Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1349, (15 - 21 June 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The third episode

Hani Mustafa does thrillers

The President’s Shadow

In their ceaseless efforts to compete with each other, Ramadan TV drama producers have resorted to the action thriller increasingly in recent years, whether in the detective format or any other. Relying largely on suspense, the success of any such series is predicated on effectively formulating the central mystery in the first episode. Indeed a powerful first episode is crucial in any kind of Ramadan series, with a multiplicity of satellite channels making over 30 series vying for viewers’ attention and time. In at least three different thrillers this year, crime, police investigations and the various surprises that confront the hero in the course of the drama take central stage.

In The President’s Shadow, director Ahmad Samir Farag and screenwriter Mohamed Ismail Amin waste no time before thrusting the viewer in the thick of the main story. The first episode describes some of the life circumstances of Yahya (Yasser Galal), a businessman who co-directs a large-scale contracting company that he inherited from his father together with his stepmother Nahed (Ola Ghanem). Yahya has an interesting past: he was an officer in former president Hosni Muabark’s personal guard during the assasination attempt on the latter in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in 1995. The first episode gives some idea of his chatacter, his relations and acquiaintances, At the end Yahya is driving his wife, son and daughter to the Red Sea resort town of Al-Ain Al-Sokhna, near Cairo, when he is stopped by two motorcycles and a jeep that proceed to shoot at him. Yahya shoots back, killing the two motorcyclists and injuring the jeep driver, who promptly flees. But he discovers that his wife and son were killed in the corssfire. 

The end of the second episode is similarly tragic: Yahya is subjected to another assassination attempt when a bomb is planted underneath his car. His ability to spot the bomb comes across as justified because it reflects a quality already established in the first episode, in which Yahya is portrayed as an unusually observant person — something that no doubt helped qualify him for the top security job of protecting the president. The detectives who begin to investigate the first attempt on Yahya’s life, headed by an officer named Hussein (Khaled Mahmoud), are soon joined by a National (formerly State) Security officer named Hazem (Mahmoud Abdel-Moghni) who used to be Yahya’s colleague in the president’s personal guard. In one scene Yahya mentions that, whether or not an assasination attempt is successful, the bodyguard team must be replaced once one occurs. It was then that Yahya joined State Security but, unhappy there, tendered his resignation from the police force and started working in his father’s company.

Yahya’s neighbour Taher, the owner of Al-Shark publishing house and an oppositional writer, is slaughtered after he informs Yahya that his closed circuit camera recorded the placing of the bomb underneath Yahya’s car. But when asked by the detective Hussein Taher denies that his camera is working — evidently not wanting to give the police access to other material it recorded. Here as in each episode, the dramatic structure relies on Yahya’s suspicions, which the viewer readily shares, joining him on his quest for the culprit. The series makers manage to complicate the story by introducing characters like Yahya’s contracting competitor Tarek (Ihab Fahmi), who used to work at Yahya’s father’s company and was kicked out by Yahya after he caught him pilfering building materials. Tarek rose dramatically on the social ladder after becoming the business facade for a number of politicians from Mubarak’s time, but his position was undermined by 25 January, 2011. Also relevant is Hazem’s father-in-law (Ashraf Zaki), a Mubarak minister who is following the case closely and giving Hazem advice on how to deal with the investigation. And so perhaps Yahya’s assassination has a political dimension...

***


Mercury

And the politics of 25 January do contribute to many Ramadan dramas. One aspect of the popular revolt especially — the police abuses which led to it in the first place with numerous citizens dying in police custody, notably the case of Khaled Said, the upper middle class young man who was killed by two policemen in Sidi Gaber, Alexandria in 2010 — continues to be a vexed issue. Even after the end of Muslim Brotherhood rule on 30 June, 2013, when citizens felt greater sympathy for the police as the country faced a newly intense bout of terrorism, police abuses have continued; and the naive explanations submitted to the prosecution by the Minisrty of the Interior do not help to improve the police’s image. Yet action dramas, which provide an opportunity to present the police in a positive light, have been a staple of Ramadan TV practically since 2011.

Director Peter Mimi’s Handcuffs, with a screenplay by Baher Dwidar from a story by Youssef Hassan Youssef, employs suspense to deal with the crisis of a police officer named Selim Al-Ansari (Amir Karara) accused of killing a young man named Ziyad at the  police station where he works in the working-class Cairo neighbourhood of Omrania. The series opens with Selim as a Special Forces officer in the process of arresting a group of terrorists. When his friend and colleague is shot dead, Selim immediately kills his assailant, depriving security of valuable information the terrorist could have provided. Demoted to a detective deputy and expelled from the Special Forces to a suburban police station where — following an attempt to seize drugs in a car belonging to a member of parliament — Selim is transferred to Omrania Police Station. Now that he is accused of killing a young man in his custody, Selim suspects that his co-workers have testified against him. 

The first few episodes present Selim’s character as an uncompromising good cop and a man who has no hesitation about doing what’s right. This establishes the viewer’s sympathy with Selim as every man’s hope of a citizen’s policeman who fights corruption and makes the streets safe again. And many characters conspire against Selim, a process that culminates in the principal crisis. When the son of a car dealer  in Omrania (Ahmad Siyam) — driving under the influence of drugs — runs down and kills a girl, a young man named Ziyad happens to be around and he films the whole scene, then takes the evidence to the police station. The car dealer has already paid a low-rank officer to kill Ziyad, however; together with the Omrania MP (Mohamed Marzaban) and a corrupt lawyer (Tarek Al-Nahri), the car dealer and the policemen frame Selim. 

They do it so well the young men of the neighbourhood and beyond are convinced that Selim is a symbol of police brutality — and they begin to target him on the walls and on social media. These young activists echo the 25 January revolutionaries, as if to say that the latter too were deluded into playing a role in the state’s fight against corruption. On the one hand Selim becomes a symbol of police brutality, but those who decry his supposed behaviour are also against the symbols of corruption who framed him. But there eventually appears a senior officer to investigate the case named Salah (Mahmoud Al-Bezzawi) who believes that purging the ministry of officers like Selim is crucial for the image of the policeman and the future of security... Despite its messages being too direct in some cases, the series maintains a high degree of suspense and manages to convey a sufficient sense of complexity to portray the police in a positive light through acknowledging the corruption of businessmen, MPs and individual policemen.

***


Handcuffs

Unlike action per se, espionage drama has a history in Egyptian television (starting from the 1980 series Tears in Insolent Eyes, written by Saleh Morsi, directed by Yahya Al-Alami and starring Adel Imam and climaxing with the three seasons of Raafat Al-Haggan, also written by Saleh and directed by Al-Alami but starring Mahmoud Abdel-Aziz in 1988, 1990 and 1991). Inspired by actual intelligence files, these two series proved popular and powerful and contributed to bolstering up national and patriotic feeling in the Arab-Israeli conflict. More recently, in 2012, another declassified intelligence dossier inspired Magdi Abu Emeira’s The Slap, but this did not prove as popular. This year, in Mercury, director-screenwriter Wael Abdalla tries to capitalise on the popularity of Al-Alami’s work by presenting a similar story inspired by intelligence files and centred on an Egyptian spy. Unlike Al-Alami, however, Abdalla presents an excess of background and human interest stories in the first three episodes — so that the suspense is not as effective and the dramatic structure becomes bloated and ineffective.

The series is set in 1998 and revolves around a young man named Omar (Karim Abdel-Aziz) who works as a closed-circuit camera technician at company owned by a retired police general. Intelligence officer Khaled Sabri (Sherif Mounir) tries to recruit Omar and plant him in the Arab community in Athens in order for him to watch and report on a young expatriate, Salem (Mohamed Shahin), who was recruited by the Mossad. So far what has been shown falls short of the suspense to be expected; even Salem’s connection with the Mossad officers is superficial. Despite the fact that he hates his country, it is unclear why he was chosen as a Mossad agent even though he is clearly irresponsible. Much less clear is how a network of such Mossad spies in Athens might undermine Egyptian security. This isn’t helped by the fact that there are too many dramatic lines progressing at the same time, whether in Cairo or in Athens.

One important line is Omar’s connection with his son, who lives with his mother and stepfather in a luxurious villa. Omar feels that his job will never allow him to provide his son with what he wants, and so his eagerness to work with the intelligence — though essentially a patriotic impulse — emanates from his desire to make his son proud. This is almost identical with the story of the recruitment of Raafat Al-Haggan, who starts out as an impetuous, unemployed young man. He is recruited by the officer Mohsen Mumtaz to live in Israel, and he accepts not only because of his patriotic impulse but also because he is eager to transcend the image in which his brothers have cast him and make something of his life. Powerful drama will translate what is general and abstract into something individual and human, and so Omar’s son just may be the most powerful element in Al-Zaibak. But in the absence of a clear conflict between Egypt and Israel like that of previous decades, the political dimension and the element of suspense are all but lost.

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