Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)
Wednesday,18 October, 2017
Issue 1350, (22 June - 5 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Qotb’s friends

Hani Mustafa reviews television’s peculiar account of the history of political Islam

Al-Gamaa II
Al-Gamaa II

In a few days’ time Ramadan will end, bringing the year’s most intensive television season to a close. Also due is the fifth anniversary of the 30 June Revolution that led to the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) from power in 2013. For six years following the former president Hosni Mubarak stepping down on 11 February 2011 – the 25 January Revolution – Egyptian politics were subject to dramatic vacillations. First the MB, political Islam’s mother organisation, dominated parliament and won the presidential elections under the supervision of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, coming to power for the first time since it was founded in 1928. After a year of their rule Egyptians’ became enraged with their unchecked control and staged unprecedented demonstrations on 30 June followed by a speech by the then minister of defense Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in which he outlined a new roadmap excluding the MB on 3 July. Difficult and at times frightening, those were nonetheless memorable times.

And that is why Al-Gamaa II was among the Ramadan dramas paid the most attention despite there being no end of arguably better fare. Many want to know what happened to the gamaa or “group”, as the MB describes itself, at various points in history. The first few episodes, what is more, generated much debate, notably on social social media. 

Al-Gamaa I, directed by Mohamed Yassine, was screened in 2010, before anyone suspected the MB would come to power. In previous years the organisation’s conflict with the Mubarak regime came to a head following the largest ever number of MB MPs in parliament in the 2005 elections and a pseudo-military display by MB students at Al-Azhar University in 2006 after which Mubarak transferred all MB cases from civil to military courts. It was in this charged atmosphere that screenwriter Wahid Hamed started writing Al-Gamaa I, with a view to exposing the fascism and violence of the MB since its foundation by Hassan Al-Banna (Iyad Nassar), whom it represented as a charismatic and reasonable patriot betrayed by his associates particularly in the “special division” that conducted assassinations and terrorism operations in the 194os, killing the judge Ahmad Al-Khazindar and PM Nuqrashi Pasha and blowing up shops in the Jewish quarter. Thanks in part to Nassar’s performance, the series left many viewers sympathetic with Al-Banna, who was clearly unhappy with his organisation in the final episode. 

Al-Gamaa II, directed by Sherif Al-Bendary, starts following the assassination of Al-Banna in February 1949 – in the buildup to the 1952 Revolution. The opening and closing titles feature a graphic rendition of Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Sayed Qotb, as if the series’ intention is to depict the strange relationship between the two historical figures: the representative of the modern state of Egypt and that of armed Islamic extremism. At the start of the series organisation members are angry and eager to avenge their founding father, and so there a conflict is already underway with the government of PM Ibrahim Abdel-Hadi (Riyad Al-Kholi). Al-Bendary gives an accurate picture of the costumes, accessories and automobiles of the time, which may be a major achievement but is not the only element of the show. Hamed and Al-Bendary attempt to set the scene in some detail.

First, through King Farouk (Mohamed Al-Bayya’) feeling that Abdel-Hadi has gone too far in suppressing the MB – enough to endanger his life – the prime minister’s influence and the monarch’s fear of it introduce the rise to power, past the government of Hussein Serri. And so begins the far more serious (and widely documented) conflict between Farouk and PM Mustafa Al-Nahhas (Mahmoud Al-Guindi), whose popularity the king attempts to counter in part by supporting the MB, the idea having been planted in his mind by aides that one should fight one enemy with another. At the same time Gamal Abdel-Nasser (Usama Al-Masry) is enlisting his colleagues in the nascent Free Officers. 

Hamed relies on a range of memoirs to document the period. At one point Abdel-Hadi accuses Nasser of being a member of the MB under the assumed name of Zaghloul, and though Nasser did have connections with the organisation it has been denied (by former MB member Tharwat Al-Kharabawi, among others) that he was ever a full member; others also claimed he was a member of the largest communist organisation in the country, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (better known by its Arabic initials, HADETO) under the assumed name of Maurice. The series does show Nasser associating with MB members including the head of the Special Division Abdel-Rahman Al-Sanadi (Ahmad Azmi) to whom he explains – somewhat unconvincingly, under the circumstances – that he has the intention to stage a military coup against the king.

Here as elsewhere the drama is somewhat confused, with information variously repeated or denied from one episode to the next. When Nasser visits the MB lawyer Hassan Al-Ashmawi at his office, for example, he gives his name to the secretary as Zaghloul, suggesting that Abdel-Hadi’s accusation – which a previous episode denied – is true. Nasser asks Al-Ashmawi for the MB representative in the army and is told it is Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Raouf, who should already be known to Nasser if he is Zaghloul. Much later, when the revolution triumphs and Nasser becomes the number two man in power – in the period when Mohamed Naguib is in charge of the Revolutionary Command Council, Nasser is seen once again asking a military intelligence man about the MB representative in the army and once again he is told it is Abdel-Moneim Abdel-Raouf.

Hamed conveys a sense of hesitation on the part of the Free Officers, especially Nasser, that just may be his own. In one of the scenes following the Cairo fire of 26 January 1952, Nasser is having a long discussion with fellow Free Officers about the next step: at first he is eager to stage the coup as soon as possible, but once he is told they should wait for more political support he agrees with just as much eagerness. However convincing this may be, the way the dialogue is structured suggests a Nasser very different from the character known to history whose enemies call a dictator and whose supporters describe as wise and decisive. Even more confusing however is the Revolutionary Command Council’s relationship with the writer Sayed Qotb (Mohamed Fahim) prior to the latter joining the MB, making Qotb seem like the godfather of the coup and the 23 July Revolution – something rarely mentioned in history books. But Hamed doesn’t rest content with a passing allusion to that relationship; he shows how, after the success of the revolution, Qotb is appointed an advisor to the Revolutionary Command Council.

The acting leaves much to be desired, with the characters coming across almost as caricatures or parodies of who they are. Usama Al-Masry, for example, always adopts Nasser’s public address tone to a laughable extent. Likewise Mohamed Fahim: he tends to come across as the villain in a horror film. Playing the MB judge Mounir Al-Dalla, Ramzy Lehner too gives a cartoonish performance recalling comic actors in black-and-white films like Naguib Al-Rihani’s, a style he employed two years ago in an episode of the detective drama Stifa set in the 1940s and also directed by Al-Bendary. Al-Gamaa II no doubt has the object of giving an unflattering picture of the MB – including its connection with the British occupation – and a positive one of the nascent republic, but it manages only to confuse characters and issues with conflicting information and formulaic performance. 

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