Debate Rages Over an Egyptian TV Series

Egyptian blockbuster series, especially produced for post-fast Ramadan evenings, are traditionally thought provoking. Last year, the conversation in Egyptian homes and on Arabic network talk shows centred around Hag Metwally, a rags-to riches tale of a man who gathered wives along with increasing wealth. This provoked the ire of many Arab women who felt that it encouraged their husbands to practise polygamy. This year’s Horseman without a Horse has gone one step further.

Attracting worldwide controversy and debate, from the man in the street to the higher echelons of Washington, why has Horseman without a Horse stirred up so much fuss?

Written and directed by veteran Egyptian actor Mohammed Sobhi, Horseman without a Horse, while portraying the adventurous life of Egyptian journalist Hafez Neguib, has included scenes related to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–a document, which has been banned for half-a-century in most of Europe and elsewhere.

Exposed as a forgery by the Russian courts in 1993, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion purport to be the minutes of a secret meeting between top members of world Jewry who forge a plot to take over the world.

The Protocols were, in fact, written by members of Tsar Nicholas II’s secret police, in 1903 and as much as 60 percent of the document is plagiarised from an anti-Semitic French text.

Mohammed Sobhi, who also performs multiple roles in the series, has publicly stated that while he admits that The Protocols are forgeries, he believes that 19 of the 24 Protocols or ‘minutes of a meeting’ have actually transpired. He also warns darkly that the remaining five could well be about to come to fruition.

The idea that anything concerning The Protocols would be shown on satellite television has enraged the Israeli leadership, along with the powerful Anti Defamation League, which took their case to Washington in an attempt to block the broadcast.

A US Department of State spokesman responded at Israel’s behest by saying: “We have not viewed the programs, but we have some concerns about the series. U.S. Ambassador to Cairo David Welsh has met with senior Egyptian officials, including Egyptian Minister of Information Safwat Al Sherif to raise our concerns…”

This was followed by a letter of protest addressed to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, signed by 46 members of Congress.

The Arab world could surely be forgiven if it doesn’t find a certain tragic irony here. At a time when men, women and children are being killed every day in the Occupied Territories and Israel–both Israeli and Palestinian–the US government risks losing any credibility it has left in the region by displaying far more concern about the content matter of a television programme than getting the peace process back on track.

Behind the scenes, the US has been doing some arm-twisting, but the reaction of Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher was to dig in his heels and reaffirm that the series is not, in fact, anti-Semitic, adding that in any case Egypt would not cave in to political pressure especially when it comes to internal affairs.

Followers of the debate held their breath on the day of the first scheduled showing of Horseman without a Horse, to see whether the Egyptian government would back down at the eleventh hour.

In the event, most Egyptians were relieved to see that their government had not been threatened by Washington’s hints at cutting the US$2 billion plus aid awarded to Egypt annually. Sobhi’s series has now evolved into a cause celebre among the Egyptian public, a symbolism of Egyptian nationalism and sovereign independence.

But not all Egyptians and Arabs feel the same way. Magdi el-Hussein, who has researched Neguib’s life, has said that the journalist did not mention either Jews or The Protocols in his diaries upon which the production of Horseman was based. He further urged Safwat el-Sherif to take the series off-air.

A guest on CNN’s Your World Today programme, Mamoun Fandy, a professor of Middle East studies, accused Mohammed Sobhi of being an anti-Semite, adding ominously that Sobhi was a frequent guest of President Saddam Hussein of Iraq. He further blamed the Egyptian director and actor for including The Protocols in his series in an attempt to sensationalise for the purpose of material gain.

It is certainly understandable why Israelis and Jews in the Diaspora are deeply disturbed by any portrayal of the forgery. The 20th century’s most notorious and evil leader Adolph Hitler quoted from The Protocols, in his autobiography Mein Kampf, citing its contents as one of the pretexts for perpetrating the Holocaust.

For Jews, The Protocols epitomise anti-Semitic attitudes, once prevalent in the Soviet Union and Europe, attitudes, which led to Russian pogroms and the death at the hands of the Nazis of six million of their ancestors. However, the recent demonstration by Jewish groups outside the Egyptian Embassy in Washington, and their appeals to Washington to intervene, have only served to defeat their real object–ensuring that The Protocols are consigned to obscurity.

Due to the ensuing diplomatic wrangles between the US and Egypt, the almost forgotten Protocols–which prior to the recent dispute were only accessible to most Westerners on Racist and anti-Semitic websites–are eliciting renewed interest around the world. Arab bookshops cannot keep up with the demand, the Internet talk-boards are buzzing, while the curious are downloading copies from the Web.

Singers and bands are often delighted when their singles and videos are banned by mainstream television and radio as this is a sure fire route to their work topping the charts. Controversy surrounding books too, such as Salman Rushdie’s mediocre Satanic Verses, ensures that authors gain a phenomenal readership.

Israel and Washington, therefore, have shot themselves in their collective feet. At the same time most Arabs view the American government’s interference as yet another attempt to dominate, control and manipulate the Arab world even down to what Arabs should view and think. It also serves to confirm their fears that Israel may be leading Washington by the nose. Arabs and their leaders see little reason to kowtow to Jewish sensitivities during this climate of mutual hatred.

Supporters of the series also bristle at what they call the hypocrisy of the ‘Land of the Free’, which, while ostensibly lauding its own uncensored media, demands that the Egyptian government should peremptorily censor the privately owned network, which produced the series–Dream TV.

It would surely have been more prudent for Jewish groups as well as the Israeli and American governments if they had kept their concerns to themselves. Their official complaints have shone a spotlight onto what would otherwise have passed by unnoticed.

Although some eight million Egyptian pounds were spent on making the series, which boasts some spectacular costumes and sets, the acting in the first three episodes was abysmal with some of the actors behaving like pantomime players. Although it must be said that Sobhi’s thespian skills have yet to figure large, the series is hardly a dramatic production, which would have received global attention on its own merits, especially since it is not subtitled in English.

Given that The Protocols are these days recognised as forgeries by everyone, including Arabs, their depiction,–although admittedly far from being flattering to Jews–should be put into a proper perspective. Mohammed Sobhi has only committed what American and Israeli movie directors and scriptwriters have done since the beginning of cinema, crude stereotyping.

Horseman without a Horse not only shows Jews in a bad light, it does the same with Turks and the British. The Ottoman rulers of Egypt are portrayed as spoilt, selfish and cruel while the British fare little better. We have yet to see Turkish and British protestors outside Egyptian embassies and eliciting backing from the White House.

Perhaps Horseman represents decades of pent up Arab frustration. Arabs know more than anyone what it feels like to be misrepresented, negatively stereotyped and vilified in both Hollywood and Israeli movies as well as on Western television screen. They have been portrayed variously as connivers, liars, thieves and terrorists.

When has an Arab ever been the hero of an American-made film? They are more likely to be shown with a dagger between the teeth, kidnapping Western women to grace their harems, or brandishing a deadly weapon.

If Arab countries had sought to manufacture diplomatic incidents every time their countrymen had been slandered by Western television, East-West relations would have been characterized by a cold war for decades.

In the event that Arabs and Moslems were to mirror Israeli and Jewish reactions to real or perceived slights, then they should also be demonstrating outside US embassies due to the anti-Islamic remarks made by right-wing Christian television preachers Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Fox TV anchors also appear to be making a career out of hurling insults at the Arab world these days, while venerating Israel.

This isn’t the first diplomatic incident, which has been prompted by a television programme. In 1979, Saudi Arabia expelled the British ambassador after the airing of Death of a Princess in Britain. Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister of the day, attempted to prevent the broadcast of the film, but democratic principles took precedence over diplomacy, as, surely, they should in a democracy.

The bottom line is that while Horseman without a Horse will come and go, eventually fading in the memories of its viewers, the divide between the Arab world and Israel is growing.

This is not due to anti-Semitism, religious hatred or racism on the part of Arabs whose forefathers once lived peaceably alongside their Jewish neighbours. The bitterness is caused by events on the ground in Israel. No amount of protests from Tel Aviv and Washington and no amount of censorship can bring a rapprochement between the two sides.

Only justice for the Palestinian people can hope to change the status quo for the better. Horseman without a Horse is a mere inconsequential red herring serving to divert attention from an increasingly ugly reality.

LINDA HEARD is a writer, editor and Arabist, who has lived and worked for most of her life in the Middle East.

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