Egypt TV show stirs debate over Muslim Brotherhood

Cairo, Egypt - The bearded young cleric yells at a young woman for lifting her traditional veil from her face while speaking to him on the street, and rants against Egyptians who adopt Western lifestyles and values. His followers beat up an opponent.

That is the image of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood depicted in a TV miniseries airing in Egypt that casts a harsh light on the country's largest opposition movement just three months before a crucial parliamentary election that is expected to pit it against President Hosni Mubarak's ruling party.

Supporters accuse the government of using the show as a propaganda tool to demonize the fundamentalist group by portraying it as a collection of fanatics battling secular-minded and Western-oriented Egyptians and trying to turn Egypt into an Islamic society.

Political scientist Ashraf el-Sherif, however, said the program has had the opposite effect.

"What the series has done is turning a dinosaur into a living political phenomenon," said el-Sherif, who lectures at the American University in Cairo. "Now, the Brothers are no longer a banned group, as the government insists. They have entered every house, street and coffee house in Egypt."

The Muslim Brotherhood is deeply mistrusted by many Egyptians but has also gained a measure of popular support with its network of social services. It is the largest and most organized political opposition movement, posing a strong challenge to a government that faces a rising tide of calls for democratic reforms and protests over the lack of basic services.

The group, founded in 1928, was banned in 1954 on charges of using violence. But it has since renounced violence, expanded its international presence and participated in Egyptian elections as independents despite frequent crackdowns. It surprisingly won about 20 percent of the 454 seats in 2005 parliamentary elections and since then, authorities have jailed around 5,000 of its members.

Egypt will have a parliamentary election in November and a presidential poll next year.

The TV drama, titled "Al-Gamaa," or "The Group," has become one of the most popular of this year's Ramadan series. During the holy month, soap operas and miniseries are a popular tradition for Muslims who usually gather at home in the evenings after breaking their dawn-to-dusk fast.

It was produced by a private company Albatros Film Production in association with state-owned television. The episodes, which are broadcast nightly on state TV and rerun later on a privately owned channel, reportedly have attracted the most commercials among the more than 60 Ramadan soap operas in another measure of its popularity.

The plot centers on a recent court case in which the Brotherhood was accused of setting up a student militia, then uses flashbacks to tell the story of its foundation. One TV presenter said watching the show is better than reading 20 books on the group.

Critics say the show is historically inaccurate, and leading Brotherhood members allege that the script expresses the views and policies of Egypt's powerful security apparatus, which regards the group as a breeding ground for extremists.

"What was meant to be a work of drama has turned into flagrant political propaganda," said Abdel-Gelil al-Shernouby, editor of the Brotherhood's website.

The show's creator, Wahid Hamid, a renowned script writer who is known for his secular views and disdain for Islamic political groups, acknowledged he took some liberties with the facts for production purposes. But he has insisted the show was mainly based on the group's own documents, including a memoir and other writings by its founder Hassan al-Banna.

Al-Banna, who was assassinated in 1949, is portrayed as a conservative, intolerant cleric who barks at women for not properly covering their heads and attacks Egyptians who adopt Western lifestyles or values.

A charismatic schoolteacher, al-Banna founded the group with the goal of establishing a system that is guided by Shariah, or Islamic law.

He traveled to remote villages to preach Islamic values and call for an Islamic awakening in mosques, schools and coffeeshops. The movement has since spread from Indonesia to Morocco, with many followers in the United States and Europe. From it were born other political Islamic groups - including the militant Palestinian Hamas movement.

The Brotherhood has been blamed for assassinations and armed attacks against political opponents, but its leaders insist that was part of its troubled past.

"Those who know the Brothers will know the lies of the government and its media and will make sure those people who haven't met the Brothers are eager to know them and probably join them," the group's supreme leader Mohammed Badie said.

The group has stepped up efforts to improve its image with videos and its own Facebook-style social networking site known as Ikhwanbook, which advertises a goal to "spread awareness of moderate Islamic values."

Pro-government writers say the Muslim Brotherhood's history cannot be whitewashed.

"Egyptians know that the Brotherhood intends to set up an Islamic state that will suppress its opponents," wrote Abdel Moneim Saeed, a senior ruling party member and chairman of the board of the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper. "It is hostile to all and wants to push the nation back to the Middle Ages."