North Africa, West Asia: Review

How Egyptian TV series ‘The Choice’ is stirring controversy about the Rab’a massacre

The show appears to adopt the regime’s narrative as fact, despite it being disputed by human rights organisations

abeer alnajjar
Abeer Alnajjar
29 April 2021, 9.18am
Egyptian protesters in Rab'a Square, Cairo, in 2013, as the military moves in to clear the area
UPI/Karem Ahmed

Ramadan is usually the peak season for Arab TV series, but Egyptian TV series are getting more interest than usual this year. One of this season’s hits is the second series of ‘The Choice’, (‘Al-Ikhtiar’), which has stirred a lot of controversy since its release.

The series deals with one of the most horrific and polarizing moments in recent Egyptian history: the 14 August 2013 massacres at Rab’a and Al-Nahda squares in Cairo, where long term sit-ins were violently crushed by Egyptian security forces, killing at least 800 people according to Human Rights Watch.

‘The Choice’ is produced by leading Egyptian production house Synergy, a company reported to have links to the regime. The show appears to adopt much of the regime’s narrative of events since 2013, including on the ousting of the late elected Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, and the raids on the Rab’a and Al-Nahda sit-ins.

The series is one of many recent shows to focus on the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, which it portrays as being perhaps the most pressing threat to the Egyptian state, security and public, and to rewrite the country’s recent history in favor of the regime.

‘Cairo-Cabul’, is another Egyptian series produced by Synergy and released this Ramadan. The show is focused on Al-Qaeda and the role the media played in extending the group’s reach, but also on the role of Egyptian security forces in challenging the Islamist group both in Egypt and globally.

The series led prominent Egyptian directors and critics to warn of the state monopoly over the entertainment industry in the country.

The series led prominent Egyptian directors and critics to warn of the state monopoly over the entertainment industry in Egypt

Rewriting history

Episode five of ‘The Choice’, broadcast on 17 April, provoked wide controversy across the region, especially on social media platforms including Twitter, and new, audio-based social media app, Clubhouse. The episode depicts the August 2013 violent attacks at Rab’a, in the north of Cairo, where Muslim Brotherhood supporters had been camping for six weeks demanding the reinstatement of the ousted president Mohamed Morsi, who had been ousted the month before.

The episode includes scenes of camp leaders preventing people from leaving the sit-in, smuggling automatic weapons, and asking volunteers to shoot important figures in order to maximize media attention. This portrayal of the violence – complete with popular actors, exciting drama, and professionally executed action and suspense, including car chases, battle scenes, and street fighting – has simply reinforced the long-standing state narrative, which is denied by international human rights organizations.

On the day the episode aired, hundreds of people gathered in at least four virtual ‘rooms’ on Clubhouse to discuss either Rab’a and Al-Nahda or the ‘crimes of the Muslim Brotherhood’, in heated discussions that lasted for hours.

This portrayal – complete with popular actors, exciting drama, and professionally executed action – has reinforced the state narrative

On Twitter, hashtags, archival videos and pictures from the actual events in 2013 resurfaced as people protested the episode’s portrayal.

Ala’ Mubarak, son of another ousted Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, tweeted: “The Choice 2 documents the events in Rab’a and confirms the presence of armed men in Rab’a, on the rooftops, and shows the violence, and the killings that were committed as well as the burning of churches and the attacks on police stations. Salute to those who worked on this series to the heroes of the police and the army and may God have mercy on the souls of our martyrs.”

Fact and fiction

‘The Choice’ claims to use archival footage from several sources such as the news channel Al-Jazeera and the Egyptian Center for Human Rights, as well as witness testimonies.

The juxtaposition of carefully selected short clips and images from the actual events with those produced especially for the TV series – in addition to the use of real names for some characters, and interviews with soldiers and family members of Egyptian security personnel – can have the effect of masking, if not manipulating, the truth and blur the line between fact and fiction.

The show glorifies the army and the security forces, depicting their might, dedication, humanity, humility and religiosity. The soldiers in the show also have personal plots, they enjoy outings with their children, relatives and friends. Meanwhile, members of the Muslim Brotherhood or any other group demonised in the show, do not receive any such humanity.

The show is seemingly in line with the regime’s propaganda, highlighting the ‘heroic’ role of the military and security apparatus in Egypt in fighting ‘Islamic terrorism’. It is no surprise that the polarization it provoked among its viewers corresponds to the polarization about the regime itself.

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