Elections, as everyone knows, are too important to be left up to chance, and so the world is constantly inventing ways to ensure their desired outcome. In Egypt, where the choice of a new grand imam is concerned — a lifetime appointment, whose fatwas impact national law — the process doesn’t even pretend to be democratic: The successful candidate is selected from a small Supreme Council of Scholars, with considerations the outside world will never know. But we can wonder, which is where Swedish-Egyptian filmmaker Tarik Saleh comes in, imagining the equivalent of a John Grisham thriller set inside Cairo’s world-famous Al-Azhar University.
Banned from Egypt since 2017’s “The Nile Hilton Incident,” the director may well have nothing to lose by implicating the Egyptian government in a conspiracy to fill the country’s highest religious position with the candidate of the president’s choosing — the equivalent of suggesting the American CIA stuck its hand into the process to decide the last pope. In the film, no sooner has the last grand imam expired than the country’s top brass calls an emergency meeting. “The land cannot support two pharaohs,” announces high-ranking General Al Sakran (Mohammad Bakri), ordering Colonel Ibrahim (Fares Fares) from State Security to see to it that their guy gets elected.
Ibrahim has a well-placed ally inside Al-Azhar named Zizo (Mehdi Dehbi), but this mole is first compromised, then murdered. He needs a new “angel,” which leads him to the film’s protagonist, fisherman Adam Tala (Tawfeek Barhom), who’s only just started his religious studies at the university. Saleh’s screenplay — which is dense and plot-driven but rarely holds up to even basic questions of logic — makes it clear why someone like Adam might fit the bill: This poor patsy is essentially disposable in the government’s eyes. Still, it’s ludicrous to think that such an important operation might be entrusted to a newcomer, or that State Security wouldn’t have dozens of contacts within a university of nearly 300,000 students all contributing to the common goal.
What we’re dealing with here is a fairly conventional political thriller — think “House of Cards,” minus the sleek David Fincher aesthetic or much in the way of suspense — set in a world no one has dared to explore on screen before now. In choosing a newly arrived student, Saleh ideally would have spent some time giving audiences the lay of the land, revealing nuances of daily life at the university. (With Saleh obliged to shoot the film in Turkey, Istanbul’s Süleymanye Mosque doubles as Al-Azhar). Alas, the writer-director has crammed “Cairo Conspiracy” with too much plot to allow for crucial scene-setting, and he shoots nearly every location (most of them stunning examples of symmetric architectural design) from sharp angles that skew their natural beauty.
Saleh seems to have modeled the film after 2009 Cannes prize winner “A Prophet,” repeating the formula of taking a malleable novice whom others think they can manipulate, before revealing him to be smarter and stronger than anyone imagined. “Cairo Conspiracy” even feels like a prison movie at times, observing power dynamics and hazing rituals in the cafeteria and dormitories. But that arc is already familiar enough to be a cliché, and Barhom hasn’t the magnetism of a Tahar Rahim.
The more interesting character here is Ibrahim, whose disheveled appearance serves to conceal a few of his cards. Fares plays him as more of a functionary than an outright villain: On one hand, the role represents how a pseudo-democratic regime perpetuates its own power, yet this spirit-broken old-timer has been kicking around State Security long enough to serve multiple masters and survive multiple coups d’état, such that his allegiances are undercut by cynicism. Ibrahim is plainly resentful of his much-younger boss, Sobhy (Moe Ayoub), who won’t hesitate to sacrifice the life of anyone for his personal advancement, meaning this antihero may choose his ethics instead of following orders when it counts. Still, there’s not enough dramatic excitement to back up such twists once they start to untangle.
Technically, the Egyptian government has no business interfering in the choice of a grand imam, though it’s easy enough to understand why it might do so. In a way, the riskier implication of “Cairo Conspiracy” is that the top candidates for the position may be less-than-perfect religious leaders in their own right. Acting on Ibrahim’s instructions, Adam ferrets out a small group of pro-jihad extremists, exposes a hypocritical sheikh who has a love child by a secret marriage, and positions himself as the leading candidate’s new favorite pupil.
Through it all, Saleh is careful not to tarnish the faith, suggesting that Islam itself is not to blame for the ways that certain people misinterpret and abuse it. That’s a refreshing view, considering how one-dimensionally the religion is typically treated by Western filmmakers — not that it will protect the movie from controversy. You can’t make a film like “Cairo Conspiracy” without upsetting great swaths of people. Heck, if you’re based in Egypt, you can’t make such a film at all.