Directed by: Tarik Saleh
Written by: Tarik Saleh
Starring: Tawfeek Barhom, Fares Fares, Mohammad Bakri, Mehdi Dehbi, Moe Ayoub, Sherwan Haji
Released: May 4, 2023
Grade: B

Cairo Conspiracy

Freedom of speech is a continual topic of discussion within universities across the globe.  These places aren’t corporate, for-profit entities where everyone has to toe the line of upper management.  Universities are shaped by the differing views of academics, students, professional staff, donors, alumni, and granting bodies.  The opinion of two economics professors may vary widely but they’re still entitled to publish their respective research papers and explain their conclusions as representatives of the same university.

This tenet is at the heart of Cairo Conspiracy, a thriller from Swedish director Tarik Saleh (The Nile Hilton Incident).  It is set in Egypt where the Grand Imam who oversees the prestigious Al-Azhar University has passed away.  In appointing a successor, those on the University Council are leaning towards a well-respected, open-minded academic.  However, the Egyptian President wants to further consolidate his power by appointing a candidate who is more aligned to his own political and religious views.

The story is largely told from the perspective of an unlikely individual.  Adam (Barhom) is the son of a rural fisherman and has been accepted into Al-Azhar on a full academic scholarship.  It sounds like a great, life-changing opportunity but Adam becomes unwillingly caught up in the abovementioned power struggle.  He is blackmailed by State Security, told to infiltrate certain groups within the University, and then report back to a meddling intelligence agent (Fares).

It’s an eye-opening narrative for those unfamiliar with Egyptian culture and customs.  Religion plays a huge part in day-to-day life.  When accepted into university, Adam’s father describes it as “part of God’s plan”.  When practicing his handwriting in class, a teacher praises Adam’s skills by saying “God has blessed him with a steady hand.”  That sounds harmless enough but Saleh deftly shows us the hypocrisy that often exists within religion and the way in which it is used as a weapon for suppression.  The McDonalds scene gave me a laugh!

The Egyptian setting will heighten curiosity levels but when you look beyond that, it’s a standard, Hollywood-style, spy thriller.  Dodgy deals are made, people can’t be trusted, and the “bad guys” can be easily distinguished.  I wasn’t convinced by Tawfeek Barhom in the lead role.  He walks around with a constant sense of scared bewilderment on his face and it’s hard to believe in his ability to gather intelligence for his boss.

Winner of the best screenplay prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and making the 15-film shortlist for best international feature at the recent Academy Awards, Cairo Conspiracy is conventional but still interesting.