Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2003, pages 36-37
Egypt’s Ramadan TV Series Controversial At Home as Well as Abroad
By Andrew Hammond
Despite calls fromthe U.S. State Department on Cairo and other Arab governments to ban it for alleged anti-Semitism, a controversial Egyptian TV drama was aired during the peak viewing season of the holy month of Ramadan, which began on Nov. 6. The allegations were based on the series’ reference to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text put together in 1907 by Russian agents to discredit the Czar’s liberal enemies who were allied with Russia’s Jewish community. The book outlines Jewish plans not only to establish a Jewish state in Palestine—as Zionist congresses in Europe already had clearly announced—but to take control of the entire world. Hitler subsequently made use of the text in Nazi propaganda as proof of Jewish designs.
Produced more than a year ago by the Egyptian private satellite channel Dream TV, the program, “Horse Without a Horseman,” initially was given the cold shoulder by Egypt’s state-owned television—possibly because the screenplay mention of the Protocols.Word about its ambitious anti-Zionist plot and lavish costume production created a groundswell of interest in Arab countries, and some 20 Arab stations—including Egyptian state TV—bought the series. Last-minute lobbying by Washington likely was behind Moroccan TV’s decision to shelve the series, even though the station bought it, because, authorities there said, “it does not involve the Moroccan history.”
The series stars Mohammed Sobhi, a respected and intelligent comic actor known for his nationalism (many of his successful plays have a nationalist content).
The story takes place in Egypt following the the British occupation in 1882. Sobhi plays Hafez Naguib, the son of a Turkish noblewoman and an Egyptian fellah. Naguib goes to Paris for his extensive classical education and learns the art of disguise. He also masters a number of languages, including Russian.
Returning to Egypt, Naguib engages in guerrilla operations against the British. Because of his skill at disguises, he cleaverly avoids arrest. Sohbi’s skill as a comic merges with his impersonations of different Arab nationalities and their Arabic dialects, giving the serial pan-Arab appeal.
Naguib’s first encounter with the Protocols occurs in the home of a British official, where he easliy reads the Russian title. When he learns that a group of secretive aging Jews are imploring the British to remove the book from Egypt, he becomes preoccupied with discovering the secret of the Protocols.
The series’ underlying theme is that Zionist plans for Palestine were available in the book and, had the Arabs only read it, they would have been able to effectively prevent the Zionist conquest of Palestine.
According to advance publicity, the 41-episode series ends where it began, with Naguib taken prisoner in 1948, having failed in his effort to mobilize people to end occupation in Palestine after successfully fighting occupation in Egypt.
At this point in the TV series, it is not known if the theme has Europe’s Jews carrying out plans to control the world. After one episode in the series, viewers were invited to win a cash prize by phoning in the answer to the question, “Which Zionist Congress agreed on Palestine as the national home for the Jews—the sixth, seventh or eighth?”
The hullabaloo abroad, however, has inevitably strengthened authorities’ resolve in most Arab countries to show the entire series. Egypt has seen a plethora of press conferences, seminars and TV talk shows to affirm that Egypt is against Zionism, not Judaism. “We reject intellectual terrorism,” series star Sobhi has said in widely-published remarks. “I do not produce artistic works to discuss religion. I know there is a great difference between Zionism as an idea and the Jewish religion.”
Interestingly, the show’s first reference to the Protocols looked suspiciously like it had been added specifically to appease State Department officials monitoring the show from Washington. Sobhi, disguised as a fat curmudgeonly Egyptian Pasha, asks journalists on his newspaper if any of them have heard of a book called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. One replies: “There are people who say it’s nonsense and fabricated.”
In subsequent episodes, a group of grey-bearded Jews from Egypt and Europe gather in rooms full of candles and wood-carved Stars of David to discuss how to keep the book from the Egyptian public “because tens of thousands of Jews have been killed in Russia because of the book.” They also want the Zionist plans for Palestine to be kept secret from the Palestinian nationalist movement. In a later episode, however, Naguib is asked to read the Russian copy by one of the characters who says, “You are [as reader] surprised by the precision and racism with which they plan to control the world?”
The series plot indicates that it is written to confirm the Arab view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with Zionists threatening British officials to force them to surrender all copies of the Protocols; the Egyptian government referred to as incompetent and unaware of the dangers, and people as not politically conscious. Despite being in control, foreigners are protrayed as having less values and depth, and finding what they lack in Egyptian culture. (For example, Naguib refuses to succumb to the desires of a senior British official’s wife because “my morals won’t allow me to betray a respectable man.”) Each episode ends with the coda, “He who resists occupation is not a terrorist.”
Despite the anti-Washington sentiment and support for Sobhi the series has generated, critics say that including the Protocols in the theme was quite unnecessary. Egypt’s state-owned literary weekly, Akhbar al-Adab, on Nov. 10 politely implied that the reference to the Protocols was a big mistake. Critic Qadry Hanafy told the paper: “Talking about the Protocols puts us in the dangerous position of saying that when they [Israelis] commit massacres [against Palestinians today] they are implementing what’s in the Jewish holy book, and that’s not true. Even those who think they’re true, I ask them: do we need this? Aren’t Sharon and Mofaz enough?”
Columnist Mark Sayegh was scathing about the series in the London-based pan-Arab daily al-Hayat. “Historical fact doesn’t concern some of the Arab and Egyptian elite. Instead of, for example, demanding that their governments abrogate the peace treaty with Israel, some of Cairo’s artistes resort to the sort of drumbeating, microphones and media stupidity that just makes the situation of the Palestinians worse,” he wrote. “The star of the series, Mohammed Sobhi, rushed to claim that ”˜the dramatic treatment of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is artistic.’—but about as artistic as the ”˜I hate Israel’ Symphony by the Ludwig Shaaban,” Sayegh charged, referring to Egyptian working class crooner Shaaban Abdel-Rahim’s 2001 hit song “I hate Israel.” “Enough, Egypt. Enough,” Sayegh added.
Historian Younan Labib Rizk told the major Egyptian weekly magazine al-Mussawar that the series distorts history and presents Egypt as concerned with Zionism in the early 20th century, when Egyptian concerns were purely to end the British occupation. One Egyptian writer, Mamdouh al-Sheikh, has told papers that, in fact, Hafez Naguib’s own memoirs show he was no nationalist, but an opportunist who was drafted into French intelligence services in Europe because of his excellent French, then employed by the French army in Algeria to repress the locals because he spoke Arabic. “His memoirs don’t say anything about a struggle against Zionism,” Sheikh told al-Hayat.
To nationalists, however, that only affirms the point of the series that has an unabashed Nasserite reading of history: the mix of fact with fiction is meant to demonstrate what happens to the Arab nation when Arabs aren’t aware of what’s going on in the world and that foreign powers are plotting against them.
Andrew Hammond is a free-lance journalist based in Cairo.