Or off it — as unrest cuts number of productions, inspires boycotts
The Ramadan viewing season – when families gather in front of their TV sets after a long day of fasting followed by eating to watch the biggest stars in their biggest roles – will be more subdued this year as the Arab Spring takes it toll on production and actors’ reputations.
The number of new series for the holiday, which begins August 1 this year, has dropped as Egypt and Syria, the two centers of the industry, remain gripped by protests and violence. In Egypt, only 32 new series will be aired, Al-Masry Al-Youm daily reported, down from some 50 last year. In Syria, 28 new productions are scheduled to be broadcast, down slightly from last year’s 32, but significantly less than 46 new shows in 2008.
The reason for the slump, experts say, is political as much as it is economic. Many Arab television stations are refusing to buy Syrian series this year in protest against the bloody crackdown of President Bashar Al-Assad on unarmed civilian protesters in Syria since March. The Syrian economy has been shut down by more than four months of protests that have left thousands dead, detained and fleeing into neighboring Turkey and Lebanon.
In Egypt, an economy under pressure from chronic strikes and unrest has deterred production, while actors branded as pro-Mubarak are being ostracized and shows kept off the air after production is completed. The Arab Spring has created a new atmosphere of political engagement, inspiring boycotts and protests against government and performers.
"The number of new productions has seen a massive drop this year, mainly due to the economic challenges facing Egypt in the wake of the revolution," Joseph Fahim, a film critic for Daily News Egypt, told The Media Line. "Many of the biggest names have no work this year."
Fahim said the main problem was the lack of advertising money to subsidize the new productions, adding that most Egyptian shows to be screened this Ramadan had begun production before the demonstrations erupted in Cairo on January 25.
For the first time, a movement to boycott Syrian series for political reasons is taking shape on the social media site Facebook. A page titled "The Syrian List of Shame – Syrians Against the Revolution" has already garnered more than 24,000 fans. The Facebook page names and shames actors who have publicly endorsed the Assad regime or criticized the popular uprising.
"Your silence is killing us," the page’s banner read. "By God, we will boycott them and call on all free men to boycott the stars of shame." Syrian actors Doreid Lahham and Suzanne Najm A-Din are two of the blacklisted Syrian actors.
Egyptian actors also have paid a price for their political stance during the revolution. “Nagy Attalah’s Team,” starring renowned actor Adel Imam, was removed from this year’s Ramadan TV line-up after Israeli flags and portraits of Mubarak appeared repeatedly on the background of the set. Imam himself came under fire from the public for tacitly supporting Mubarak’s ideology and for lambasting Tahrir Square protesters earlier in the year in television interviews.
Facebook users also called for a boycott of “Samara,” an Egyptian series starring Ghada Abdul Raziq criticized for her stance against anti-government protestors, but also for an immodest belly dance scene that was deemed inappropriate for Ramadan viewing.
If there are fewer shows, the ones that are aired promise to be edgier and more political than in years past as the Arab Spring has lifted the heavy hand of government censorship in Egypt. Fahim, movie critic, said the removal of tight censorship imposed on television series during the Mubarak era has allowed for new political content to enter this year’s Ramadan season.
The series “Al-Muwatin X” (“Citizen X”) is said to have been inspired by the death of Egyptian youth Khaled Said in June 2010 as a result of police brutality. Another series, “Al-Rayan,” portrays the life of corrupt businessman Ahmad Al-Rayan and his allegedly close relationship with the Mubarak regime. The architect of one of Egypt’s most notorious pyramid schemes, Al-Rayan was released in 2010 after about 22 years behind bars.
"Some of these series wouldn’t have passed the censorship of the Mubarak era," Fahim says.
A few Egyptian series deal with the tense relations between Muslims and the minority Coptic Christians in Egypt, a sensitive subject in a country where sectarian violence is a persistent problem.
“Dawran Shubra,” a co-production between Britain’s BBC World Service Trust and Misr International Films, a local company, depicts the tense relations between Muslims and Copts in the predominantly Christian Cairo neighborhood of Shubra. “Adam,” starring hit singer Tamer Husni, who was recently accused of siding with the Mubarak regime, also deals with Coptic-Muslim relations.
But with so much political content on TV, many observers wonder whether viewers wouldn’t prefer to follow real current events on the news rather than stick to fiction.
"Ramadan will be different this year," Muhammad Sabri, a 35-year-old Egyptian, told the daily Al-Youm Al-Sabi’. "Viewers won’t wait for the series timeslot as was the case in previous years, but will follow the news and the latest developments, because that represents the future."
But Fahim said Ramadan series provide Egyptian viewers with much needed escapism from current events.
"Will they tune in? That’s the million dollar question," he says. "I believe people want a break. This summer’s blockbuster in Egypt was a silly comedy that had nothing to do with politics."