CAIRO // The controversy that Egypt's most popular Ramadan television series, Muslim Brotherhood, has generated is perhaps best summed up by the Facebook group created to denounce it. "Hear from us, not about us: Egyptians against forging history from the scriptwriter of despicable movies," read the description of the group on the social-networking site, which, after only a week of episodes of the month-long series, has 3,000 members.
In a country where Islamic activism routinely leads to extended stays in prison and detention centres, films about the state and its embattled opposition usually captivate television audiences. But the reception of the Muslim Brotherhood, or Al Gama'a, is altogether different - "a land mine that exploded on the screen", as the independent weekly Al-Osbou described it on Monday. It has touched a nerve in a way that most popular social critiques have not. Broadcast on state television three times a day it is the first Ramadan drama to deal with the controversial past of the Brotherhood.
Members call its content and frequent show times a not-so-subtle propaganda tool of the government to discredit the Islamist group, which has earned a reputation as a pious and effective underdog in Egyptian politics. "I'm furious, especially how it portrayed state security officers as being so nice while interrogating us and offering us tea and coffee," said Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, 31, a journalist who has been imprisoned for belonging to the group.
"He showed the police as more merciful than nurses. It's unbelievable and outrageous." Known for tackling contentious topics such as government corruption and terrorism, Brotherhood scriptwriter Wahid Hamed has many critics, including politicians and Islamists. He has also drawn the ire of religious groups, for example after his 1993 series The Family, in which he was accused of being unfair and superficial in addressing the phenomenon of extremism and terrorism.
In Muslim Brotherhood, viewers are taken through the Brotherhood's early history, from its humble origins as an anti-colonial movement after it was founded in 1928, to an increasingly violent grassroots organisation whose popularity among the masses threatened politicians, alarmed secularists and changed the course of history in the region. It begins by recounting the life of the Brotherhood's founder, Hassan al Banna. The series takes viewers through his political metamorphosis, from a talented student, natural-born leader and devout Muslim, to an intellectual founding father of modern-day political Islam.
Intended to be a two-part series, the first part culminates with al Banna's murder in 1949 at the hands of state security secret police for his alleged involvement in the assassination of then prime minister Mahmoud al Noqrashy. But al Banna's family complain that the series portrays him as a religious radical. His son, Saif al Islam, plans to take legal action against the network, Egyptian TV. "Hamed is injecting poison in honey," said Mr al Islam.
"He's laying the ground against the group, by showing my father as a fanatic since his childhood, which is not true. He was a moderate leader with a vision of the first Islamic group that influenced all other groups." The Brotherhood's spokesman, Essam el Eryan, who spent the better part of a decade languishing in prison because of his affiliation with the Islamist movement, called the series "black propaganda" inspired by the authorities and aimed at damaging the group's prospects in upcoming elections in November.
Prohibited from running as a party, Brotherhood members are only allowed to run as independents. But the group's effective social campaigns, bolstered by a general perception of inadequate government responses to poverty and crises, have earned it immense popularity. Brotherhood candidates who ran as independents won one-fifth of the seats in the 2005 parliamentary elections. "We're used to these smear campaigns, ever since the days of Nasser, which never ceased," said Mr el Eryan, referring to the former Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser jailed and tortured members of the Brotherhood after an attempt to assassinate him while he was delivering a speech in the northern coastal city of Alexandria in the 1954.
"The Brotherhood as an idea can never be discredited by these kinds of campaigns, by violence or prisons," Mr el Eryan said. Wahid Hamed has written scripts for television, radio and cinema, and he credits the renowned Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz - an avowed secularist - for inspiring him to become a writer. "I learned modesty from Mahfouz," said Hamed. Even though his current project has drawn more negative publicity than others, he says he revels in it.
"I'm happy with the great welcome of the series," he said. "I'm not going to look at the dust that is roused by the Brotherhood. Those who don't like it, they don't have to watch it." However, some television and film critics call his depictions of history as blatant distortions. Of particular concern is the lead off to the series with a 2006 incident at Ain Shams University, where Brotherhood members skirmished with fellow students on campus.
The Brotherhood students are depicted as inciting the violence, which led to their arrest. But the Facebook group that formed to protest against the series posted video footage of the clashes on the website, which members claim demonstrate the innocence of the Brotherhood students. Literary critics describe the TV representation as overly sympathetic to the state. "It's obvious that Hamed is more inclined towards the state than the Brotherhood, which discredits [the series] among the people," said Amr Koura, a drama producer.