This is your first documentary project dealing with your native country Egypt. Why only now?

I had political problems after writing an article about the economic ties of the Mubarak family in the mid 90s, especially his sons. The repercussions of my work forced me to stay out of the country for most of the time, only returning for a few brief visits.

I presume you returned after Mubarak stepped down in 2011?

Basically the day after. And soon I realized that what was going on also had a connection to things I had dealt with in my prior films: In Behind the Rainbow I had looked at the transformation of the ANC from a Liberation movement to a governing party, in Cuba’s African Odyssey I dealt with Cuban support for African revolutions.

In Egypt in 2011 one also spoke of revolution and transformation.

Yes, but to me it appeared that there had been a similar scenario once before. I thought of a photo from the 1950s, displaying the slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”. Those were exactly the demands of 2011. So I needed to understand why nothing much had changed for the better. Despite 60 years of independence the problems are still the same.

In 1952 Nasser came to power in a military coup. How can one tell this story differently?

There are many things that we have never been told, and it is important to break taboos. In particular, I examine the power struggle between Muhammad Naguib, the short-term first president of Egypt, and Nasser: their essential conflict was over Egypt being governed as a democracy or by military rule. The Free Officers, the protagonists of the revolt against the king, held a wide variety of political positions. Several of them were communists. Naguib was very popular with the people, he wanted to move quickly towards a parliamentary democracy, while Nasser was adamant that the army needed to consolidate the revolution first. The Cavalry ended up becoming the scapegoat in the power struggle, which Nasser won.

Is there archival footage from those crucial events?

No, everything happened at night and behind closed doors, in a conspiratorial atmosphere. I found photographic material from witnesses, and combined their personal records with official footage from contemporary media of the early 50s.

Is it easy for you to gain access to official archives, or do you have to rely predominantly on your own sources?

(laughs) There are always ways to access archives. People have archives too. Many people are not aware what they have. Whenever I do an interview, I ask about home movies or photos, and I get a lot of great stuff. In this case, the connection was the father of one of my friends who was a member of the cavalry back then. This is how I started to find my sources.

Could you outline the dimensions of the project about the Pharaohs?

There are four pillars. Firstly I examine the development of civil society, its rise and decline since the 1950s. Secondly of course the military. This is a topic which is extremely opaque. It was only in 2011 and 2012 that there was a window of opportunity to talk about it more openly. The Egyptian army owns up to 40 percent of the state economy, but very little is known about their investments that benefit from the opacity surrounding ‘national security.’ Many of their investments are in the civilian sector and compete with the private sector. This creates a lot of rumors and discomfort about this opacity.

Thirdly I look at the religious groups, the most important of them being the Muslim Brotherhood, whose government was ended by what was basically a military coup. The “Pharaohs” frequently changed their tactics when dealing with the Muslim Brotherhood, there was repression, but also attempts to instrumentalize them. The fourth pillar is international aid. Egypt always weighed its options, during the Cold War it could maneuver between the US and the Soviet Union, both of which sent military and financial aid when Egypt was considered an ally. Those have essentially been the factors that have influenced Egyptian politics over the last 60 years. In the early 50s civil society flourished, there were numerous competing parties. Later civil society was systematically decapitated.

To what extent was this due to the personal impact of the Pharaohs?

Each of the three presidents, Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, had a vision of restoring Egypt to its former glory. In order to achieve that they needed to monopolize all the power. Alternative views were suppressed, opposition groups were barely tolerated. A Pharaonic style of rule is all about the extreme centralization of power.

Does this come from the personal weakness of the individual in power, or is there also a popular desire for such strong leaders?

Certainly society creates its pharaohs to a degree. But there is something about power that changes people. All of them were initially close to the populace, but ended up in a bubble, surrounded by just a small entourage. The Pharaohs lost touch with real life and with the aspirations of the man on the street.

How much of the “Modern Pharaoh’s” as already been completed? At the HKW you have presented excerpts.

I started with those four pillars, and at a certain point I had twelve hours of material. Then it needed to be shortened. At the Toronto International Film Festival in September I premiered the feature-length Nasser film. Now I am working on the parts on Sadat and Mubarak, which will be two one-hour TV documentaries.

Where is Egypt now, in relation to 1951/52?

The military and the Muslim Brotherhood continue their political dance that has determined Egypt’s fate since 1952. Ironically this dance is going on even now, and civil society is suffering as a consequence. There is a saying: When elephants fight, the grass always suffers. We are the grass. It is very dangerous to raise your head. Civil society risks either losing its head, or going to prison.