A well-dressed, clean-shaven man sits at a table in a posh restaurant. Accompanying him is an attractive young woman whose attention he seems to hold with ease. He explains his deep regret that he never pursued their relationship more deeply: His budding career as a security officer had left him little time for worldly pleasures.
Meanwhile, across town, a violent clash between rival student gangs ends with a young man's body lying dead on the pavement. It looks like a new CSI spin-off -- except the action is taking place on the hot streets of Cairo. And these scenes aren't from another American cop drama. They're from the first episode of Egypt's controversial Ramadan series, "Al Gamaah" ("The Group").
"Al Gamaah," which purports to be a sort of Egyptian version of "24" or "The Wire," is actually a government-funded series of morality tales about the country's banned opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. The series can be summed up easily: A noble and courageous Egyptian security officer launches an investigation into the Brotherhood's past, and digs up some startling skeletons, as members of the illegal organization skulk around like Bond villains. The pilot episode ran on Arab satellite networks on the first night of Ramadan, and episodes continued nightly for the duration of the Islamic holy month (the Middle Eastern equivalent of American sweeps week). The public response has varied from admiration to total outrage.
Entertaining at times, the show was little more than heavy-handed propaganda. But it had some unintended ironies. In giving the Muslim Brotherhood a primetime treatment, the Egyptian government only made it obvious that its own affairs aren't quite ready for the spotlight.
The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928, making it the oldest existing Islamic movement organization in the Arab world. Despite the more militant splinter groups that have emerged in recent years, the Brotherhood itself has a long tradition of renouncing violence and calling for democracy, the rule of law, and an end to the national state of emergency that has been in place in Egypt since 1981. It operates the largest network of social services in Egypt and participates in elections (though its candidates must run as independents), winning 88 parliamentary seats in the 2005 elections. It was also the organization that incubated future leaders of al Qaeda such as Ayman al-Zawahiri.