, began airing in October, outside the holy month, and became an overnight sleeper hit with its frank portrayal of middle-class Egyptian women who smoke hashish and have ill-advised sexual relationships outside of marriage.
Critics denounced as “un-Egyptian” story lines in which a protagonist gets pregnant by a former suitor and has an abortion, and another involving a professional who hatches a plan to have a baby on her own. But the show’s creators, three women in their 30s, say they took care that every detail felt authentic, including the actors, who were mostly unknowns, and the gilded living room furniture and plates of baladi flat bread on the lunch table. “It was based on people we knew and things we actually experienced in our lives,” said co-director Ayten Amin.
The trio shopped the script for a year and a half before someone finally agreed to produce the show. “No one understood it,” because there were no killings or car chases, said Heba Yousry, who wrote the series. “They kept saying, ‘But nothing happens!’ ”
But by the time “Seventh Neighbor” wound up in March, it had garnered millions of views on YouTube and so much advertising that the commercial breaks were often longer than the 30- to 45-minute episodes.
The U.S. government believes that audiences in the Arab world are hungry for such complex characters and realistic story lines. In July, the State Department is flying 10 TV writers from the region to Los Angeles for a five-week course at the USC School of Cinematic Arts. The training is part of the Middle East Media Initiative, a project that seeks to encourage regional shows that “highlight a modern, pluralist future.”
Young producers are also drawing ever bigger audiences for “webisodes” posted straight to YouTube. This year’s online Ramadan miniseries “Optional Prison” explores unemployment, political disillusionment and other issues facing Egyptian youth.
But as the country grapples with record inflation and rising poverty, Egypt’s airwaves are increasingly populated by evil terrorists and heroic cops — in line with Sisi’s central message. Last month, the Supreme Media Regulatory Council threatened to fine Ramadan programmers who didn’t adhere to “societal values.”
“The state seems to believe that the reason 2011 happened is because [former President Hosni] Mubarak gave people too much leeway,” says veteran writer and producer Medhat Adl, referring to the popular uprising that ended the tenure of Egypt’s longtime former dictator.
His family’s production company, the El Adl Group, is behind many of Egypt’s biggest TV dramas, including “The Jewish Quarter,” which stirred controversy when it aired in 2015 by painting a sympathetic historical portrait of Egyptian Jews. At a moment when the country was increasingly intolerant and divided, Adl said he wrote “The Jewish Quarter” to remind people that “Egypt is not like this. Egypt is cosmopolitan.”
Indeed, people often forget that on-screen sex and politics are not new here. It was only after a wave of religious conservatism imported from the Gulf in the 1980s that love scenes disappeared from Egyptian movies. But one way or another, films here have always reflected the issues of the day.
Egyptian leaders also have a long tradition of harnessing the “soft power” of cinema, and later TV. In 1961, the revolutionary socialist Gamal Abdel Nasser — who reportedly didn’t go to bed without watching an American western — nationalized the major film studios.
Today the government wields control over broadcasting in subtler ways, but still, “the media here is married to the political establishment,” says Mohamed Moatasem, a screenwriter who has studied this relationship.
It’s a bond that endures. In the past two years, military and security officials have orchestrated takeovers of at least three major privately owned television channels.
Adl — who has been in the entertainment business for 27 years, ever since he left a career as a pediatrician — sees these changes as yet another worrying sign that the recent period of relative freedom and openness on Egyptian TV may be coming to an end.
“Next year,” the 63-year-old writer and producer jokes, “we’ll open a restaurant.”
Scheier is a special correspondent.