BBC News

Six decades of Egyptian history in six movies

By Neil Arun
BBC News


As Egyptians protest against their government, the army dismisses the head of state and takes charge, promising to honour the wishes of the people. But, partly to check the rise of Islamists, it soon assumes sweeping powers.

The revolution of 1952 foreshadowed the events that followed the Arab Spring nearly 60 years later, and forms the starting point for Egypt's Modern Pharaohs, a three-part documentary for BBC World.

The documentary explores a cycle of revolution and repression, in which new political actors keep emerging, over time, to play traditional roles.

To evoke the past, film-maker Jihan El-Tahri uses clips from popular Egyptian movies. Here she discusses six of them.

The Sin

Director: Henry Barakat, 1965

This film was made under the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, an Arab nationalist army officer who led the 1952 coup against Egypt's monarchy.

Nasser wanted to modernise Egypt, lifting it out of poverty and illiteracy. As part of this project, he oversaw the seizure of land from the wealthy for redistribution by the state.

The Sin portrays a world in dire need of Nasser's reforms, where rich landowners lord it over impoverished peasants. The plot revolves around the rape of a peasant woman. The film's title refers to the sin of rape, but also, says Jihan El-Tahri, to the greater sin of the "exploitation of the poor by the rich".

The Sin is one of many classic Egyptian films in the social-realist tradition, animated by a concern for the poor.

Gamal Abdel Nasser

Director: Anwar Kawadri, 1999

This scene from a biopic of Nasser dramatises a turning point in Egyptian history, as the country was embarking on a long period of military rule. Egypt's popular first president, Mohammed Neguib, is shown confronting his fellow army officers, led by Nasser.

Neguib argues that the new republic must become a democracy. But Nasser, who is wary of Neguib's popularity, insists that underdeveloped, unstable Egypt is not ready for democracy.

"The middle class was tiny and the rest of the people couldn't read or write," says El-Tahri. "So Nasser's point was that the army was the only force that could bring about change."

Nasser's argument won the day. Neguib was ushered out of office and airbrushed from history. Nasser succeeded him, presiding over the nationalisation of industry, ambitious welfare reforms, and the creation of a police state.

Since then, military rule has continued almost uninterrupted in Egypt. To this day, its advocates and opponents echo the arguments made by Nasser and Neguib more than 60 years ago.

The Bullet is still in my Pocket

Director: Hossam Eldin Mostafa, 1974

This film was produced while Egypt was celebrating the outcome of the 1973 conflict with Israel, known as the Ramadan or Yom Kippur war. It glorifies "the will of Egyptians to fight for their land", says El-Tahri.

The clip depicts the moment when the Egyptian army crosses the Suez Canal into the Sinai peninsula, occupied by Israel since the Six Day War of 1967.

The humiliation of 1967 had haunted Nasser during his final years in office. In the hope of eventually retaking Sinai, he enlisted Soviet military advisers and ordered his forces to harass Israeli troops.

But Nasser died in 1970, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, believed Egypt could not afford a prolonged conflict with Israel. His 1973 attack took the Israelis by surprise.

While the conflict ended in a ceasefire, the campaign restored Egyptian national pride. It also began a process which saw Israel eventually return Sinai to Egypt as part of a historic peace deal.

However, the treaty with the Jewish state made Sadat an enemy of Egypt's increasingly militant Islamists.

Fat Cats

Director: Hassan Yousseff, 1978

A portrait of uninhibited corruption, Fat Cats depicts some of the unsavoury beneficiaries of Sadat's economic policies.

This clip shows a group of businessmen gleefully conniving to get their hands on public money. Egyptian audiences would have recognised them as members of a nouveau riche class, created by Sadat's "open door" liberalisation policy.

The policy was meant to strengthen the private sector, and to curb wastage in the bloated socialist economy left behind by Nasser. But the wealth it generated did not trickle down. The middle class struggled, while a few entrepreneurs - linked to politicians - became very rich.

Egyptian film-makers "wanted to show all this corruption", says El-Tahri, but they judiciously attributed it to a few individuals, rather than to the system. Unlike real life, the malaise shown in the film "is never institutional".

Sadat's policies ended up boosting the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, whose schools and clinics took over some of the duties abandoned by the welfare state.


Director: Atef Salem, 1986

Sadat's "open-door" swung both ways. While foreign investment flowed into Egypt, cheap labour flowed out, lured by the oil-rich economies of the Gulf.

This clip portrays a middle-class couple that tried to join the exodus. Both are well-educated - but the husband refuses to take a demeaning job, while the wife goes abroad for the sake of the family.

The film is a tearjerker, playing into popular anxieties about migration. El-Tahri says "Egyptians were being sold cheap", urged by their government to "go be a bricklayer in the Gulf, even if you have a doctorate".

The labour exodus propped up Egypt's economy with remittances. But many migrants also brought home an intolerant version of Islam, inflected with the Salafism of Saudi Arabia.

By the time this film was made - under Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak - the state was no longer encouraging the labour exodus.

The Terrorist

Director: Nader Galal, 1993

The attack on a tourist bus portrayed in this clip could have been plucked from the newspaper headlines of the 1990s. Such violence became a hallmark of the decade, as Egypt struggled with an influx of radicalised men returning from the fight against Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

The main character in The Terrorist is an archetypal militant, waging war against a secular society. After getting injured, he is nursed back to health by a middle-class family that is unaware of his true identity. Showered with kindness and befriended by a Christian neighbour, he begins questioning his beliefs.

El-Tahri says the film functions as an appeal for unity at a time of panic. Intriguingly, she says, its depiction of a generic militant group reflected how the era's security forces ignored the finer differences between the various Islamist outfits, tarring them all with same brush.

"Any young guy with a beard could have been pulled in and questioned because there was no distinction," she says. While the rise in terrorism was obviously a security threat, she says it was also "a fantastic excuse" to strengthen the police state.

Find out more

Watch Egypt's Modern Pharaohs on BBC World News - on Saturday 6 February at 09:10 and 20:10 GMT, and Sunday 8 February at 02:10 and 15:10 GMT

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.

Related Topics

  • Egypt