7 - 13 November 2002
Issue No. 611
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

Protocols, politics and Palestine

Amira Howeidy reports on the furore surrounding a Dream-produced TV series alleged to contain anti-Semitic material

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Mohamed Sobhi
The Bush administration, Israel and the Jewish lobby in the US are unknowingly doing Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhi a huge favour. Their outrage over his TV series, Fares Bela Gawwad (Horseman Without a Horse) -- which began broadcasting in Egypt and several Arab countries on the first day of Ramadan yesterday -- has probably resulted in the best propaganda for any series in the history of Arab TV. In fact, both the TV series and the political-diplomatic saga surrounding it are the perfect sensationalist ingredients needed to upgrade a local TV production to Hollywood-blockbuster-level hype.

Produced by the privately-owned Egyptian satellite channel Dream TV, the series cost LE9 million (approximately $1.8 million) to make. According to official statements, Horseman Without a Horse will be broadcast on 17 Arab channels.

For over a year now, Sobhi and the producers of Horseman Without a Horse have been making press statements about how the series "deals with" or "refers to" The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The Protocols, a work published in Russia in the early 20th century -- claiming to be the minutes of a series of secret meetings held in Switzerland in 1897 with the aim of devising a Jewish strategy to control the world -- had been widely contested and is believed to be a hoax disseminated by the Czar's intelligence to stir anti- Jewish sentiments in Russia.

In a letter to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a US-based Jewish advocacy group, branded the Egyptian series as the "latest manifestation of an ongoing pattern of anti-Semitic incitement in the Egyptian media". The New York Times, meanwhile, suggested the series proved that The Protocols appear to be "gaining a new foothold in parts of the Arab world".

The issue became so incendiary that a state of frenzy dominated Egyptian-American-Israeli diplomatic relations -- which consequently resonated in local political circles. Sobhi and his series suddenly topped the agenda of Egyptian and American state officials as furious Jewish groups, along with the Israeli and American press, put pressure on the US State Department to stop Egypt from broadcasting this "anti-Semitic" series.

Egypt's Information Minister Safwat El-Sherif, however, announced that state-owned Egyptian TV will in fact broadcast the series "as it contains no anti-Semitic material", adding that it was state policy to respect all monotheistic religions. Egyptian TV President Hassan Hamed emphasised that "we don't take orders from any one", describing the series as "a turning point in the history of Arab drama".

As the anti-Horseman Without a Horse campaign continued to grow, so did support for Sobhi and the series under attack. On Saturday 2 November, the daily Al-Ahram published an official editorial on the campaign, arguing that Israel and Zionist groups in the US continue to "create an exaggerated debate whenever anyone, not only in Egypt and the Arab world, but across the globe, attempts -- through research and analysis -- to tackle certain political views or pose a vision that might run contrary to the official Israeli and Zionist position". It would be better if these Jewish groups, said the editorial, paid a little attention to the rights of the Palestinians, which are violated on a daily basis by the continuous aggression of the Israeli occupation army "instead of hounding a man of thought and creativity."

Al-Akhbar's editor described the campaign as "a barbaric attack on Egyptian and Arab art". Overnight, Sobhi (who recently returned from Iraq after presenting Iraqi president Saddam Hussein a copy of the series as a gift) seemed to symbolise Arab resistance to Zionist-American pressure. It was inevitable, then, that the entire debate would intersect with the region's contemporary politics vis--vis the Arab- Israeli conflict and the Bush administration's planned war on Iraq. Even before it was broadcast, his series took on the aura of an epic-like history of a nation suffering from decades of colonialisation and grand manipulative schemes.

On Monday, some 200 intellectuals, actors and artists held a solidarity conference with Sobhi which denounced "America's insistence on practicing neo-McCarthyism", and demanded an end to the daily aggression against the Palestinian people.

"Are these protocols a monotheistic religion? Are they sacred texts? No they're not and the series is not based on The Protocols. Nor do we address the authenticity of The Protocols, so what's the big deal?" a furious Sobhi told Al- Ahram Weekly. "In fact, The Protocols are silly and insignificant. We're not discussing their history, nor do we care about their history. So I really don't owe anybody anything."

The 41-episode series is based on the memoirs of Hafez Naguib, an Egyptian journalist active in the Arab national struggle between mid-19th century till 1917 when the Balfour Declaration -- which promised a homeland for the Jews in Palestine -- was made. The series, say its makers, covers an important historical chapter in Arab history which includes the Ottoman Empire, the British occupation of Egypt and the Zionist occupation of Palestine, among other events.

Respected historians like Abdel-Wahab El- Messeri, author of the magnum opus Jews, Judaism and Zionism, an eight-part encyclopaedia, believe The Protocols are probably fake. El-Messeri has written that referring to, or using, The Protocols in an attempt to combat the Zionist media "is unethical since it cannot be validated by any historical research, Arab or otherwise".

Some are wondering if the series will further fuel Arab public opinion, which has expressed its frustration with the US, Israel and the silence of Arab governments over the past two years by staging numerous anti-American and anti-Israeli demonstrations. When asked by the Weekly if he thought Fares would have this sort of effect, Sobhi snapped: "So am I supposed to present a drama that makes the Arab nation absent-minded, and call it 'I love Israel?'"

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Sobhi said, "has already served the Palestinian cause by teaching our children how to hate Israel. This is why today, we see tens of thousands of students demonstrating against Israel after some had forgotten -- ever since the [Egyptian-Israeli] peace treaty [was signed] -- who the enemy is."

Critics, however, believe that the series is doing more harm than good. Salah Eissa, editor of the weekly Al-Qahira newspaper, believes that Horseman Without a Horse "is just a TV series at the end of the day". The fact that it refers to, or partially deals with, The Protocols "is a stupid mistake", Eissa told the Weekly. "This work is yet another commercial attempt to greedily invest in our national issues, a phenomenon we've seen in many superficial movies or series where a scene of the Israeli flag being burnt suddenly appears, imposed [by the producers] in order to provoke the audience into a frenzy of exaggerated applause." This is also clearly manifested, explained Eissa, in the bizarre popularity of Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, who "became a national hero" just because he sang "I hate Israel".

Eissa's criticism of the series expanded into what he referred to as "state manipulation" of the debate. "By allegedly refusing to succumb to American-Israeli pressure, the government looks better and we are left to believe that we have achieved a victory of sorts." In other words, Eissa said, the series "absorbs" a lot of the anger in the Egyptian and Arab street "and serves as a harmless venting channel. Observing Muslims will watch it after iftar and think they are resisting Zionism by doing so."

Palestine, Iraq or the fate of the Arab nation are national liberation issues, argued Eissa, that should be dealt with far more seriously. "If consciousness is to be raised, that endeavour must be based on truth. And this isn't something Arab regimes like to do."

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