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Egyptian comedy caught in red tape

Government encourages popular actor to create a TV show lampooning it - but the episodes languish while awaiting ministry nod.

Mahmoud Azab, below, as Ahmed Nazif, right, the Egyptian prime minister.
Mahmoud Azab, below, as Ahmed Nazif, right, the Egyptian prime minister.

CAIRO // When Mahmoud Azab told a television chat show audience in May that he wanted to make a televised comedy serial to mock high-level Egyptian politicians, he was quickly confronted by government officials.

Such a show, they said, was a fantastic idea. The ministry of information liked it so much they gave Azab - a popular character actor and comedian who has spent nearly two decades imitating the leading lights of Egyptian show business, sport and entertainment - his own evening slot during Ramadan on the state-owned Nile TV channel. Azab and his colleagues rushed to write and shoot all 30 episodes before Ramadan. But as the holy month and its eager television audiences came and went, Azab's Government Show, which was about to become the first successful political satire serial in the Arab world, was still awaiting final approval from the ministry of information.

"I never believed that the government would allow me to criticise the government. If this is screened, it will be the best thing this cabinet has done," said Azab, who added that he is about to launch a public campaign to shame the ministry into airing his programme. "The government spent public money to make this show, so if they don't air it, I think that will be an issue." Indeed, Nile Comedy, the division of Nile TV that is producing the programme, has already spent 1.5 million Egyptian pounds (Dh1m) for the 30 episodes, 14 of which have been edited and prepared for the small screen.

All of them follow a similar theme and format, Azab said. The series begins with the authors' vision of the first day of work for the Egyptian prime minister, a character who is made to sound, behave and look (with the help of make-up and, for some characters, elaborate masks) like his real-life counterpart, Ahmed Nazif, who has run Egypt's pro-reform government since 2004. Throughout the episodes, Mr Nazif chooses a cabinet of ministers, which proceeds to tackle the various problems affecting Egypt.

Like snipers stalking their targets, Azab and a small crew of writers spent hours researching the objects of their mockery. Azab plays all the principle characters, whose lines were snatched from true-to-life policy discussions on the floor of Egypt's People's Assembly. But the painstaking accuracy begs a question: what is so funny about the political realities of an authoritarian government and its desperate, impoverished subjects?

"You can say that it is a reproduction of our reality from a comic point of view," said Adil Salama, the show's head writer. "Comic reality is the most sincere and truthful form of comedy, and it is also the most effective because reality is very severe." Azab plays each minister and parliamentarian straight, but watch for a character's reaction to tragic or troublesome news, or gauge his behaviour under trying circumstances, advised Mr Salama. Side-splitting laughs are guaranteed, he said, because Egypt is a nation of tragic absurdities, ham-fisted incompetence and overreaching ambition.

"Egyptians by nature create a joke in the midst of crisis to ameliorate the difficulties and pains," said Mr Salama. "We breathe this kind of comedy as air." Many objects of the show's derision could hardly be called "funny" by conventional standards. One sequence features mock news coverage of the rockslide in the poor Cairo neighbourhood of Duweiqa, which killed more than 50 people in September 2008. The painful irony of Egyptians using their mobile phones to speak with television reporters from beneath piles of rubble - as the government dawdled - struck Azab as uniquely dark and hysterical.

In another example, Azab mocks the pretensions of Mr Nazif's supposedly "smart cabinet" of technocrats, whose government has spearheaded an ambitious programme of economic reform and modernisation over the past five years. On Mr Nazif's first day as prime minister, his underlings read him a lengthy, sycophantic poem. It is the sort of scene that most Egyptians would recognise from classic Egyptian films, in which new bosses receive elaborate welcomes. But in Azab's rendering, Mr Nazif scolds the office drones and their poem. "This tradition is backward. We're in a time of intelligent, electronic government," Azab's portrayal of Mr Nazif says. "You should have sent me this poem over e-mail."

What the show does not do, Azab is careful to say, is mock politicians' personal lives or loved ones. And, in a nod to fairness, Azab sets aside time to skewer the Egyptian people. In each episode, mock news casts will show ignorant journalists interviewing complacent Egyptians about current events, offering a sort of fun-house mirror for both the politics of the Egyptian street and the halls of power.

That is, if the episodes ever air. The ministry of information offered little in the way of an official explanation for the delay. A spokesperson for the ministry declined to comment, stating instead that the show was delayed because production remained incomplete. Khaled Shabana, Nile Comedy's president, called that response from the ministry "diplomatic", but added that he is sure the show will eventually see the light of prime time.

What makes him so certain remains unclear. "In the last meeting I had with the minister, I asked him about Government Show," said Mr Shabana. "He told me it's about to be decided on any day. That was about two weeks ago." mbradley@thenational.ae