Thriller “The Cairo Conspiracy” in the cinema: Campus of intrigues

A student gets caught between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secret service: The film “The Cairo Conspiracy” leads into the interior of an Islamic university.

Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) stands with the Muslim Brotherhood in the courtyard of Al-Azhar University

Adam (Tawfeek Barhom) and the Muslim Brotherhood at Al-Azhar University Photo: X Rental

Adam lives with his two brothers and father in northeastern Egypt, near the Nile Delta in the countryside. Every morning he rows his father out in a boat to fish on the lagoon-like Lake Manzala, after which he goes to the mosque to read, to study. A scholarship for the prestigious Al-Azhar University takes him to Cairo. Instead of fishing, his new life is filled with communal prayers, lectures by the teachers, and calligraphy.

But the Azhar, more than 1,000 years old, is more than just a university of Sunni Islam. The institution, which grew up around a mosque during the Fatimid dynasty, is central to the fragile relationship between state and religion in Egypt, and Adam finds himself in Swedish director Tarik Saleh’s latest film, The Cairo Conspiracy, right in the middle of this relationship.

During a lecture, the grand imam, who as the sheikh of the Azhar is also the head of the institution, breaks down coughing. Worried, the students follow the news about the head of the institution’s health on the TV in the university kitchen. The cleric is dead a short time later. Under the leadership of the power-hungry Egyptian military, Egyptian politicians are trying to take advantage of the situation and expand their political influence on the Azhar by electing a well-meaning candidate.

In the meantime, life at the university has come to a standstill, the huge rooms and courtyards are deserted. The danger of discrediting oneself through unpleasant statements is too great. The assistant to one of the clergy has just been exposed as a government informer.

“The Cairo Conspiracy”. Director: Tarik Saleh. With Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares and others Sweden/France/Finland/Denmark 2022, 126 min.

As a newcomer with no pre-existing ties to either faction, Adam comes into the spotlight of politics as the ideal successor. He registers the sudden attention with unease, but doesn’t know how to evade it. Then the man assigned to recruit him is murdered in the Azhar courtyard. Adam is forced to leave the Azhar world nightly for clandestine meetings with the Colonel of the Domestic Intelligence Agency dubbed “National Security,” who is investigating the murder.

tangle of interests

Despite the constant presence of the long arm of politics in the person of Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares), director Tarik Saleh initially shifts the plot’s focus back to the Azhar and shows the internal struggle for leadership as a dispute over the direction of Islam and its role in the societies of the Arab world. Muslim brothers, critical and pro-state theologians compete for the influential office. Adam primarily tries to stay alive and not get lost in the tangle of interests.

Colonel Ibrahim soon put him on the trail of a group of Muslim brothers who meet at night in the deserted mosque to pray together. After a few nights, Adam is invited to join the group that meets during the day under the pretense of improving their Qur’anic recitation. When Adam recites for the first time, the group is appalled that he is illegally singing the Koran instead of reciting it more soberly.

In these scenes and the competition between the lecturers and their groups of supporters in the courtyard of the university, the film is reminiscent of Youssef Chahine’s “Destiny” from 1997. Chahine processed the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1990s as a historical musical about the work of the philosopher Averroes/ Ibn Rushd in Andalusia under Arab rule in the 12th century. Chahine confronts the anti-lust, murderous fundamentalists with a group of life-affirming followers of Averroes. In Saleh’s film, the Muslim Brotherhood appear more clumsy.

Thriller with a political background

In contrast to Chahine’s film, it becomes clear how discreetly Saleh takes up political elements. “The Cairo Conspiracy” is not a decidedly political film that aims to unravel the complex relationship between state and religion in Egypt for a European audience, but a thriller against a political background. The film is carried by the contrast between Fares Fares’ gruff Colonel Ibrahim and the inexperienced but clever Adam, played by the Israeli-Palestinian actor Tawfeek Barhom.

In an almost inexplicable way, Ibrahim survived all the upheavals in Egypt’s state security policy. Saleh underscores Ibrahim’s timelessness by letting him listen to classical Egyptian pop music on car journeys. Adam reluctantly accepts his role as informant. Again and again Ibrahim puts him under pressure to keep him in line, threatens him, lures him with money for his father’s operation. What the two dissimilar figures have in common is that they are often underestimated by those around them.

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