Egyptian cinema and glamorizing violence

It is a pleasure and honour to join many liberal voices writing in the new Al-Hurra digital Arabic platform.  Here is, with permission, an english version of my first piece, which you can read it in Arabic here

Omar Sherif film Alhurra

Film “There isa man in our house” – Photo via Al-Hurra

Fans of black and white Arabic movies adore the classic masterpiece, “There is a man in our house.” The well-crafted drama featuring a top cast of Egyptian stars, including actor Omar Sharif, tells the story of a young radical leader, Ibrahim Hamdy, who seeks refuge in the house of an apolitical Egyptian family after assassinating the Egyptian Prime Minister. This movie has succeeded in captivating hearts and minds across the Arab world.

Yet it is surreal and deeply disturbing to see a film that glamorizes political assassination being broadcast regularly on various Egyptian TV channels, while their news tickers simultaneously announce news of current terror attacks, together with slogans such as “no to terrorism” on TV screens nationwide.

How can we reject today’s political assassinations, while enjoying movies that portray former political crimes in a positive light? The answer lies in our malfunctioning moral compass that sets a fluctuating course between acceptance and rejection of violent acts, depending on the circumstances.

Based on Ihsan Abdel Kodous’s novel, “There is a man in our house,” the film is based loosely on the true story of a young radical Islamist student, Abdel Meguid Ahmed Hassan, who assassinated Prime Minister Mohamed Fahmy El-Nokrashy in 1948. By adding different narratives and melodramatic events, the film avoided any referencce to political Islam as an ideology. Instead, it portrayed the main hero and his friends as young revolutionaries; not very religious, not even fasting during Ramadan.

In 2015, a similar assassination was ordered by a nameless group of Muslim Brotherhood youth; members of the group went on to murder Egypt’s top prosecutor, Hesham Barakat. That was not the only case. Since the ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood’s President Morsi in 2013, Egypt has faced a relentless wave of violence. New radical Islamist terror groups, such as the group that killed Prosecutor Barakat, and others, particularly Hasm, Liwaa al-Thawra, are loosely affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, and have claimed responsibility for scores of attacks on policemen, judges, and army cadres.

The current wave of terror attacks has triggered an inevitable comparison with attacks committed by Islamists in the past, particularly the assassination of Judge Ahmed al-Khazindar and Prime Minister Mohamed Fahmy El-Nokrashy in 1948. This comparison, however, fails to see the contradiction between the resentment toward violent political Islam and our political dramas’ portrayal of political assassinations committed by Islamists in the pre-Nasser era.

Produced in 1961, after the honey moon between Nasser and the Muslim Brotherhood ended, “There is a man in our house” is a prime example of how Nasser’s battle against Islamism, even after the Brotherhood’s failed assassination attempt against him in 1954, did not stop his regime from cherry picking some Islamist concepts such as resistance and martyrdom, and portraying them as justified and understandable against “traitors.”

Ibrahim, the main protagonist in the film, who serves as judge and executioner, describes the prime minister as a traitor who deserves death, and kills him without hesitation. Today’s youth who join radical violent groups see themselves as aspiring heroes looking for moments of glory. It is as if they are subconsciously making their own movies, hoping to be another Omar Sharif, or Ibrahim, who dies as “a martyr” in the film’s final scene.

Nasser’s era of violence was not necessarily viewed as bad in itself, provided it was used against opponents such as the Pashas, the British, and the Israelis. In fact, violence was considered treasonable only when it was used against the ruling regime.

This dualism is arguably the most confusing act that blurred the collective moral conscience of successive generations in the Arab world. In addition, leaders, politicians, and artists have cursed the Islamists, but happily borrowed their slogans and concepts, such as martyrdom and resistance, polluting the collective psyche of society with those ideas.

Therefore, if we are really serious about counter-terrorism, we first have to stop linking our acceptance and rejection of terror with circumstances, and totally reject violence as a tool to achieve political goals. We also have to end the decades-old politicization of cinema and the arts, and their abuse as tools to serve ruling regimes. That does not mean we should ban our beloved black and white movies. On the contrary, one can admire the cinematic qualities of classical movies, while simultaneously admitting that politicizing Egyptian cinema is myopic and harmful.

About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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