Ramadan soap opera boom for Egypt
- 17 August 2012
- From the section Middle East
Egypt's TV industry is enjoying a soap opera boom thanks in part to the crisis in Syria, its traditional market rival in the Middle East, BBC Monitoring reports.
During the evenings of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, after the traditional Iftar meal is eaten to break the day's fast, families across Egypt and much of the Arab world enjoy watching special dramas on television.
This year, Egyptian channels have more than 50 soap operas on offer as they compete fiercely for audiences and advertising revenue. Their combined production cost is estimated at a record 1.18bn Egyptian pounds (£125m; $196m).
More than a year after the revolution that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, politics and international affairs are more popular themes than usual. In the absence of the widespread censorship that existed during the Mubarak era - some of it self-imposed - Egyptian drama is also enjoying an unprecedented level of freedom.
Several Ramadan productions have focused on the negative aspects of the Mubarak regime and events that led to its demise.
The Egyptian actor, Hani Ramzi, told the Emirati newspaper, al-Khalij: "The 25 January revolution created new vistas for writers."
One TV series, And The Day Comes, reviews the last years of Mubarak's rule and explores the political, social and security factors that led to the uprising. Another, Son of the Regime, does the same using a comic frame.
With Direct Order tackles the problem of succession of power that overshadowed the former president's final years in office. Dangerous Games raises the problems of slums and youth unemployment.
Political corruption is explored in The Case of Her Excellency the Minister-ess.
At least five soap operas look at the practices of the notorious State Security Police under Mubarak's rule. Others, including The Thug, consider how the state used armed supporters to carry out a campaign of intimidation.
Egypt's relationship with Israel under Mubarak was the inspiration for the Ramadan soap opera that got the highest number of viewers this year, according to a report from the Egyptian information ministry's audience rating committee.
Naji Atallah's Crew tells the fictitious story of Atallah, a retired military officer working as an administrative attache at the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv.
The character is popular with ordinary Israelis, but comes under suspicion from Israeli security officials because of the large amount of money he has made. This leads to him being sacked from the embassy and his local bank account being frozen.
He then plots to rob the same bank with five other men, entering Israel via tunnels from the Gaza Strip. His plan is to return to Egypt via Lebanon but he is taken hostage at the border by the Shia Islamist militant group, Hezbollah.
The series explores aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, Egyptian policy towards the Palestinian factions, as well as tensions in Israeli society between secular and religious Jews.
It has been strongly criticised by Israeli officials. On his official Twitter account, the Israeli prime minister's spokesman, Ofir Gendelman, said the show "aims at inciting hatred against Israelis".
Arab TV critics also questioned the content of the production, reported to have had a budget of 70m Egyptian pounds.
"The star of the show, Adel Imam, used to be the mouthpiece of the Mubarak regime, but it seems now that the regime has fallen he wants to attract an audience by playing on anti-Israeli feelings on the Arab street," wrote Tariq al-Shinawi in the Egyptian newspaper, al-Tahrir.
"The danger here is that this TV series is trying to appease viewers by investing in hostility against Israel to make the series a commercial success," wrote Mohammed Benaziz in the Lebanese daily, al-Safir.
Overall, Egypt's latest Ramadan offerings are seen as a sign that its television industry has recovered after many interruptions following last year's popular uprising.
"This year's drama season is considered one of the biggest in the history of Egyptian drama," Dalal Hamzah of the Egyptian Radio and Television Union told al-Shorfa news website.
"The momentum this year follows a quiet season last year, when many productions were cancelled. An atmosphere of economic optimism in Egypt is what prompted producers to inject capital once again."
Reports said that famous stars had been keen to sign up for Ramadan shows after recently losing their incomes.
Film producer Hisam Shaban told al-Arabiya that the movie industry was still "risky", "so they resorted to the safe means, which is drama that can achieve high viewership".
The unrest in Syria also had a knock-on effect on Egypt. Normally the two Arab countries' TV industries compete for the highest Ramadan ratings.
"With an absence of Syrian productions, Egyptian productions have found themselves standing tall without any competition, which resulted in an increase in both quantity and quality," said Mahmud Dallal, a lecturer at Cairo University's theatre studies department.
Mr Dallal added that despite rumours that there would be radical changes to Egyptian drama when Islamists were victorious in the parliamentary and presidential elections, this had so far not happened.
BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaux abroad. For more reports from BBC Monitoring, click here