HANDOUT IMAGE: Tawfeek Barhom in “Cairo Conspiracy,” from Tarik Saleh, a Swedish director of Egyptian descent. Image from Samuel Goldwyn Films press website. *USE ONLY WITH DIRECT COVERAGE OF (movie), ACROSS PLATFORMS, NO SALES, NO TRADES*. NO SALES. NO TRADES. FOR USE ONLY WITHIN THE SERIES’ PUBLICITY WINDOW. Photo Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

Cairo Conspiracy – movie review

Political rivalry between church and state might seem like a dry subject for a movie, but writer-director Tarik Saleh turns into a compelling drama in Cairo Conspiracy. As well as directing episodes of Westworld and Ray Donovan, Saleh directed Chris Pine in the 2022 actioner The Contractor. So he knows his way around intrigue.

Cairo Conspiracy is set in Cairo (naturally enough) amid manoeuvering between the storied Islamic (Sunni) university Al-Azhar and the Egyptian state over the appointment of a new Grand Imam. The role holds immense religious – and considerable secular – power in Egypt. If that sounds a bit obscure, don’t worry. Saleh uses the power struggle as the framework for a story of murder, espionage and double-dealing to rival a John Le Carré novel.

Our protagonist is Adam Taha (Tawfeek Barhom). He lives in a small village with his gruff fisherman father and two brothers. It’s a grim existence, but Adam has shown aptitude for Islamic learning. With the help of his local imam, he’s applied to study at Al-Azhar; and somewhat to his surprise, is accepted. Once in Cairo and away from village life, Adam finds himself rather adrift at the university, which hosts students from across the Islamic world. His situation is perhaps not helped by his bunk-mate Raed (Ahmed Lassaoui), who seems more into heavy metal than the Qu’oran. Things get even more chaotic when the Grand Imam has a medical episode at the opening ceremony for the school year and dies. But in the confusing aftermath, he thinks he finds a friend in kindly older student Zizo (Medhi Debhi).

Little does Adam know that Zizo is effectively a spy for State Security Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares). Ibrahim has been tasked with making sure the election of the new Grand Imam goes the way of the President’s pick Sheikh Oman Beblawi (Jawad Altawil). But there are two other candidates: Sheikh Negm (Makram J. Khoury) – known as the Blind Sheikh – and Sheikh Al Durani (Ramzi Choukair). With the Blind Sheikh the early favourite, Beblawi’s election is far from a foregone conclusion and Ibrahim must find ways to swing the vote. At the same time, he has to deal with the radical groups infiltrating the university, which represent a clear threat to the state. Zizo thinks his cover has been blown, so Ibrahim instructs him to find a replacement; which is where Adam comes in. But Zizo’s need is more urgent than he realises, and assassins murder him on the university grounds. When Ibrahim arrives to investigate, he cajoles the impressionable Adam to become his eyes and ears on the inside at Al-Azhar.

The film takes a while to get going. Saleh’s deliberate approach to setting up Adam’s home life and entry to the university seemed to take a while, but the attention to detail is worth it for the pay-off later on. But once it gets going, Cairo Conspiracy romps along. I don’t know enough about the intricacies of Egyptian politics and Islamic teaching to know how factually accurate the film might be, but as a thriller, it worked for me – for the most part. The only real quibble I had with it was that some events late in the film seemed rather unlikely, and a bit rushed. Still, Saleh nonetheless paints an engaging portrait of a young man caught up in larger events beyond his understanding.

At a broader level, Saleh’s script deftly compares how both religious and secular institutions operate – notably how power is wielded via corruption, manipulation, and sometimes violence. If you get the impression Saleh might be playing with fire in his depiction of Egypt’s security forces, you’d be right. After his previous film, The Nile Hilton Incident, the filmmaker was banned from the county. So this film was largely shot in Turkiye. Coincidentally, the film’s premise of tension between Al-Azhar and the government has become a reality, though Saleh insists that happened after he wrote the script.

Tawfeek Barhom (Mary Magdelene) is over 30 and has been acting since 2012, but he’s completely convincing as the fresh-faced Adam. Medhi Debhi adds solid support as Zizo, though his appearance is necessarily brief; and the same can be said of Ahmed Lassaoui as the unconventional Raed. Makram J. Khoury (The West Wing) brings gravitas as the Blind Sheikh; while Ramzi Choukair provides a complete contrast as the venal Al Durani. But the film really belongs to Fares Fares (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) as the cool and calculating Ibrahim. The character has to walk a fine line between his job, his faith and his humanity, and Fares delivers on all fronts.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Cairo Conspiracy going in, but the film had me by the end. It requires a bit of patience to step through the set-up, but that patience will be rewarded as Saleh builds an engrossing and quite moving drama.

David Edwards

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