Middle East

Egypt's new pop culture icons?

People walk past a poster of the movie outside a cinema in Cairo
Image caption Egypt's shadowy strongmen are increasingly portrayed on its cinema screens

In the space of only a few weeks, the film Abdo Mota, starring young and upcoming actor Mohamed Ramadan, has topped the Egyptian box office, earning more than films featuring Egypt's well-established stars.

Abdo Mota is the unlikely hero of the film everyone's talking about in Egypt. He is a "baltagy" - an Arabic term for thug.

At one point in the film, Abdo talks triumphantly about his criminal record, listing the people he has hurt and others he has killed.

In Egypt these men have been linked to the Mubarak regime. They were the plain-clothed men blamed for the violence and the killing of many protesters.

The most infamous case is what is now known as the Battle of the Camels, in which men rode into Tahrir square on camel and horseback, carrying sticks and knives and attacking protesters.

Yet, despite his brutality, Abdo is portrayed as a human character with the same hopes and fears as anyone else.

Abdo Mota is not the only "baltagy" hitting the screens.

Since Egypt's 25 January revolution, there has been a pop culture obsession with the violent and shadowy lives of this underground cult of strong men.

Condoning thuggery?

The fasting month of Ramadan is considered by producers and distributors as prime season for television series, as families gather around their television sets after the breaking of the fast.

Image caption Film producers say their work reflects the reality of Egyptian society

During last Ramadan, in August, at least two major TV series had thugs as central characters. One, which was actually called El Baltagy, was among the most viewed.

"Abdo Mota offers nothing but the cycle of violence a thug falls into," said Egyptian film critic Magda Maurice.

"It's an exhibition of the different guns and arms used nowadays by thugs but the content of the film is really weak," she said.

"It offers no explanation or analysis to this phenomenon."

The current obsession with these men, she says, does not help the audience understand them.

"We see this every day. What the film is trying to portray is the reality in Egypt now," said one person after watching the film.

"These films are trying to teach people how to be thugs," another commented.

That accusation is rejected by the film's lead actor, Mohamed Ramadan.

"We're not condoning thuggery," he told Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm.

"We're trying to understand it and find solutions to this problem."

Religious controversy

The violent central character is not the only cause of controversy.

A belly-dancing sequence in the film features a song which praises the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and his grandchildren.

"You pure one. The mother of Hassan and Hussein," goes the song, referring to Fatima Al-Zahra, one of Islam's most deeply respected female figures.

This has caused widespread anger among Muslim scholars and has led to Egypt's highest religious authority, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa, to order the scene to be cut from future showings.

"This film showed what is essentially a religious song praising the family of Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him," said Islamic Sufi scholar Sheikh Abul Azayem.

"To see a belly dancer dancing to that song is disgusting, not just to Muslims in Egypt but across the Islamic world," he argued.

The film makers say that they never meant to insult the prophet and that the song is more traditional than religious but the controversy and bad reviews seem to be having little effect on the film's popularity.

"When people go to see a film that means it's successful," said producer Mohamed El-Sobky.

"Critics can say what they want. I make films for people."

The commercial success of films like Abdo Mota, which many critics accuse of being shallow and violent, may not reflect a new cinematic movement but it does highlight Egypt's fascination with the lives of these strongmen and their links to the politics of the past.