CAIRO (AFP) ― Shady political types, police abuses, corruption at the heart of the state: “new” topics tackled in Egypt’s popular soap operas are far removed from traditional family sagas and classic comedies.
Revolution and regional competition have spurred the change in a country long the largest provider of television series to the Arab world.
“Now we can talk about what Egyptians go through in real life,” said film critic Tareq El Shennawi.
It all started with Egypt’s January 2011 uprising, in the tumult of the Arab Spring, that ended up toppling president Hosni Mubarak after 30 undisputed years in power.
Egypt-produced serials swung the spotlight onto previously taboo topics such as state institutions and the security forces.
Light caricatures of everyday life switched to ambitious projects reflecting the political and social changes sweeping the country.
“Before, it was impossible to discuss the police without the unions getting involved,” said Ahmed Fuad Selim, who played a corrupt general in the hit 2012 serial “Taraf Talet” (Third Party, in Arabic).
Such a role would not have existed before the revolution, said Selim, who featured in several films by the celebrated late director Youssef Chahine.
Now, “all state institutions are game.”
When he first began writing for the small screen, Mohammed Amin ― one of a new generation of Egyptian scriptwriters ― had to be careful about how he depicted police characters.
“You couldn’t talk about police corruption,” he said. “At least not directly.”
The image of the force was sacrosanct and any “bad” policeman had to be counterbalanced by a “good” one.
“But now anything goes,” said Amin.
Earlier this year, another serial, “Taht al Ard” (Underground), touched on attacks against Christian Copts, a highly sensitive subject in a country that has seen several bloody attacks targeting this minority.
In one scene, a car bomb exploded outside a church where dozens of faithful were celebrating mass.
As the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the perpetrators are not “terrorists” but members of the security services ― a storyline unthinkable just years ago.
Long gone are the lightweight family comedies that have flickered since the 1960s on television sets from Morocco to Yemen.
Egyptian series still flourish during the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan, drawing in millions of viewers nightly across the region.
But now its new sitcoms have major competitors.
One is Turkey, which has flooded the market with romances dubbed or subtitled into Arabic.
Another is Syria which, despite the devastating conflict that has gripped it for nearly three years, still excels as a producer of historical television series.
Satellite television, the Internet and other new choices in a country where TV was long limited to one state channel have prompted many young people to join the battalions of writers, directors and technicians working on serials in Egypt.
“There’s no going back on the freedoms we have acquired,” said film critic Ali Abu Shadi, since “television, with its private channels, is not related to the state, as is the cinema.”
Any movie script has to be approved by the Egyptian censorship board, which is not the case with television screenplays.
Yet one revolution swiftly followed another in Egypt.
On June 30, millions of people took to the streets to demand the removal of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi, after a year in power. Three days later the army obliged and Morsi was ousted.
Not everyone is as optimistic as Shadi. Fellow film critic Shennawi sees a possible return to “taboos imposed on those who create” following this second revolution.
Morsi’s year-long term may not have given him enough time to have an impact on television output, but his ouster has put the public firmly behind the army, Shennawi believes.
“The security forces are falling back into their old habits, which could mean new artistic freedoms are short-lived,” he said.