CAIRO (Reuters) - A prime-time TV show charting the rise of Egypt's main opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood is gripping audiences and angering leaders of the group, who see an attempt to tarnish its name before elections this year.
The sweeping historical drama shows how the Brotherhood's call for a return to Islam's roots took hold in colonial 1920s Egypt and gained traction after independence as its criticism of Western influence on Muslim society resonated among the poor.
The 35 million Egyptian pound ($6.15 million) series is being aired every night on Egypt's main state-owned channel during the holy month of Ramadan, when TV ratings soar as families and friends gather in the evening.
"The government would never allow a series on the Brotherhood to be shown on its TV channels unless it is happy with it... The government is very cautious toward anything that involves the group," said film critic Tarek el-Shenawy.
Egypt's secular-leaning government, a staunch Western ally, has been wary of any group with Islamist leanings since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 by Islamist militants.
A three-decade-old emergency law affords the police sweeping powers to quash dissent and the authorities have carried out periodic crackdowns on the Brotherhood, squeezed it out of mainstream politics and detained its senior figures.
The movement, which is banned from formal politics, remains popular among the underprivileged, partly because it offers social and economic services in deprived neighborhoods.
It secured a fifth of the seats in parliament in 2005 by fielding candidates as independents and remains the only opposition group able to muster significant support in the run-up to a legislative election late this year.
The TV series follows the work of a young police officer who decides to investigate the Brotherhood's past after questioning some students who have joined the group.
Brotherhood members portrayed in the first 12 episodes are aggressive, exploit religion to achieve their personal goals and seem to care little for the Egyptian people.
Hassan al-Banna, the schoolteacher who founded the movement in 1928, is viewed by many Egyptians as an inspiring and pious figure. The series shows him as cunning and hungry for power.
"The author wants to destroy the group," said Mohsan Rady, a Brotherhood member of parliament. "If he was objective he would have placed the whole subject before public opinion instead of picking out the negative points."
Script writer Wahid Hamid insists his series is fair.
"I made the series to show people who the Brotherhood are in a very objective way," he said in a interview with Reuters TV.
In one scene, a leader of the movement cuts a deal with a newspaper editor to buy a thousand copies of his paper every month in exchange of favors.
Police officers are shown treating detained Brotherhood members well and offering them tea and coffee during interviews.
Brotherhood leaders said those scenes were inaccurate and repeated accusations -- denied by the government -- that they have been abused while in detention.
"My investigation involved torture and insults, and of course there was no coffee or tea offered," said Essam el-Erian, a senior group member who said he spent 8-1/2 years in jail.
Analysts are playing down the show's political impact.
"The series could help drain the group's popularity but not in a big way... It is still strong," said Nabil Abdel Fattah of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
($1=5.692 Egyptian Pound)
Additional reporting by Ahmed Zaki; Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Mark Heinrich