On Sunday 4 May, Muslims around the world began the month-long penitential period of Ramadan.
One of the five pillars of Islam, Ramadan entails a strict fast from sunrise to sunset.
But the daily breaking of the fast is often done in big family gatherings. Across much of the Middle East this involves some serious television binging.
Awalem Khafeya Series - 2018
Egypt in particular has traditionally been a big producer of such series which are widely anticipated and syndicated across many of the Arabic-speaking countries, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon.
But this year could prove to be different, says Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy.
“The main thing we're seeing change with respect to the production of TV series, surrounding Ramadan in general as well as film production, is that the security apparatus is getting much more directly involved in the industry, buying production houses and media outlets, TV channels etc., and so the result is that they have much more direct control over the content of the programming that's being produced,” Kaldas told RFI.
Process for approval
As it stands, getting the green light for any TV or film project is not a simple process.
The first step is approval by the Supreme Media Regulatory Council.
“You need to get the script approved from the bureau of censorship . . . which is with the Ministry of Culture,” explains Amir Ramses, a film director in Cairo. The next step following approval from the board is approval from the Interior Ministry for the production company. “They need to get the shooting permits from the ministry, for the external shoots, for the street shoots and stuff like that,” says Ramses.
The director adds that the main flags for censorship are the three taboo topics: sex, religion and politics.
But in the last couple of years the authorities have added, unofficially of course, anything involving policemen, according to Ramses.
Because of that, the number of scripts being approved for production is not nearly as high as it was in previous years ahead of Ramadan.
“And in general there's a lot more care now amongst people in the industry about portraying people from the security apparatus in a negative light. So even humourists’ negative depictions of police, for example, are much more difficult to get passed and get broadcast,” explains Kaldas.
One way to ensure that this industry meets the regulations of the censorship board has been for the government to buy up companies directly involved with production.
“State cultural institutions, like the ministry of culture, are populated by leftist and liberal intellectuals - or ineffective bureaucrats - and therefore cannot be trusted by the regime,” explains Ezzedine Fishere, author and visiting professor of Middle Eastern Studies at Dartmouth College.
“This is why the regime, after targeting independent cultural expressions and media outlets, created its own media and cultural production organs - controlled directly by security agencies.”
In short, TV series, particularly popular during Ramadan, are seen as a key tool of “acculturation”.
The government knows this, which is why having a way to control it is to their advantage adds Fishere.
“But also let's face it,” notes Ramses, “everyone knows that the government are the ones producing”.
He adds that this year, there are some 24 series being produced for Ramadan.
“15 or 16 of them are produced by one company which is in control of all the TV channels. It’s a production company that also manages all the channels in Egypt at the moment,” explains the director.
That company, he adds, is called Synergy.
The Jewish Quarter series - 2015
And what’s the benefit to controlling the majority of the media companies?
“I think the state is trying to get across this idea that the security apparatus and leadership are doing what's best for the country and, even if they are making difficult decisions and putting this society in a difficult situation, it’s with their best interests at heart,” explains Kaldas.
Fishere adds that this control is “essential for the success of the current military regime at what it views as its mission”.
President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi saw the last decade under the former president Hosni Mubarak as one marked by a “retreat of state control over politics, the economy and culture, which took the form of increased foreign penetration of Egyptian public life”.
In an effort to preserve the state, the military government began since the fall of 2013 “to restore state control over these areas of public life”.
This includes banning protests, curtailing civil society activities “and restoring the leadership of the police and army” as the first steps to defeat what are seen as elements that have eroded traditional ‘Egyptian spirit’ according to Ezzedine Fishere.
Impact on the industry
Egypt has long been the Hollywood of the region, exporting much of its entertainment across the Arabic-speaking world.
“When cinema started, it started in France, then the US, followed by Egypt,” explains Nizar Hegazy, managing director of Cinema.com
Mohamed Al Haje, a script writer and expert in cinema production in Egypt notes that the industry could thrive, if certain liberties were allowed.
“Strict censorship must be lifted, and facilitating legal procedures for movie production and shooting is a must if we want to give a boost to cinema production in Egypt”.
Kaldas shares this view.
“Anything that affects the media industry is going to affect what is viewed throughout the region.”
It’s hard to know at this point in time, says Kaldas, what impact the current situation on controlling production will have on the popularity of TV and film production in Egypt . . . "but it’s certainly going to affect the believability of that production and perhaps the value of that production if all the topics being tackled are scrubbed clean."
In the past year alone Ramses says he’s already noticed a change in the quality of programming on television.
“You see less controversial content . . . right now one way or the other it’s more conventional, more common, more like success stories. Less controversy if I may say so.”