No other recent TV drama has courted the mammoth controversy that met Wahid Hamed’s “Al-Gama’a” (The Group). An in-depth historical chronicle of the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood, “Al-Gama’a” was instantly accused of tarnishing the history of Egypt’s biggest opposition group, and for good reason.
For nearly 30 years, Hamed, one of the nation’s most celebrated, and divisive, scriptwriters has not shied away from attacking the Brotherhood head-on in his work, most significantly in the hit TV series “Al A’ala” (The Family), one of the first prominent dramas to directly discuss the sweeping wave of Islamization that hit Egypt in the 80s. His films — “El-Erhab Wel Kebab” (Terrorism and Kebab), “Teyoor El-Zalam” (Birds of the Dark) and “Dam El-Ghazal” (Blood of the Deer) — were even more blatant in their critique.
His sense of superiority and sporadic brazenness has often tainted what were otherwise well-crafted, if commercial, dramas, too ardent and stern in their critique of the Brotherhood’s ideology. An objective representation of the Brotherhood and their founder, Hassan El-Banna, was therefore out of question.
The first few episodes reaffirmed the Brotherhood’s fears, depicting their leaders as cunning, opportunistic outlaws exploiting every foreseeable opportunity to cement their status as a legitimate opposition party and a victim of an oppressive regime.
Opening with the Brotherhood’s infamous military parade four years ago, the introductory episodes were nothing short of outrageous. The young brotherhood members were portrayed as misguided, one-track-minded agents of a secret organization, exchanging confidential notes in supermarkets and instigating chaos wherever they go.
The State Security, on other hand, were shown as a benevolent, understanding and sensible lot; a reassuring voice of reason attempting to restore a sense of order amid an indomitable turmoil overtaking the country.
The first part of the series exhibited barefaced bias handled with no tact whatsoever. The government’s opposition cried foul, calling “Al-Gama’a” an unabashed pro-government propaganda engineered by one of its foremost representatives. (Although his work is distinguished for its strong anti-establishment themes, Hamed has always been linked to the ruling family; his son, filmmaker Marawan Hamed, was the director of the NDP’s televised presidential campaign in 2005).
But then things started to get more interesting, and complex. The present-day drama served as an introduction to El-Banna’s story; a multifaceted tale of obsession, greed, power-struggle and moral dubiousness. The early accusations gradually petered out; replaced by guarded vigilance and increasing uncertainty over Hamed’s true intentions.
Born in Mahmudiyya north-west of Cairo at the dawn of the last century to a lower middle-class local imam who instilled the fear of God in his son, young El-Banna was an unusual child; highly intelligent, determined, deeply passionate and rebellious. At the age of 12, El-Banna takes it upon himself to spread the message of the Prophet and eradicate his community from all transgressions.
Perhaps the most imperative incident of El-Banna’s childhood is the small-scale raid he launches on the ‘transgressors,’ employing questionable means — spying and vandalism — to reach his target. This is a man, Hamed implies, ready to adopt any measures to accomplish his goals; a sentiment that would lead to his expeditious rise and ultimate downfall.
When he moves to Cairo to complete his studies, he finds himself at odds with an alien world that initially appears resistant to his idealism. Not content with how Islam is driven to the margin in the secular capital, El-Banna takes it upon himself to spread the word of God and persuade the believers to return to the teachings of the Quran.
After graduation, he gets appointed as a teacher in Ismailia, the birth-place of the Brotherhood. He roves across the town, preaching in mosques, schools and coffee shops. His spontaneous mannerisms and folkie style soon find wide resonance (in spite of the efforts of the religious elite to undermine both his message and knowledge), earning him the title the “Traveling Preacher.”
Framed in mostly wide shots with soft, bright light, director Mohammed Yassin (“The Blood of the Deer,” “The Promise”) paints an idyllic, ethereal picture of El-Banna’s early years, showering him with unjustifiable adulation. He never questions El-Banna’s motives, nor does he challenge his devotion or the brass tacks of his “message.”
Soon, El-Banna is rewarded with handful of dutiful followers assisting him in propagating his message, and thus, the Brotherhood is born, with El-Banna appointed as the “Morshed” (Leader) of the group.
The primary stages of the Brotherhood’s formation are quite fascinating. Mobilizing various groups from grassroots level, the Brotherhood recruits a cluster of diverse parties: peasants, blue-collar workers, government employees and especially students; all struggling to end the British occupation, all hungry for a different course for the country. The methodically structured basis of the Brotherhood, Hamed explains, harks back to the fundamentals of communism; a system El-Banna was profoundly influenced by.
A decade later, the active members of the group were estimated to be 500,000, not to mention the thousands of supporters it succeeded in acquiring.
The expansion and growing influence of the Brotherhood drew the attention of various interest groups, propelling El-Banna to enter into politics. El-Banna’s lofty dreams progressively change from spreading the message to becoming the country’s strongest, most powerful political party. Backed by the Saudi monarchy and other Salafi groups, El-Banna’s aspirations had no limits, dreaming at some point of making Egypt the new Islamic caliphate.
The second half of the series recounts the thorny political games the Brotherhood insisted on playing with the Egyptian monarchy, the ruling Wafd party and the Brits. Steadily, El-Banna is transformed into a Faustian puppet, led astray by the allure of power, resorting to violence, deception and blackmail to gain more ground and eventually, selling his soul to preserve his group.
A game of politics and drama
As comprehensive and thorough as the second part of “Al-Gama’a” may be, it rarely engages dramatically. The series is essentially a tediously detailed history lesson crammed with a staggeringly large horde of characters vying for the limited attention of the viewers. If the drama feels so distant, it’s because there’s no character to connect to, apart from El-Banna. The exhaustive historical dramatization is too overwhelming to induce a tangible impact.
The early human drama gives way to a dry staging of double-crossings, backstabbing, conspiracy theories and assassination attempts (it’s not as half interesting as it seems), peppered with an endless stream of dialogue warning of the Brotherhood’s growing authority.
Moreover, the merits of the cosmopolitan, secular society isn’t investigated, nor are the perils of the Islamic rule El-Banna relentlessly advocates throughout the series fully explored. Hamed has allowed the facts to speak for themselves; alas, their voice is neither clear nor strident enough. He’s quite undecided on what he wants his series to be: a documentary, an allegory or a socio-political analysis of a pre-1952 revolution Egypt.
The present-day subplot, which centers on the relationship between a State Security officer (Hassan El-Radad), his love interest (Yousra El-Lozy) and her retired judge/ex-Brotherhood member grandpa (Ezzat El-Alaili), comes to an abrupt halt midway through, and Hamed doesn’t bother to return to the original story and tie the loose ends.
Chockfull of easy, trifling political and social critique, Hamed wanders off in myriad directions, condemning the apathetic political parties and the corrupted government while accusing the Brotherhood of exercising the same pandering the NDP has mastered. And while his argument cannot be faulted, it’s presented in such a blatant fashion that feels somewhat hollow. Hamed is essentially stating the obvious, and without the aid of a robust drama, his message ultimately falls on deaf ears.
What makes “Al-Gama’a” a worthy viewing is Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar’s powerhouse performance as El-Banna. Neither entirely sympathetic nor overtly monstrous, El-Banna emerges as a Machiavellian hero of a Greek tragedy; a man of many contrasts: compassionate and merciless, sincere and mendacious, shrewd and naïve, altruistic and self-serving.
By the end of the series, when the Brotherhood is outlawed following the assassination of Mahmoud an-Nukrashi Pasha and El-Banna is put under house arrest, the once commanding guide of the group breaks into pieces, reduced into an emaciated shadow of the man he used to be.
The timing of the series has been put into question. Several commentators claimed that “Al-Gama’a” was strategically broadcast during Ramadan to influence the outcome of next month’s parliamentary elections and weaken support for the Brotherhood.
The question is: Can the series indeed change people’s minds? Doubtful, for a number of reasons. Despite its claim of impartiality, “Al-Gama’a” is unmistakably anti-Brotherhood, a reality made evident in the very last episode when the group’s attempt to murder a district attorney results in the killing of more than a dozen innocent bystanders.
But like most dramas, Hamed’s series is preaching to the converted. It does expose the mostly unknown history of the Brotherhood to larger public and invites debate, but it doesn’t offer the type of revelatory experience that could alter opinions.
“Al-Gama’a” is nowhere as coherent, forceful or straightforward as “King Farouk,” a drama that led to a complete reevaluation of the Egyptian monarchy. Truth, history — two vague, indefinable concepts — are not part of the equation. Those with a certain belief about the Brotherhood, positive or negative it may be, are unlikely to change their minds after seeing the series.
A second installment of “Al-Gama’a” is scheduled for broadcast sometime in 2011, another year of elections, this time, the presidential one. With a different approach, part two of the series — which will chart Nasser’s banishment of the group, their return to power and the assassination of Sadat —could prove to be much more detrimental than the first one.
The first few episodes reaffirmed the Brotherhood’s fears, depicting their leaders as cunning, opportunistic outlaws.
The present-day subplot comes to an abrupt halt midway through