Adel Imam is a beloved seventy-seven-year-old Egyptian actor who has dominated Arabic stage, film, and TV since the early 1960s. Recognizable even to we media-isolationist Americans, Imam is a small man with a square jaw, a high forehead, and a masterfully straight-faced comedy. He is “the king of actors” my friend Kimo, who was born in Alexandria, tells me. It is Ramadan. I want to know what soaps Kimo’s wife is watching. “El-Sisi has taken Imam off the shows,” Kimo says, referring to the country’s increasingly authoritarian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.
Egypt loves soap operas—and month-long Ramadan is prime soap season. After abstaining from all food and water during daylight hours, the breaking of fast, Iftar, ritually begins with sips of water and a few dates. Then comes prayer and a meal with family and friends, often around the TV. Big-budget series featuring the country’s most famous actors depict all dramatic manner of love and loss, conflict and victory. Until the 1990s, oral storytelling after the meal was the Egyptian custom, but the popularity of telenovelas from South America proved that viewers craved serialized dramas. In response, Egyptian entertainment companies began producing soap operas, known in Arabic as musalsalat, entertaining and epic extravaganzas featuring some of the Arab world’s most famous actors. Since then, up to thirty dramas have been presented each Ramadan season, many of them broadcast throughout the Arab world.
This year’s spate of soaps have come under the eye of Egypt’s sixth president, the right-wing former commander of the armed forces, el-Sisi. Since coming to office in 2014—he orchestrated the military’s role in the overthrow of Mohamed Morsi, who was democratically elected after the 2011 revolution—el-Sisi has systematically quashed dissent, jailed political opponents, arrested peaceful protesters, filtered the internet, and brow-beaten or locked up the already-cowed news media. He’s done all this in the name of national security, as a patriarchal moralizer, as a restorer of peace and order. Bringing Ramadan television in line fit neatly into el-Sisi’s program, and Imam was a predictable casualty.
Imam’s absence from the small screen this Ramadan season is only a symptom of the administration’s broader effort to use mass media to coerce Egypt’s population into a submissive respect for leadership.
Outspoken about government positions and policies, Imam’s career began in an era when Egyptian speech was far freer than it has been since the revolution. Since playing “Al Zaeem,” a leader, in a stage piece that criticized draconian relations between political rulers and their subjects, Imam’s been nicknamed “Al Zaeem.” Called “something like the Bob Hope of the Arab World,” by the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick, Imam is “known for broad humor poking fun at public officials, businessmen, the pious, the militant and everyone in between.” In 2012, Imam was sentenced to three months in jail for blasphemy, for “frequently mocking authorities and politicians in his films, and of offending Islam and its symbols, including beards,” the BBC reported. The case was brought by a lawyer with ties to “Islamist groups”; it was eventually dropped before Imam served jail time.
But Imam’s absence from the small screen this Ramadan season is only a symptom of the administration’s broader effort to use mass media, including the Ramadan soaps, to coerce Egypt’s population into a submissive respect for leadership. “For Sisi, this is not just about politics or power,” Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, a professor at Dartmouth University, told the New York Times’ Declan Walsh. “He wants to re-educate the Egyptian public.” This re-education is an appeal to Egypt’s more conservative faction, whose religious and moral mission el-Sisi has strongly embraced. “He sees himself as a divinely ordained leader, Egypt’s only savior, who requires near-totalitarian control to prevent state collapse,” Amy Hawthorne and Andrew Miller wrote in Foreign Policy this February.
Censorship of the soaps by the Egyptian government is certainly not new. A series called Al-Gama’a (or “The Group”), about the vilified Muslim Brotherhood, aired during Ramadan in 2010, a year before the revolution. What began as a nuanced look at the Brotherhood’s leader, Hassan Al Banna, quickly devolved into what at least one Egyptian TV critic has called straight-up propaganda. The Islamist political organization has long been used to blackmail the country into acceptance of a strong government, which in turn uses the posture of anti-terrorism strength to court generally Islamophobic Western powers.
Still, el-Sisi has routinized and legalized media repression with a refreshed and dangerous vigor, blocking media websites and passing legislation that categorizes social media accounts with more than five thousand followers as media entities (that can then be censored for inciting violence). El-Sisi has also initiated a surveillance campaign that could visually track Egypt’s citizens, further stifling political dissent.
As of January 2019, there were at least thirty-two journalists in Egyptian prisons, according to Reporters Without Borders, which ranks Egypt at 163 out of 180 governments in its World Press Freedom Index (the most repressive being Turkmenistan). In January, Mohammed el-Gheiti, a TV show host who interviewed a gay man on his show in 2018, was sentenced to a year of “hard labor” and fined EGP 3,000.
This year, el-Sisi has cut the number of Ramadan soap operas in half, capped their budgets, and directed a military-affiliated production company, Egyptian Media Group, to produce many of this year’s offerings. Widely considered to be bland affairs, 2019’s soaps pursue safe subjects, eschewing politics and social injustice. All other show creators have been warned to stay within pre-established parameters.
Still, more chilling than these top-down repressions is the self-censorship not just journalists, but producers, playwrights, poets, novelists, and others experience under such a repressive government. Journalist Yasmine El Rashidi has referred to the phenomenon as crowdsourced censorship. “Over the years,” Rashidi writes, “I developed a habit of sidestepping or writing in innuendo anything that I thought might be culturally offensive, exposing, taboo.” With Egypt’s creators silenced and jailed, what becomes of the country’s arts?
My friend Kimo who bemoaned the absence of Imam from this year’s Ramadan soaps? After assertively critiquing el-Sisi’s dictatorial policies, he defiantly insists, “Print that, use my name, I don’t care what they think.” That Kimo is saying this across the counter of his Red Hook, Brooklyn, deli is telling.
 For more on the history and politics of the Muslim Brotherhood, read the New York Times’ recent cover story, prompted by US president Donald Trump’s recent threat to declare the Brotherhood a terrorist organization.