Whose Empire? Post-revolution history in a Ramadan TV drama

Embratoreyet Meen? (Whose Empire?), one of the television series screened this Ramadan, is a light and family-oriented black comedy that narrates a version of the January 25 revolution and its aftermath.

The series — starring Hend Sabry, written by Ghada Abdel Aal and directed by Mariam Abou-Ouf — constructs the living history of a British-Egyptian family after their return to Cairo following the revolution. It contrasts the family’s attempt to record its personal history with dominant media attempts to erase narratives that could threaten the state’s reputation and monopoly over power.

Intertwining personal and national history

Embratoreyet Meen? focuses on history and its role in building a new Egypt. The title is a play on the name of a 1972 film starring Faten Hamama, and the series features cameos by numerous stars, including Oka and Ortega, Yousra and Hany Ramzy. This, along with the repeated theme of the family’s search for a sense of national authenticity, gives it the feel of a living museum of Egyptian cultural history.

In the role of the matriarch, Amira (Sabry) gently satirizes a wholesome activist ethos inspired by the promise of individuals working together to make a history they can share. Amira uproots her family to take part in making history, but from the beginning it is unclear how national events can support her ambitions. Her optimism is strained in each episode as she faces obstacles including crime, harassment, poor infrastructure, xenophobia and political violence. 

Amira struggles with her own memory and personal history with Egypt, expecting to return to a place that has not aged since the time her parents left. Her relationship to history is fundamental to her identity. An Egyptologist, Amira’s happiest day at work at the Egyptian Museum is when she steps in as an ad hoc tour guide for a couple of curious kids who have questions about monuments and mummies.

One of the ongoing conceits of the series is that it is partly a video diary by Amira’s son, Adam. The care with which Adam records family life implies that intimate personal history has an equal status to national history, and that the two go hand-in-hand. Although the family’s problems are tied to national ones, the plot is driven by personal, family or neighborhood-scale solutions. Amira finds schools for the kids, looks for work, hosts parties and advocates for pet projects. She fulfills some of her ambitions and develops greater participation in society, but simultaneously records her sense of alienation and frustration.

Curtailed critiques

While the serial portrays some sensitive topics, such as the Maspero massacre, it skirts others. The fact that it ends on June 30, 2013 makes direct criticism of contemporary politics a non-issue. Granted, the series is not meant to be a political manifesto, so the degree to which it should engage with any given national event is a matter of judgment. Nevertheless, the best episodes combine attention to the characters’ lives with narratives about national events. For many viewers, the insubstantial and generalized account of former President Mohamed Morsi’s rule will raise questions of self-censorship. Adam’s hand-painted, dated signs give his documentary (and by extension, each episode) a connection to public events that are sometimes missing or glazed over. This tactic encourages the audience to imagine or reconstruct the “uncensored” version.

For example, the series distorts public events by substituting Amira’s opportunistic brother-in-law and his social-climbing wife for Muslim Brotherhood figures. Rami and Karla (Mohamed Mamdouh and Razane Jammal) lever themselves into a government position under Morsi, cynically using phony Islamism to get ahead. Thanks to forged credentials and a lot of false piety, the rumpled and unbuttoned Rami becomes minister of technology. This storyline insinuates that the incoming rulers are a bunch of reactionary religious fanatics, but focuses primarily on Rami and his ineptitude. In spite of savvy performances by Mamdouh and Jammal, many of these episodes drag on.

Censorship and media chaos

Amira’s family spends a lot of time watching the news, although much of what they hear is unreliable. Fictionalized doppelgangers of famous Egyptian talk show hosts transmit false information, incite political violence and make bogus accusations of treason throughout the show.

The final episodes expose the collaboration between the security services and the media when the family is arrested on false charges of being foreign spies. Stand-ins for Tawfik Okasha, Lamis al-Hadidi and Ahmed Spider go on air to persuade viewers of the family’s guilt. The security services haul Amira from her cell onto a talk show filmed in a state security office. The hostess assumes her guilt, and demands that Amira apologize to the nation on air.

Some real-life responses to the serial live up to the show’s caricatures of complicit media. The drama drew the attention of musician and self-appointed regime defender Amr Mostafa. Mostafa, a true companion to the reactionary celebrities whose likenesses populate the show, made a music video that showed former President Hosni Mubarak as a war hero, kissing children and looking regal shortly after the January 25 revolution. He also wrote the music to the wildly popular June 2014 election-time jingle “Boshret Kheir” (A Good Omen). Mostafa’s attack, and responses to it, took up a disproportionate amount of the media coverage of the serial.

Predictably, Mostafa focused on Sabry’s Tunisian nationality (it’s a criticism that would be familiar to Amira and co., whose hyphenated nationality is a discrediting weakness that draws fire from pretty much every challenger they encounter). Mostafa, whose original speculations appeared on Facebook, added that Sabry would be dead if she were to issue an equal provocation in Tunisia.

While popular calls to protect Egypt’s reputation are not new, Mostafa’s media rants often go a step further. He equates the nation with the state, and portrays the military and security apparatus as the state’s best guardian and purest manifestation. Hyper-nationalist pundits, such as Mostafa, provide voluntary pro-government spin. However, their idiosyncrasies emphasize the disorder of the official government censorship process. “Independent” media moguls, pundits and spin-doctors are taking an ever-expanding role in censoring historical narratives.

Making and containing history

Embratoreyet Meen? was made amid a dramatic attempt by the state to shape narratives of recent history. For example, on August 9, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi asked journalists to cooperate with him by finding stories that accentuate the dangers facing Egypt. This is one in a series of revelations about Sisi’s explicit attempts to corral media and promote narratives that bolster his regime in the short term (see articles here and here). While Embratoreyet Meen? often avoids addressing events that directly challenge contemporary narratives, it argues for an approach to public events that is more flexible and open-ended than the tactical approach favored by politicians and their apologists.

Embratoreyet Meen? indirectly encodes and criticizes the dependent and ad hoc relationship between historical narrative, national media and the authoritarian state. At the same time, it stops short of any direct criticism of the (post-June 30) present. The fact that it managed to coax reactionaries, such as Mostafa, out of the woodwork indicates how narrow the space for personal historical narratives has become. Presumably, the rulers of the present moment would argue that now is not the time for history.

The fact that pundits took aim at Embratoreyet Meen? at all (given how curtailed its political and social criticisms are) reflects the narrowing space for satire in commercial Egyptian media today.

Susan D. Ellis 
Meir R. Walters 

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