Iran’s push into Egyptian film?

by Michael Rubin, AEI

The Islamic Revolution in Iran ushered in a period of enmity between Iran and Egypt. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Iran’s revolutionary leader, made enmity toward and a firm belief in the illegitimacy of Israel a pillar of the new regime’s ideology. He put Egypt—the only Arab country to recognize Israel—in Iran’s sites. Relations deteriorated further after the 1981 assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat: rather than condemn Sadat’s murder, the Iranian leadership celebrated it, even naming a Tehran street after Khalid Islambouli, Sadat’s assassin. Over the next three decades Iranian leaders regularly belittled Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak, as a “pharaoh,” castigating both his dictatorial ways (Iranian regime rhetoric regularly depicts the Islamic Republic as a democracy) and implying that he belonged to the pre-Islamic world of the jahaliyya, the age of ignorance. Efforts at rapprochement between Iran and the largest Arab country repeatedly fell flat as Iranian hardliners castigated their reformist counterparts’ calls for improved relations with Egypt as a betrayal of both basic Islamic principles and Khomeini’s vision. Mubarak’s fall, however, coupled with the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, led to hopes—at least in Tehran— for a renaissance in relations, if not a new Tehran-Cairo axis.

It is against this backdrop that this short excerpt from the semiofficial, hardline Fars News Agency, is interesting. While Tehran and Cairo have yet to re-establish full diplomatic relations— probably because of objections from Riyadh and Doha, both of whom are major donors to the faltering Egyptian economy—the Iranian Interests Section in Cairo is becoming increasingly more active and taking a far higher profile.

The Iranian encouragement to the Egyptian film industry is important. Cairo is the Hollywood of the Arab world. From Tangiers to the Tigris, Arabs watch Egyptian soap operas and full-length comedies. It is the Egyptian dominance of film that has led to the Egyptian dialect of Arabic becoming the most widely understood, perhaps even more so than the stodgy and formal “Modern Standard” dialect taught at most universities and in diplomatic parlors. Throughout the Mubarak years, Egyptian cinema has also been political. The Egyptian leadership used films like “Al-Irhabi” (The Terrorist) and “Al-Irhab wal Kebab” (Terrorism and Kebab) to satirize and ridicule Islamist groups. Having taken control, the Muslim Brotherhood sought its own revenge, trying and sentencing Adel Emam, the star of the films and Egypt’s best known comedian of the silver screen, to three months in prison for insulting Islam.

Western audiences know Iranian cinematography through the highbrow art films of filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, whose film “Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation of Nader from Simin”, released in the West simply as “A Separation”) won an Academy award for Best Foreign Film, among other international accolades, last year. These art house films do not have much exposure inside Iran, however, where the general audience prefers actions movies and shoot-‘em-up thrillers, such as Hassan Karbakhsh’s “Lubnan Ashgh-e Man” (Lebanon, My Love), a Rambo-film in reverse, where Hezbollah are the heroes, and the Israelis the dastardly enemies. Many Iranian mass-release films also have a religious agenda, such as Djavad Mashghadri, “Toofan-e Shan,” (Sandstorm), in which a group of Iranian school children taken hostage by coarse and rapacious American soldiers during the U.S. hostage rescue attempt, pray to God, causing the sandstorm that doomed the mission.

Culture matters, and Iranian leaders see the conflict between themselves and more broadly the Islamic world on one hand, and the West on the other, to be not only a military struggle but also a cultural battle. The Iranian leadership has always emphasized the importance of media in its efforts to export revolution. They recognized that television is the paramount medium to reach a mass audience. 

Iranian efforts to penetrate foreign markets are well-established. Shortly after Operation Enduring Freedom began, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, a Qods Force operative and current advisor to Supreme Leader ‘Ali Khamenei, set up radio stations throughout western Afghanistan. The Iranian government has also supported Tamadon (Civilization) television in Afghanistan. For Iraq, the Iranian government established al-Alam, an Arabic language television station, months before the United States followed suit with al-Hurra. Iranian satellite stations dominate the Bahraini market. The comments of Mojtaba Amani, Iran’s chief diplomat in Egypt, suggest that the Islamic Republic wants to extend its outreach to Egypt, not only through traditional diplomacy, but also through influencing Egypt’s formidable film industry. How they do this is open to question: at a minimum, Iranian diplomats will encourage Egyptian television to follow the Iranian precedent, ordering the veiling of women and a steady increase in religious programming. In Iraqi Kurdistan, Iranian officials distributed cell phones and video cameras to students, promising them cash if they captured footage they might broadcast; often, this included any footage which promoted the Iranian religious ideal or depicted opponents in a negative light. Money also matters. The Arab Spring has had a huge financial cost on Egypt; since Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, economists estimate that Egypt has spent more than two-thirds of its hard currency reserves. If the Egyptian government is going to continue subsidizing bread and basic foodstuffs, the Egyptian film industry may find itself short of cash. Egyptian authorities might interpret Amani’s comments as a subtle offer for subsidies, although certainly not to be given without political strings attached. If the Iranian government succeeds in penetrating the Egyptian media market , the next generation of Egyptians—and, indeed, Arabs across the Middle East—may be raised on television and films meant to indoctrinate an Iranian worldview.

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