Over the past two decades the politics of Egyptian cinema—the only commercial film industry in the Arabic-speaking world—have been shaped by broader issues such as economic globalization and concepts of national identity. Some films have addressed overtly political themes, including "the American dream," injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, and Islamist protest movements. The character of such films is often strongly influenced by the overarching context in which they are produced. Consider, for example, the fate of "The Closed Doors" (Al Abwab Al Mughlaqa; 1999).

In "The Closed Doors," Islamists recruit a vulnerable early adolescent boy in a public school. "The Closed Doors" was an anti-Islamist film, as are virtually all Egyptian films that address the issue of political mobilization through religion. It was the location of the boy's recruitment that was distinctive. State-sanctioned representations of political Islam usually ignore the presence of Islamists in modern institutions like the public school system, even though Islamists are hardly strangers to such institutions. Indeed, they often dominate them. But at the representational level, the Egyptian state prefers ignorant Islamists. They should not come from what the state likes to think of as its own turf.

At first glance, the film was one of the boldest political statements in the past decade of Egyptian cinema. But the politics of Egyptian cinema dictated that "The Closed Doors," while widely marketed in Europe and the United States as an Egyptian film, would barely be seen in its country of origin. It made no contribution to local debates about the role of religion in society or politics. One reason for the film's marginalization was that it was financed by French cultural foundations. "The Closed Doors" was therefore a product of "globalization," but of a sort that many Egyptians, both critics and audiences, distrust—a globalization formed not by the uncontrolled movement of economic and cultural products, but rather by what they see as a foreign-sponsored, anti-nationalist movement. "The Closed Doors" also criticized Islamist politics in an idiom that indicted Egyptian national institutions.

Many Egyptian films criticize national institutions, but crucially, they were financed by local, or at most regional, capital, and they circulate no further than the Arabic speaking world. "The Closed Doors" may also have been a commercial failure for other reasons. Its realist style departed from current local cinematic trends; it contained a heavy Oedipal theme that might have struck audiences as preposterous; it featured no bankable stars. Most importantly, audiences may not have accepted the film's assertion that their pious friends, relatives, and colleagues should be conflated with a dangerous "political Islamism." These are all sure signs that the political message promoted by "The Closed Doors" was well out of step with the usual politics of Egyptian filmmaking.

Egyptian cinema has sometimes attracted attention in the United States not for opposing political Islam, but for fomenting anti-Americanism or even anti-Semitism. Such charges are exaggerated, and a case of the pot calling the kettle black, given the anti-Arab bias prevalent in parts of the American media. Films that have struck American journalists—though not necessarily Egyptian audiences—as controversial include "An Upper Egyptian in the American University" (Saidi fi Al Gami'a Al Amrikiyya; 1998), in which a peasant makes his way in the elitist American University in Cairo, or "Hello America" (Allo Amrika; 2000), in which a man visits his cousin in New York and encounters a virtual encyclopedia of Egyptian stereotypes about the amoral nature of American society. But they must be understood in the same context as "The Closed Doors." They are not so much anti-American as they are nationalist. More important, they are far from the 'massive wave' of anti-Americanism in the Arab world to which the American media often points.

Indeed, anti-Americanism in Egyptian cinema is best seen as a mini-trend that has perhaps had its day. In the past two years by far the most significant commercial Egyptian film has been "Sleepless Nights" (Sahar Al Layali; 2003)—an exploration of marital problems portrayed pointedly against the backdrop of a completely globalized Egyptian society. "Sleepless Nights" is like a scientific experiment that controls for all material factors by inventing characters who could be living anywhere—in Los Angeles, or Minneapolis, or any suburbanized city. The film asks what relations between Egyptian men and women would be like if reduced to their essence by eliminating all worries about money, modernity, or politics. "Sleepless Nights" is in many ways a total embrace of globalization, but one that contrasts strongly with that of "The Closed Doors." "Sleepless Nights" portrays society in terms that put Egypt in the world, rather than putting Egypt under an imagined microscope in some European or American laboratory. Consequently the film was fully cognizant of the politics of Egyptian cinema rather than the politics in Egyptian films. In the final analysis, it is the "politics of" that reveals the most about how popular Egyptian cinema re-packages the world for its primary audience.

Walter Armbrust is university lecturer at the Middle East Centre of St. Antony’s College, University of Oxford. He is the editor of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000) and the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 1996) as well as numerous articles on Egyptian popular culture and mass media.