Egyptian talk show host Ramez Galal is no stranger to controversy. Ever since he started his career as the host of daring pranks in 2011, Galal has played many pranks on celebrities that got him into hot water. Paris Hilton, whom he got crying and screaming for her life during a staged plane crash, threatened to sue him. Steven Seagal and Antonio Banderas, who thought that they were caught in a fire, punched him. Sheikh Sayyed Salman, Egypt’s Al-Azhar University Alumni Union member, issued a fatwa against his prank show “Ramez Sub Zero,” saying it was not permissible to scare people.
In May, Galal made headlines once more, this time with allegations of sexual harassment toward actress Yasmine Sabri that could have lost him his show, given the current global reactions to sexual harassment.
This season's first episode of "Ramez Sub Zero” aired on MBC Egypt May 17, the first day of the holy month of Ramadan. His celebrity guests were flown to Moscow to allegedly attend a pre-World Cup event, but end up meeting tigers and bears in a snowboarding area.
Galal’s scary pranks were laughed off, but not his treatment of Sabri. In the episode, he spoke of the young actress as "hot" and "curvy" and touched her lips and body.
In quick response, the Egyptian anti-harassment initiative HarassMap accused Galal of making sexual harassment socially acceptable by turning it into a laughing matter. Its Facebook post, which has been shared thousands of times so far, spurred a live debate on just what constitutes harassment. Some agreed with the post, while others said that there was no case of sexual harassment if the actress did not show anger or make it known that the words and contact were unwelcome.
Sexual correctness and morality are often evoked during Ramadan in Egypt, when some TV shows and advertisements go overboard. In 2016, a dairy advertisement triggered public outrage for comparing the quality of the company’s milk with that of breast milk. After various women’s groups complained that the spot could increase harassment on the streets, the Egyptian Consumer Protection Agency banned the ad along with three others that were deemed sexually inappropriate.
This year, on May 17, a scene in “Nesr El-Saeed” (“Hawk of Upper Egypt"), in which lead actor Mohamed Ramadan appeared bare-chested and had a suggestive conversation with the female lead, Wafa Aamer, was cut by censors. Mohamed Ramadan retorted by posting the scene on Instagram.
The 2018 Ramadan TV season has already been marked by cautious diplomacy. The series "Abu Omar el-Masry" left its mark on already tense Egypt-Sudan relations, causing Sudan’s Foreign Ministry to summon the Egyptian ambassador to ask him why the series portrays Sudan as a breeding ground for terrorism. In the interest of the budding Egypt-Saudi Arabia ties, “Ard El Nefaq” (“Land of Hypocrisy”) dropped a guest appearance by Egyptian journalist Ibrahim Eissa for his previous criticism of Saudi Arabia and its leaders. Another series, “Kalabsh 2” (“Handcuffs 2”), raised the ire of the people of Fayoum, a city in southern Egypt, who bitterly complained and threatened to sue the series for portraying them as terrorists.
The Media Syndicate and the Supreme Council for Media Regulation (SCMR) lambasted Galal's program and threatening to pull programs and TV series that present inappropriate content during Ramadan off the air.
Hamdi el-Konayessi, the head of the Media Syndicate, told Al-Monitor that the syndicate and the SCMR are reviewing the legal status of Galal's show along with complaints submitted against other programs. He said, "Once these complaints are proven true, these programs will be referred to the disciplinary committee. This committee is still in the making, since it will include two chancellors and the state council has not selected them yet."
Konayessi also pointed out that he received documents from its broadcaster stressing that Galal's show is aired by a Saudi channel and therefore not subject to actions to be taken against other programs being aired on Egyptian channels. Galal's show is broadcast by MBC, a Saudi-owned and Dubai-based network. Its affiliate MBC Egypt airs programs and series from Egypt, focusing on Egyptian affairs.
"That's why we are still discussing the legal status of these kinds of programs and the role of the syndicate in monitoring them. So far the syndicate has sent its recommendations to the channel, including filtering and removing any inappropriate content," he added.
SCMR member Mohamed el-Emary told Al-Monitor that the council had formed a media observatory called the "Monitoring Committee" ahead of Ramadan to monitor the content of all Ramadan series, ads and shows on a daily basis.
"The observatory is in constant contact with the National Council for Women and the National Council for Human Rights and works in accordance with set standards. Regarding Galal's show, we still have not received the report of the observatory. The observatory should take its time to be fair, since sometimes there is exaggeration in criticism," said Emary.
On May 7, the SCMR warned that any Ramadan drama series using obscene words will be fined 250,000 Egyptian pounds (roughly $14,000) for each offense.
"Channels should thoroughly review the content being presented during this holy month and select the programs and dramas that have a message and respect public taste," Emary said.
Despite the heated debate over Galal's show, veteran art critic Tarek al-Shenawy said, "Prank shows in other countries contain more daring scenes and words. But I know due to our conservative traditions, the show has come under fire. Nevertheless, I am against the idea of banning it, whether we agree with it or not," Shenawy told Al-Monitor.
He expressed anxiety, however, over the establishment of multiple bodies to monitor TV series. "In my opinion, such committees play a punitive role rather than a regulatory one," he concluded.