My guess is that the first step in making this Ramadan’s “The Caesar” was taking notes from a speech by Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, which then served as the series synopsis. It could have been any one of a number of speeches in which the president has repeatedly warned of international conspiracies against Egypt, the malicious practices of the media and fourth-generation warfare. The show takes these points and expands them into a storyline to prove them true.
I dislike thrillers, so would normally have stayed away from any TV show starring Youssef al-Sherif, who has helmed several Ramadan series of late venturing into a genre little-explored in Arabic television: thrillers with complex storylines. I’d have passed on “The Caesar” were it not for the line reading “Egyptian Rafah” at the bottom of the screen in the first scene, a police raid on a terrorist hub in North Sinai.
I began watching the show hopeful that Sherif’s brand of sophisticated thriller would bring much-needed nuance to the representation of terrorism in Sinai, a complicated subject with minimal media coverage due to security restrictions. “The Caesar” is the first large-scale fictional work to incorporate the ongoing war between insurgents and security forces in the peninsula since its start in 2013. But my hope for a thoughtful treatment quickly dissipated.
The show’s highly nationalistic agenda, highlighting the sacrifices and competence of the security forces, is perhaps unsurprising, but the extent to which it demonizes NGO work is extreme, even for a work aligning itself with state rhetoric. It takes the ongoing smear campaign against civil society to the next level and portrays NGO workers as more evil than terrorists.
It draws a direct line of cooperation between Sinai terrorists, NGOs and international criminal organizations, without forgetting to add an Israeli mediator. But it doesn’t make a final jump to link these schemes to governments or a specific political agenda, stopping instead at repeated announcements by the evil masterminds that they want to “set the world on fire.”
“The Caesar” — by director Ahmed Galal, scriptwriter Mohamed Nayer and producer Tamer Morsi — is also carelessly made, from language errors to the offensive misuse of a real-life tragic incident.
We first encounter Sherif’s character, who only identifies himself as the Caesar, in a Sinai tunnel, where he gets arrested. He is sent to the secret Al-Maghara prison, where it becomes apparent that he does not belong to any known terrorist group in the area. Sherif’s performance of a character with extraordinary capabilities and a fierce personality is unconvincing. His defiance during interrogation sounds like the moody mutterings of a disgruntled child and his one-liners come off as lame and shallow, revealing some very weak writing.
The pace of the show is also off. The first third — between the prison, where Caesar displays his mysteriousness, and the police headquarters, where officers try to figure out his affiliations — is excruciatingly slow. It takes senior police officer Abdel Mohsen Thabet (Khaled Zaki, whose whole performance relies on an open-mouthed pause at the beginning of every sentence and a constant all-knowing look) helping the Ceaser escape and recruiting him to free us from claustrophobia, with the introduction of new characters and locations. In the 30th and final episode however, the show goes into a frenzy of twists that abruptly transform the story with no build-up, making you feel like you have been totally deceived for the past 29 days.
A few episodes in, we find out that Caeser was raised in a nightmarish training camp run by a masked master, where children must kill each other to survive, a la Hunger Games. Those who make it become enslaved members of an elite group of assassins, who go on worldwide missions for an international terrorist organism whose greater end beyond wreaking havoc remains unknown.
Surprisingly, small-time terrorists are represented sympathetically, as people who have made the wrong decision after being tricked into believing it was their only option to protect themselves. In case their representation is not enough, the writer gets them to spell out the lessons that are meant to be learned from them, a tendency that permeates the show to get across the message rather than let viewers deduce it through events.
For example, Abdel Kader, the only friend Ceaser makes in Al-Maghara, delivers a warning message to all potential terrorists out there: “I didn’t know anything. They told me you’re either with us or against us, but I didn’t know that when I hold a gun to someone’s face, someone else would hold a gun to my family’s.” To drive the point home, when Abu Gharib, leader of the terrorist factions in Sinai, emerges, an officer gives another warning to civilians who consider cooperating with terrorists: “Now he’s come out of hiding and he’s terrorizing them, now they’re paying the price of putting their hands in his. They used to protect themselves from his evil at our expense.”
This also further cements the prevalent discriminatory view that all of Sinai’s residents are playing a role in the terrorism that actually primarily victimizes them.
The strangest of these didactic monologues comes from Abu Gharib himself. He kidnaps an officer, holds him hostage, and in an inexplicable heart-to-heart with him says the weapons he possesses are not the real ones — real weapons are words and pictures which can lead to wars. He then commends the officer for his courage and tells a senior officer on the phone in the middle of ransom negotiations: “I wish my men were like that.”
Fourth-generation warfare rhetoric is a constant throughout the show, as NGOs and the media are portrayed as the terrorists’ closest allies. The NGO characters represent a spectrum of evil and all work with the generically named “Human Rights Organization” based in Warsaw.
On the low end of the evil spectrum is Saeed, the deceived young enthusiast who wants to change the world but quickly leaves the field after discovering its wickedness. Then comes Farida Abu Ela (Reham Abdel Ghafour), who becomes a main player in the hero trio that saves the day, along with Ceaser and officer Abdel Mohsen. Farida is self-serving, has 11 Facebook profiles and is willing to make deals with the devil, but when Egypt’s interests are at stake she finally steps up.
On the high end of the spectrum is Farida’s mentor Mostafa Sedky, the high-profile human rights activist who shocks her by revealing that he’s willing to hurt his country for money. In yet another ultra-direct message and moment of unreal self-awareness, he tells her: “People believe what I say despite the fact that I know nothing about it. You and I want the same thing: funding. How else would we afford all the nice things, conferences and trips to Europe, and the activities you hold with young people in Egypt?”
Finally there’s Anhar, the organization’s diabolical head, who not only works directly with Al-Dasas, a Bin Laden figure played convincingly by Ahmed Halawa, but kills her uncooperative associates and stops at nothing to “set the world on fire,” as she frequently declares.
NGOs are depicted as having internal dynamics similar to that of a mafia. When Farida is stubborn, Sedky kidnaps her and throws her out of a car, unconscious, in a deserted road. When Sedky has a change of heart and helps Farida collaborate with the police, Anhar murders him.
The show’s makers aren’t fans of the media either, especially international outlets. CNN in particular is mentioned three times in relation to airing inflammatory material. And just to establish that the media is closely tied to the international organism working to destabilize the world, in one scene Abdel Mohsen holds some international papers and deciphers the terrorists’ intentions by reading them — these papers are literally the terrorists’ mouthpiece.
I could have respected the series’ cleverness had it delivered these state-serving messages skillfully, but its execution is sloppy and far from subtle. And from police squads fit to be on CSI Miami to a secret prison where no human rights violations occur and an officer dropping his gun during a Sinai raid to soothe a crying baby, the lack of realism made it hard to suspend disbelief.
Glitches in small details made the show’s representation of reality even more difficult to swallow, like the terrorist desert hideaway which looks like a Sinai-themed high-end eco-lodge (see image at top).
Some elements of the show reflect sheer laziness. The terrorist leader Abu Gharib speaks a couple of Bedouin words to establish his identity, which corresponds to the stereotype that Sinai’s Bedouins are responsible for terrorism, then goes back to speaking in a regular Egyptian dialect with the occasional Bedouin word so we don’t forget. It also would have gone a long way if the show’s makers had looked farther than iconic Indian star Raj Kapoor when picking a name for an Indian businessman who’s mentioned.
Likewise, little effort was put into the language in the English sections of the show, necessary for the international plot aspect. The Israeli mediator, Antoine Abbal, tells Ceaser during their brief encounter that he’s capable of predicting the future not by using fortune tellers but by “fortune minds,” which is translated in Arabic subtitles as “reading minds.” In a newspaper clip reporting Abbal’s death, his first name is misspelled in one scene and corrected in the next.
One sloppy detail created an uproar when the picture of a real-life victim of a storm that tragically killed hikers in South Sinai in 2014 appeared as a victim of terrorism. “The Caesar” did post an apology for this for several episodes and edited it out of the online version.
I realize that my initial hope to find a fair representation of the war in Sinai that acknowledges state failures and takes it easy on civil society and civilians was naïve. But if state propaganda is going to take the form of a TV series, I refuse to set the bar lower than expecting a well-executed work that shows political messaging was not its makers’ only priority.