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Co-Editor Walter Armbrust puts anti-Americanism in Egyptian comedy in historical and comparative perspective, arguing that current U.S. public diplomacy efforts can do little to change prevailing anti-American sentiments. (Features Video)

Bravely Stating the Obvious: Egyptian humor and the anti-American consensus

October, 2007.  Over slightly more than the past decade a number of mass mediated Egyptian comedies have depicted and criticized the United States.  American

journalists report on these productions with regularity, usually labeling them as straightforward manifestations of anti-Americanism, and often conflating anti-American, anti-Israeli, and anti-Semitic speech of all types.[i]  Many of these reports argue that anti-Americanism is unrelated to American and Israeli actions, and is actually caused by mass media, or at least inflamed by it to the point that whatever actual objections Egyptians may have to American policies are irrelevant. [ii] This argument is particularly salient in American neoconservative publications over the past decade.  American neoconservatism has in turn become closely allied with Zionist—particularly Likudist—political positions.[iii]  Neoconservative/Zionist organizations actively seek to shape American perceptions of undifferentiated anti-Americanism in Middle Eastern media through well-funded media monitoring operations such as the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).[iv] 

A few years ago Egyptian media portrayals of the United States were a topic of great interest for many Americans and Europeans, or at least I thought so because I was often asked to comment on it.  More recently requests for information or analysis on the topic of anti-Americanism in Egyptian media seem to have subsided.  There are a number of possible reasons for this.  One of these is that attributions of anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in Egyptian media have become so normative for Americans that the issue has simply receded into the background as a form of received wisdom.  In other words, the neoconservative/Zionist narrative of state-controlled media instilling anti-Americanism is so dominant that nobody thinks to question it.  Hence it no longer qualifies as a "story" for journalists or political scientists.  Another possibility is that perhaps the Iraq war has simply displaced all other issues raised by American relations with countries of the Middle East.  Perhaps the question of "what do Egyptians (and Arabs) make of the United States" no longer seems pressing due to the intensity of American engagement in Iraq.[v]

However, it is often the case that how things are discussed is more interesting than the thing itself.  In this case the thing is there for all to see: a negative discourse on America in Egyptian mass media.  Does it necessarily follow that the discourse on America is completely un-nuanced, or that censorship invalidates links between popular culture and public opinion about American policies in the Middle East?  In this article I will examine some instances of discourse on the United States, focusing largely on comedy, though I will contrast humorous formulations of opinion on the U.S. with other forms of expression. I wish to make four points:

1.  Even if all mediated discourse on the United States is critical, there is nonetheless nuance and variation in the way the United States is portrayed. 

2.  The fact that some representations of the United States do cross lines of civility that are not condoned in American mass media should not oblige us to accept the notion that there is no link between public opinion about American policy and mass mediated representations of America.

3.  A historical view of Egyptian representations of the United States does suggest that the root of negative portrayals of America is American Middle Eastern policies.

4. Egyptian mass mediated representations of the United States ought to be taken into account in American discussions of so-called "public diplomacy."  

I will elaborate these points first through an examination of "the scary stuff"—not comedy, but instances of mass mediated imagery that are straightforwardly propagandistic, and which encourage violent opposition to the United States.  These are a crucial part of the context for the popular culture productions that are my main focus here.  In the second part of my paper I will turn to more normative images of the United States constructed through comedy—specifically the political humor of singer Sha'ban 'Abd al-Rahim.  I suggest that Sha'ban and a subgenre of anti-American films are better understood as a reflection of an already-existing political consensus rather than as a means of persuading audiences to become anti-American.  I then turn to an examination of some earlier caricature images of the United States in Egyptian print media.  These are valuable windows on how negative imagery of the United States began in Egyptian popular culture.  In my conclusion I will turn to how this discourse contrasts with American efforts to counter it through "public diplomacy."

It is difficult to reconcile these images with the notion often bruited in neoconservative and Zionist analyses of Egyptian media that anti-Americanism or anti-Israelism are unrelated to opinions about politics, and can therefore be dismissed as nothing more than a product of state control of media or irrational hatred. Hatred is deplorable and counterproductive for all people who wish to live peacefully, and this includes the vast majority of Egyptians.  But the counterproductive nature of even the most propagandistic discourses should not exempt them from analysis.  The tendency to equate all criticisms of America and Israel to blind hatred is itself a form of propaganda.  A discourse expressed offensively may nonetheless contain nuances that should be taken into account. 

The scary stuff

A prominent recent example of the purely propagandistic end of the spectrum of commentary on the United States is al-Zaura`.  Al-Zaura` was[vi] an Iraqi satellite

television channel, so it does not, strictly speaking, qualify as an Egyptian mass-mediated production.  It was, however, broadcast on satellite television to the Egyptian market.  The station's somewhat surprising career was widely reported in Western news media,[vii] hence it makes a good starting point in a review of how Egyptian media commentary on the U.S. filters into American and European discourses about the Middle East.  The station was owned

by Mish'an al-Juburi, head of the Sunni Arab Front for Reconciliation and Liberation, which won three seats in the Iraqi parliament.  Its content became markedly more aggressive toward the United States and Iraqi Shi'is after the pronouncement of a death sentence on Saddam Husayn last November.  Al-Zaura`'s terrestrial operations were shut down in Iraq, but it managed to continue broadcasting via satellite, at least until recently.  Since al-Zaura` has been the subject of so much commentary, a few images will suffice to convey a sense of its content.

In terms of content al-Zaura` is almost identical to the video footage disseminated on

many jihadist/insurgent websites.  The closest it comes to humor is its employment of an image of Anthony Quinn playing the Libyan resistance leader Omar Mukhtar in the Mustafa Akkad film Lion of the Desert.  As most reports on the station have emphasized, al-Zaura`'s significance lies in its availability.  Internet sites from which jihadist propaganda can be downloaded are numerous, but not easy for novices to find.  In the context of Egypt, many internet users do not have access to the sort of bandwidth required to stream or download audiovisual content.[viii]  What sparked widespread commentary on al-Zaura` was that it was broadcast not just on satellite television, but on Nilesat,

which is a state-owned Egyptian company.  Nilesat broadcasts to the entire Middle East, and al-Zaura` was a free-to-air channel, which means anyone able to afford the most basic satellite package could watch it.  An entry-level satellite receiver, dish, and installation cost around 60 British pounds—less than the cost of a television.[ix]  It was perhaps inevitable that al-Zaura` would cause alarm in official circles.[x]  The U.S. pressured the Egyptian government to take the station off the air, but the Egyptians blandly refused, saying that broadcasting the station was purely a business decision. 


Similarly aggressive propaganda is produced locally in Egypt and accessible to those

with no expertise in computers.  Consider, for example, coverage of the notoriously bungled Saddam Husayn execution in the weekly al-Usbu'.  The entire back page of the issue (Figure 6) published the week after the execution featured a photo of Saddam, Quran in hand, on his way to the gallows. [xi]  Al-Usbu' is a weekly tabloid sold in hard copy and available by internet.[xii]  In its "about" page on the internet the paper says that it "follows an independent path, though it can be described as essentially 'nationalist'."[xiii]  "Arab nationalist" rather than strictly Egyptian nationalist would be closer to the mark, as al-Usbu's Saddam obituary shows.  The publishers of the paper are brothers Mustafa and Mahmud Bakri,

who have served prison sentences on libel charges.[xiv]  Mustafa Bakri was elected as an independent Minister of Parliament in the 2005 elections, and has been in the news (both locally and globally) for leading a campaign to censor the blockbuster film 'Imarat Ya'qubian[xv] on grounds that a third of the film contained "scenes of homosexuality … that promote this corrupt practice as if it occurred in Egypt."[xvi]  Bakri's parliamentary campaign was ultimately unsuccessful.[xvii] 

In al-Usbu's obituary issue for Saddam (Figure 7) the back page image of the recently executed Iraqi leader was accompanied by a Quranic verse affirming Saddam's

putative status as a martyr: "Think not of those who are slain in God's way as dead.  Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord."[xviii]  The passage is from Surat al-'Imran, and from a section of the chapter that refers specifically to the Battle of Uhud, which was a Muslim defeat in the early days of Islam.  Specifically, as one Quran commentary put it, "The misfortunes at Uhud are shown to be due to the indiscipline of some, the indecision and selfishness of others, and cowardice of the Hypocrites" (Yusuf Ali).[xix]  Uhud was a pre-Shi'ism battle (i.e. before Muhammad's death, after which the choice of a successor to lead the Muslim community precipitated a socio-political split) in which Ali fought with the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad.[xx]  Hence al-Usbu's citation of the verse raises the specter of treachery without specifically calling out the Shi'ites.  But the appeal to Sunni (and for many, "Islamist") sentiment is clear. 

The main article on the front page of this issue (Figure 8) gives the reader a thoroughly unambiguous exclamation point to the lurid back page: a headline screaming "Who Deserves to be Executed?"   The text glorifies Saddam: "The scene was provocative.

Men with their faces wrapped, howling dogs, pushing the president to the gallows.  This was Saddam: the symbol, the hero, the fighter."  Bakri goes on to extol Saddam's steadfastness and faith, and claims that the same "magic" shone from his eyes as from "the eternal leader" Gamal Abd al-Nasir.  The article includes prominent photos of Bush and Nuri al-Maliki, the guiltiest of the guilty in Bakri's

view.   The "crime" of executing Saddam was committed by the Americans, the Zionists, the "Persians" (presumably Iraqi Shi'is), and the Zoroastrians (Iranians).[xxi]  The guilty parties are so numerous that any reader who wants to know who really deserves to be executed in Bakri's calculus must "do the math" almost literally.  (Figure 9)


Together, Bakri's Arab nationalist al-Usbu' and the jihadist al-Zaura` are sufficient illustration of the unadulterated propaganda available to Egyptian and Arab audiences.  They should come as no surprise to Europeans and Americans, given that this sort of discourse in the Arab press has been quite well covered.  It is nonetheless important to remember that while this kind of material is quite accessible in Egypt, we nonetheless know very little about how attractive it is to consumers.  Al-Zaura` was broadcast free-to-air, but so are approximately one hundred other channels, [xxii] many of which feature content nominally abominable to the sensibilities of jihadists. I say "nominally" because we do not know for a fact that substantial numbers of viewers did not mix cursory inspection of al-Zaura` with browsing of the many highly commercialized channels promoting materialism.  If a "jihadist" is anyone who has watched al-Zaura`, then many jihadists may also have been watching music video sensation Haifa Wahbi's latest hits.  If one counts only those truly inspired by al-Zaura`'s insurgent videos, then we must surely ask, "who are they?"  We do not know that a few minutes or hours of watching jihad produces a mujahid any more than a similar time watching advertisements for "American" products makes a viewer sympathetic to America.  Or to put it still another way, why should exposure to high levels of televised violence in America produce "peaceful" Americans (as many Americans see themselves), while exposure to high levels of televised violence in Egypt produces "violent" Egyptians (as many American critics of Arab media would have it).  All we really have is the televised texts; we have no information about how Egyptian audiences read them.  The station's presentation of insurgent attacks on the United States was repetitive and often crude.  No doubt the provocation of broadcasting such images openly was perceived by many.  The actual use made of the images themselves is a different matter.  We know little beyond the existence of the broadcasts.

The same dynamic pertains to al-Usbu'.  Its imagery is indeed aggressive toward America and Israel—often to the point of sensationalism, and offensiveness to Jews and Israelis.  But this has little to do with the question of whether its lack of civility is normative for the entire Egyptian press.  Al-Usbu' is a weekly paper rarely mentioned in estimates of press circulation.  It surely carries less weight in shaping public opinion than other papers, particularly the independent al-Masri al-Yaum,[xxiii] which covered the Saddam in a comparatively bland style.  The al-Masri al-Yaum headline was "America Presents Saddam as a 'Sacrifice' to the Civil War in Iraq; Global Division about the Execution … Muslims Consider it a Provocation and a New Insult on the First Days of the 'Id."[xxiv]  Al-Masri al-Yaum also took a low-key approach to Mustafa Bakri's campaign against 'Imarat Yaqubian, reporting the failure of Bakri's initiative straightforwardly, and perhaps somewhat slyly running a brief article in which the director of the film claimed that the controversy caused by al-Bakri only served to draw more curious viewers, thereby increasing the film's profits.[xxv]

If al-Zaura` and al-Usbu' are in fact the extreme end of a political perspective rather than examples of normative political views, then from the perspective of those Americans and Israelis who make it their business to care about what Egyptians watch and read, the "scary stuff" ought to beg a fairly obvious question: what constitutes a normative view of the United States and Israel?  As we will see (and as most readers will probably expect), normative representations of the U.S. and Israel in Egyptian popular comedy are negative.  This does not mean that they are identical with the more extreme representations of al-Zaura` and al-Usbu'. 

Sha'ban's anti-American video clip

Sha'ban Abd al-Rahim has been a star (a dark star to his detractors) in Egyptian-American and Egyptian-Israeli relations since 2001. He began his adult life not as a singer, but as a makwagi, a man who irons shirts and trousers.  And not just any makwagi.  Sha'ban was meant to have been a makwagi rigl—a makwagi who operates the iron with his foot—a very humble and arduous occupation.  In the 1990s when he was not ironing trousers Sha'ban moonlighted as a singer.  He joined forces with lyricist Islam Khalil and recorded "Ana Bakrah Isra`il" (I Hate Israel) in 2001, and since then has produced a string of songs commenting on politics, particularly the actions and policies of Israel and the United States vis a vis Palestine and Iraq, the Danish cartoon incident, and the execution of Saddam Husayn.  His persona as a performer and a public figure is rooted in the contrast between his well-publicized humble origins and his current prominence as a playful political commentator.  Sha'ban has been well covered by both journalists and academics.[xxvi]  For readers unfamiliar with him a subtitled version of one of his songs "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi" (literally "Uncle Arab," but in the sense of "hey Mr. Arab," addressed to Arab leaders) is here: [Video 1: "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi"] [xxvii]

Click here for a transcription of the Arabic text.

Given the scrutiny applied to Egyptian media discourse that touches on the U.S. and Israel, it was inevitable that Sha'ban's rise to prominence in Egyptian popular culture should draw some commentary, both within Egypt and from abroad.  Sha'ban's songs often include some criticism of Arab leaders.  "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi" is perhaps the most prominent example. Even before "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi" there was some discussion on whether Sha'ban's performances should be thought of as oppositional, or alternatively, as a kind of safety valve that offers pseudo politics in lieu of meaningful engagement in local issues.  This line of thinking raises suspicion (given much credence in American press coverage of all anti-American discourse) that official disregard of Sha'ban's songs was part a government tactic: allow criticism of Americans and Israelis and thereby deflect attention from Egyptian leaders. Sha'ban's criticism of Arab leaders in his songs just gave him a kind of plausible deniability. "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi" does indeed put its criticism of Arabs symbolically—no names named, no need for any specific political figure to object. [xxviii]

Aside from such interpretations of official political strategy, from abroad the important issue always was the content, specifically Sha'ban's rough treatment of Israel, which was swiftly branded as anti-Semitism.[xxix] The Egyptian government certainly does tolerate the publication and broadcast—in both public-sector and private media—of various types of discourse that vilify Israel and sometimes Jews.  As previously noted, such vilification is often packaged with condemnation of the U.S..  In Sha'ban's case, however, one must ask whether some of the inflammatory speech coming from Egypt is actually generated by the expected reaction from Israel and the U.S. If the U.S. says "you can't say you hate Israel," then Sha'ban answers, "Oh yes I can."[xxx]  "Bakrah Isra`il" was the result.  There is no question that his breakthrough song is anti-Semitic in American terms.  Those terms, however, are formed in the context of a Jewish minority in a largely Christian nation, with overtones of the disastrous experience of Jews in Europe.  By contrast, Sha'ban's terms of reference in "Bakrah Israil," were formulated in the context of nation-states. [xxxi]  Nation-states have leaders, and of course they are conventionally taken as symbols of the nations they represent.  Sha'ban rudely declares his hatred for a number of national leaders in the song, including Ariel Sharon, Shimon Peres, and Ehud Barak. [Click here for the lyrics of "Bakrah Isra`il" in Arabic] [xxxii] He praises Egyptian leaders Husni Mubarak and 'Amr Musa, though perhaps with tongue in cheek.  The song was released just after the outbreak of the "al-Aqsa Intifada," and consequently mentions Muhammad al-Durra, a Palestinian child shot in a gun battle between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian Authority police units.  The video of the shooting released to the world by the television network France 2 attributed the shooting to Israelis, and al-Durra became a cause célèbre in the Arab world.[xxxiii]  Another line explains that the singer hates Israel because of South Lebanon (i.e. the Israeli occupation of South Lebanon from 1982 to 2000), Syria, Iraq, and the Golan.  Finally, while the song's praise of Husni Mubarak and Amr Musa may or may not have been intended as a left-handed compliment, the song also contains straightforwardly nationalist commentary on Egypt's own wars with Israel: "I hate Israel," sings Sha'ban, "ask the blood of the martyr; and that of those who crossed [the Suez Canal] in glorious October."

One can safely surmise that Sha'ban's breakthrough song was offensive to Israelis.  It did stop short of explicitly conflating Israel and Jews, and contained enough nationalist content to qualify as political speech albeit of an inflammatory type.  Nonetheless a song that begins with the words "I Hate" begs to be labeled as hate speech, even if part of the song's success may have been built on a perception of Sha'ban throwing American and Israeli attempts to monitor and control speech in Egypt back in their faces.  His later videos, including "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi," were cut from the same cloth.  In the case of "Ya 'Amm 'Arabi," for outside observers the song steps over the line when it claims that the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in 2001 was the work of Ariel Sharon.  Claims that the 9/11 bombings were the work of a conspiracy masterminded by Israeli and/or American leaders are common in the U.S. as well,[xxxiv] but such claims would not often be described as mainstream culture.  Indeed, many Egyptians in fact do reject Sha'ban as a mainstream performer, or as someone even worthy of attention.[xxxv]  Sha'ban can nonetheless plausibly make claims to mainstream status, or at least to demonstrable popularity. His prominence in mass media as a performer and advertising icon is one obvious manifestation of his claim to the mainstream, but aside from that, Sha'ban has also become a kind of commercial folk figure.  During Ramadan Egyptians have a custom of carrying fawanis (sg. fanus)—lanterns—through the streets during the festive nights.  During recent years some of these lanterns have been made in China in all sorts of fanciful plastic shapes.  For several years (roughly 2002 to 2005) a widely sold fanus model was

made in the shape of Sha'bula—Sha'ban 'Abd al-Rahim's nickname. (Figure 10)  The fanus looks like a fat Bruce Lee doll, but it lights up and plays recorded music.  The slightly corpse-like pallor of the un-lit Sha'bula looks a bit more lifelike with the light on.  As for the music, the model I purchased has two sound tracks.  One is a Ramadan song.  The other is Sha'ban's signature song, "Ana Bakrah Isra'il." [Video 2: Sha‘ban fanus plays a Ramadan Song] [ Video 3: Sha‘ban fanus plays"Ana Bakrah Isra'il"] In Ramadan of 2006 (1427 AH) the Sha'bula fanus suddenly disappeared from the market as suddenly as it had appeared. 

One point that should be emphasized about Sha'ban is that discussion of the nature of his political expression is misplaced.  He is portrayed in terms of furious accusations of anti-Semitism on one side, and a coy game of brinksmanship with the state on the other.  Both accusations have a grain of truth.  Sha'ban is skilled at walking a thin line between the Egyptian authorities on one side, and Americans and Israelis on the other.  But this may be nothing more in the end than a line between "street credibility" and commercialism—there may be less at stake in the phenomenon of Sha'ban's popularity than meets the eye.  At the same time, Sha'ban is also deliberately provocative, and indeed, offensive to Americans and Israelis.  And yet there is little to be gained from pretending that Sha'ban's provocations belong in the same category as burning a synagogue or claiming that Jews drink the blood of Christian babies.  Conflating Sha'ban and well-known Western forms of anti-Semitism is a distortion.  One must acknowledge the possibility that his provocations are generated by the reaction abroad—in other words he says what he says precisely because he knows he is being watched.  The watchers themselves may also understand this dynamic and encourage it, thereby creating the object that justifies their activities.  

Another point about Sha'ban that is worth making is that his opinions may be aggressive, but they are not intended to be taken as "objective," as one might take a newspaper such as al-Usbu' or a "reality" video such as those broadcast by al-Zaura`.  Even the Sha'bula fanus, marketed so depressingly to children, deserves to be understood in a more detailed context.  If we are to read the "Sha'bula" fanus as a straightforward symptom of anti-Semitism, than should we not read other fawanis as symptoms of cultural leanings?  Further down the street from the vendor who sold me my Sha'bula fanus I purchased a singing Mickey Mouse fanus [Video 4: Mickey Mouse fanus plays a Ramadan song] Does the Disney mouse singing a Ramadan anthem make Egyptians pro-American?   

As for Sha'ban's criticisms of the Egyptian government, I doubt he is playing the brinksman, risking official wrath at his having insulted a political patron.  On the contrary, what Sha'ban does is not particularly controversial in Egypt.  He provides an entertaining statement of a normative view.  The normative view is not just that Egyptians disapprove of Israel.  This is a given in a country that fought huge disruptive wars with Israel as recently as 1973, and which then felt a mixture of pride in its own achievement on the battlefield and displeasure at Israel's ongoing occupation of Lebanon from 1982 to 2000, and domination of the West Bank and Gaza Strip until today. To put it differently, Egypt's historical experience of facing an American-supported Israeli nation-state on the battlefield shapes its contemporary attitudes toward the U.S. and Israel very differently than the American and European experience of grappling with anti-Semitism directed against an ethnic minority.  To make such a distinction between the historical contexts of the societies involved (principally Egypt, the United States, Europe to some extent, and Israel) should be elementary.  The failure to do so by so many American and Israeli observers should be regarded charitably as an egregious error.  A less charitable view would be to dismiss neoconservative American and Zionist opinions about Egyptian media as patently disingenuous.  Like al-Usbu' and al-Zaura`, the various organizations, think tanks, journalists and blogs that monitor anti-Americanism and anti-Israelism work in putatively "objective" genres.  Sha'ban does not.

We need a way to think about Sha'ban—or really about the sort of cultural phenomena that he typifies—without falling into the trap of either taking his rhetoric too seriously or, alternatively, dismissing him as a clown or a pawn of a cynical government.  My suggestion is that Sha'ban should be though of as a key performer in what one might call a "Politicsploitation" genre.  This is my own neologism, patterned on "Blaxploitation" films.  These, in turn, were a subgenre of "exploitation" films—cheap films that functioned through sensationalism, by appealing to the public's more prurient interests, such as sex, violence, drug abuse, nudity etc. Exploitation films were American products, played a drive-ins and other cheap theatres, predominantly in the 1960s.  "Blaxploitation" came later—the 1970s—and gained a bit more critical respectability.[xxxvi]  In many respects they were conventional exploitation films, with the key difference that they featured all-Black casts (though not necessarily Black directors).  Blaxploitation films took White stereotypes of Blacks and essentially reversed the polarity on them.  Pimps, or gangsters or criminals became the heroes.[xxxvii]  Such films have been condemned as racist, but also grudgingly praised for expanding the variety of roles that Black actors could play.  I think that Blaxploitation cinema is a good analogy for thinking about much Egyptian popular culture that comments on the United States and Israel—popular culture that includes films certainly, but also Sha'ban's songs and videos.  Politicsploitation functions through crude national stereotypes, but is predicated on reversing their usual forms of representation. Sha'ban came into his own in the Politicsploitation genre when he started appearing in video clips.  The stereotype he contravened was the entire genre of the video clip, which was initially modeled on American MTV.  Most discussion of video clips in Egyptian and Arab print media is relentlessly critical precisely on the grounds that the genre is too derivative of its Western counterpart.  Sha'ban was among the first to localize the genre in a way that nobody could miss.[xxxviii]  His video clips were both humorous and political.  But crucially, Politicsploitation, like Blaxploitation, does not mean to discuss or argue.  The point rather is to make the audience feel good about itself.  The White hero becomes the White villain in Blaxploitation; American moral posturing becomes American hypocrisy in Politicsploitation.  Who is really in the right is irrelevant because everyone who watches them knows who is right.  Sha'ban, by this logic, does not try to convince anyone of anything.  Instead he reflects a consensus back to his audience.  The self-appointed anti-American police (and Zionist anti-Semitism/anti-Israelism police) disingenuously counsel vigilance against a spreading hate virus.  But Sha'ban and other Politicsploitation productions are not spreading a virus.  On the contrary, they reflect a consensus.  The question that these productions should pose is "what is the origin of this consensus"?  To locate the origin in media discourse is implausible.  For Politicsploitation to exist, it must already be there.

Politicsploitation in cinema

Politicsploitation is also a subgenre in Egyptian cinema.  In this case the stereotypes in question are Hollywood stereotypes.  Where Hollywood films portray Arabs as backward or violent, "politicsploitation" films portray Arabs as consistently sympathetic characters who interact with arrogant, corrupt, or sometimes evil Americans and Israelis.  There are a fair number of these films, dating from the mid-1990s until roughly the mid-2000s. [xxxix]  They have never come close to being a majority of the films produced in Egypt in any given year, but like all portrayals of America and Israel, they receive ample attention from foreign observers.

In the past few years films have begun to address the American invasion of Iraq as well.  One of these was called Ma'alesh, Ihna Binitbadil, a film made in 2006, which the filmmakers translated as "Excuse us, we're being humiliated."  Or it might have been better to call it "Don't mind us, we're a mess."  Ma'alesh is not actually the best example of "Politicsploitation" in Egyptian cinema.  It is more farcical than most films that deal with America, and as far as I know, received no attention in the Western press or from the various organizations that monitor anti-Americanism.  One might call it a "post-Politicsploitation" film. Indeed, it may be that "Politicsploitation" or any similar attempt to adapt "exploitation" to socially ambitious ends is inevitably short-lived.  A role reversal—essentially changing the white hats to black and vice versa—creates a novelty that is marketable but hard to sustain.  Blaxsploitation was a brief phenomenon.  The same may be true of Politicsploitation.  As readers will see, Ma'alesh Ihna Binitbahdil eschews the basic role reversal that made Politicsploitation a marketable novelty.  The film makes at least a light-hearted nod to the notion that not all Americans are bad, and suggests that it is in fact bad American leaders who are a problem.  Its use of national stereotypes is farcical rather than strident. Saddam Husayn is represented in the film, but not made out to be a hero.  Nor was the film a commercial success, probably above all because it lacked any marketable star.[xl]  But Ma'alesh Ihna Binitbahdil is nonetheless a revealing example of how the U.S. is treated in popular culture.  Despite anxieties in some quarters about ugly portrayals in Egyptian media of Americans, Jews, and Israelis, the film in fact focuses on American policy toward Israel and Palestine, and toward Iraq, as the basic problem with America.  It assiduously avoids anything that might be labeled "hate speech." 

Ma'alesh Ihna Binitbahdil begins in the Qarmuti Café, which is a tourist venue in Nazlat al-Saman, the village at the base of the Great Pyramids in Giza.  One day a young American man gets outraged at his exorbitant bill and starts a quarrel with one of Qarmuti's employees.  Qarmuti tries to put an end to the fight by pretending to call George Bush at the White House.  At precisely this moment, the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center comes on the television.  Everyone, Egyptian and American alike, is aghast. [Video 5: Qarmuti calls the White House on 9/11]  The sympathy generated by the shocking terrorist attack actually causes Qarmuti and the quarrelsome American to make up and become friends.  Qarmuti wants the American to send him an invitation to visit him in America—with the invitation he can supposedly get a visa.[xli]  But when the American merely sends him a postcard with no invitation Qarmuti gives in to "anti-American" sentiments.  He puts a "no Americans allowed" sign on the front of his café.  Consequently the CIA starts watching him.  Later Qarmuti hatches a scheme to ship a load of mangoes to Iraq.  He sends his son on this mission, but the boy falls afoul of the regime and ends up in an Iraqi prison.  Qarmuti goes to Iraq to try to find his son, and arrives on the eve of the American invasion.  After accidentally falling into Saddam Husayn's bunker while trying to elude the marauding Americans, Qarmuti ends up being captured.  The Americans, having had Qarmuti under surveillance since he put up the "no Americans" sign in his café, assume the café owner is a terrorist.  His load of mangoes metamorphoses in the American mind into a truckload of weapons of mass destruction.  Then the real fun starts.  George Bush himself gets into the act.[xlii]  The Americans want to use a taped confession by Qarmuti as propaganda in their "war on terror."  Bush himself directs the "film," literally putting the words in Qarmuti's mouth.  When Qarmuti garbles his lines, Bush has a temper tantrum and demands that his mango-smuggling captive give the scene "a more terroristic feeling." [Video 6: Qarmuti records a confession]  In the end Qarmuti refuses to go along with Bush's charade.  When brought out to speak at a press conference he gives the game away, and immediately he's whisked off to Abu-Ghrayb.  Qarmuti's "torture" scene shows him squirming as a butch American female soldier strips in front of him.  Luckily for him the American friend from the 9/11 incident in Qarmuti's café turns up, now in uniform, and puts and end to Qarmuti's exposure to … a naked female G.I.[Video 7: Qarmuti interrogated]

The film ends with Qarmuti's American friend helping him to escape from Abu-Ghrayb; Qarmuti locates his son, and they return to Egypt. In the final scene Qarmuti sings a song to Muhammad al-Baradei, the Egyptian-born Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, asking Baradei not to inspect them too closely, and assuring him that Mangoes, in any case, contain no nuclear material that can be used in weapons of mass destruction.

America before politicsploitation

My examples thus far, from al-Zaura` to Ma'alesh, suggest that criticism of the United States in Egyptian mass media ranges from virulent to mild.  Even the most virulent and, where Israel is concerned, patently anti-Semiti criticism claims to be a reaction to American policies and American support for Israeli policies.  Both neoconservative/Zionist organizations that monitor Egyptian media and American "public diplomacy" initiatives tend to disregard such claims, focusing instead on identifying instances of inflammatory hate speech.  For them, well documented (but uncontextualized) instances of extremism disqualify all criticism of America and Israel.  I have contrasted some of the more extreme channels of the discourse on American and Israel (al-Zaura` and al-Usbu') with popular culture depictions of these nations (mainly Sha'ban and Ma'alesh Ihna Binitbahdil).  They all express negative opinions about the U.S. and its Israeli ally.  Given the ubiquity of alarmist rhetoric about the negativity of Egyptian mass media towards the U.S. and Israel, it is worth mentioning that straightforward sober Egyptian media discourse also criticizes the U.S. and Israel often in fairly bland and polite language.  For example, an editorial in al-Ahram by Ragab al-Banna, titled "America in the Eyes of the Egyptians," put it plainly enough:

The truth is that Egyptians generally consider the American people to be friends, and that American culture and the American lifestyle attract a wide portion of youth, who see America as the land of a beautiful dream of liberty and comfort.  The majority of Egyptians feel hatred not of America as a nation or a people, but of an American policy that has turned, under the current administration, from a stance of friendship to one of enmity toward Arabs and Muslims, especially after the invasion of Iraq, the daily acts of indiscriminate killing and destruction, and the horrors of the Abu Ghrayb prison.[xliii]

Extremist organs and popular culture focus on the same issues.  Even if one does want to discount the legitimacy of the more radical voices, it is almost impossible to imagine that those who control the American government do not know that Egyptian displeasure at American policy is also expressed in perfectly straightforward language.  One is tempted to imagine that American officialdom simply considers Egyptian opposition to be an acceptable price to pay for maintaining U.S. policies toward Israel and Iraq that are advantageous in domestic politics, or at least advantageous in the case of Israel.  It seems like straightforward power politics: Egyptians who object to American policy have proven themselves incapable of altering the alliance between Egypt and the U.S., and therefore they can be ignored.  Nonetheless, the public face of the American government at least pretends not to acknowledge that its policy is fiercely disliked in Egypt and indeed all of the Arab and Muslim worlds.  The logic of public diplomacy is that Egyptians and Arabs understand American policy incorrectly, and that their "misperceptions" can be countered by promoting more positive images of the United States.[xliv]  To put it in more concrete terms, the logic of public diplomacy is that Egyptians have "a perception" that American Middle East policy is completely pro-Israeli, and that Israel can in fact do whatever it pleases without fear of American opposition.  The official position always reserves a discrete space for promoting the notion that Egyptians just don't understand American policy.  The American media often put it more starkly.  A few years ago, shortly after the 9/11 attack, the burning question was ostensibly "why do they hate us"?  From an informed perspective the question is nonsensical.  Egyptians, Arabs, and Muslims constantly say that hatred isn't the point, and that it's the policy that causes friction.  The problem is American occupation of Iraq.  It is Israeli attacks on Lebanon.  It is settlements in the Occupied Territories.  But most of the American public does not qualify as "informed," and hence there is still a palpable feeling among many Americans that opposition to the U.S. in places such as Egypt is fundamentally irrational.  In this vein, opposition to America can be attributed to anti-Semitism; it can be attributed to fear and hatred of modernity.  As George Bush himself put it in 2001, in a speech made to congress shortly after 9/11, "Americans are asking, why do they hate us?  They hate what we see right here in this chamber -- a democratically elected government.  Their leaders are self-appointed.  They hate our freedoms -- our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."[xlv]

Enough of the sentiment expressed in Bush's 2001 speech remains in 2007 that one is obliged to ask the question "when did it begin"?  The notion that such media phenomena as Sha'ban, al-Zaura`, al-Usbu', and Politicsploitation films somehow manufactured opposition to the United States is of course not credible.  But when did America actually become an issue for Egyptians?

In mass mediated Egyptian popular culture, America first appeared in the print medium.  Figure 11 shows an Ahmad Higazi cartoon from the 1970s, or possibly the 1980s.  The original publication was most likely in the magazine Ruz al-Yusuf, or

possibly one of the other major publishing houses in Egypt.[xlvi]  Such cartoons were the tip of a very large iceberg of discussion over America's role in Egyptian affairs.[xlvii]  This cartoon shown in Figure 11 is quite simple—just Uncle Sam saying "yes" to both the Arabs and the Israelis.  But his hat is upside down when he speaks to the Arabs, indicating his duplicity.  The final frame shows Uncle Sam standing with the Israeli, telling the Arab "NO" in loud and uncertain terms, and the Arab meekly accepting his lot.

During this period—the 1970s and 1980s—it was print media, and to some extent audio cassettes (recorded sermons) that provided the most lively forums for discussing politics.  Without the less centralized control of audiovisual media afforded later by globalization, the state set the parameters of discourse more narrowly in the 1970s and 1980s.[xlviii]  Print media, also subject to greater state control in this period, was nonetheless always a much broader stream of discourse than the audiovisual media.  Consequently, in print media a degree of intellectual ferment could develop even in an era—the 1970s and 1980s— regarded by many as perhaps the most culturally stultifying in Egypt's modern history.  In the 1970s and 1980s America was not an important theme in audiovisual media.  But as Higazi's cartoon demonstrates, the United States was, by this time, an element of a larger discourse about Israel.  Why was this so?  The answer is obvious: it was the first time American influence on the politics of the region came into public consciousness.[xlix]  The U.S. had become Israel's main material and political supporter during and just after the 1973 October War.  This is a well-known fact, but given persistent attempts by neoconservative and Zionist interpreters of Egyptian media to decouple Egyptian opposition to America (i.e. "anti-Americanism" as it is usually labeled) from objections to American policy, it is nonetheless worth reiterating.[l]  If Egyptian mass media of the 1990s and 2000s can be cast as an irruption of irrational hatred of America and Jews, then it really does seem necessary to go back to this period and just think about what it must have been like for those who lived through it.  Wars against Israel were a dominant fact of Egyptian life in the 1960s and 1970s.  More Egyptians died in wars against Israel than any other Arab nationality.  By the time Egypt had finished with the October War in 1973, Egypt had been fighting Israel fairly continuously for six years: the June War in 1967, followed by the War of Attrition, followed by the October War.  Disruption to daily life was enormous.  Disruption to the economy was massive.  Military service was often extended for years.  In the mid-1970s, when Higazi's cartoons began appearing, Egyptians had no idea if the fighting was over, or if hostilities would break out anew.  So when U.S. aid to Israel went into the billions annually in the mid-1970s why should it be seen as irrational for Egyptians to understand American policy as aggressive? 

Look at the cartoon in Figure 12 and imagine the emotions of a population in which everyone had been in the army, had family members or friends in the army, had lost people in the war, possibly been displaced from their homes, and had suffered endless

disruption resulting from being in a state of war?  "It's not enough to recognize Israel; you have to kiss its feet and salute its flag."  Americans are constantly invited to sympathize with Israelis living in a constant state of war; they are also quite well accustomed to the notion of Jews as victims in the greater scheme of things (i.e. in the context of the Holocaust), Israel dished out more punishment than it took in these wars.  Indeed, Israeli military prowess is strongly represented in American popular culture.[li]  Israel itself invested heavily in promoting an image of military invincibility.  And yet the effect of these wars on the Arab societies that fought them is never invoked for Americans.  It should come as no surprise that Egyptians themselves have very different stories to tell than the ones we hear in the U.S.. 

Of course the October War was followed by Sadat's trip to Israel in 1977, the Camp David Accords in 1978, and a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979.  Peace with Israel brought Egypt into an alliance with the United States.  Egypt became a

recipient of U.S. aid.  As one sees from the cartoon shown in Figure 13, there was plenty of suspicion of this aid.  Remember this comes on the heels of almost a decade of hard fighting.  But it also bears remembering that American aid to Egypt has always been fact given under very different terms than the aid that goes to Israel. [lii]  Again, this is a well-known fact, but it is important to think about it in the context of persistent allegations that Egyptian attitudes toward the U.S. are somehow the product of nothing but irrational hatred stoked by irresponsible media.  It is not uncommon for Egyptian objections to American aid to Israel to be dismissed on the grounds that Egypt is also a recipient of U.S. aid.  But if one looks at foreign aid in straightforward terms as an attempt by the U.S. to buy loyalty, Egypt is drastically underpaid.  One can do the math based on the proportion of money to population.[liii] But such a calculation still overstates the effect of the aid given to Egypt.  U.S. aid to Egypt had to be administered through the Agency for International Development.  This means that a lot of aid money designated as going to Egypt actually went to Americans.  Currently we hear about this in the context of Iraq.  There have been exposés of the huge waste of resources devoted to supporting Americans living in the Green Zone in Baghdad.[liv]  Everything is done to enable American civilians working in Iraq to live as if they were in the United States. 

Everything is imported; nothing is purchased locally.  American subcontractors make huge fortunes just from supplying the lifestyle of Americans living in Iraq ostensibly for the purpose of rebuilding it.  But the wastefulness of Americans working in Iraq bears a passing resemblance to business as usual.  It was the same for Americans living in Cairo as AID subcontractors.  Large portions of the 2 billion dollars a year in American aid to Egypt was actually spent on American subcontractors.  This was not hidden to Egyptians.  It was a matter to be commented on.   It was not just Americans who profited from American aid.  But it also was not as if the remaining money that didn't go to Americans was just divided up between the population at large.  Egyptians also profited.  The cartoon in Figure 14 comments on the public intellectual Abd al-Azim Ramadan, who went on record as saying that Egypt should "remove its mental block" against normalizing relations with Israel.  As you can see here, Ramadan—otherwise a very well established public intellectual—was pilloried by Higazi; Higazi insinuates that Ramadan took money from the Americans—he starts out as a learned doctor diagnosing a mental block, becomes "a poor fellow who just wants to make a dime [or actually "qirshayn"—two pennies]."  As one reads the successive Abd al-Azim Ramadans from right to left one sees that the final Ramadan has filled out.  He has been transformed into a "fat cat"; an opportunist.  And the agent of his transformation is spelled out: "We're okay with the American cultural invasion."  Indeed, the cartoonist shows him getting fat off of it.  It is portrayed as not just a cultural invasion, but a coopting of intellectuals and key sectors of the middle class and military through international aid.[lv]

Now, moving on to a slightly different issue, one of the greatest Egyptian objections to the normalization of relations with Israel that Abd al-Azim Ramadan is perceived to have supported lies in the fact that after Egypt made its separate peace with Israel, the

Israelis intensified their settlement building in the Occupied Territories and carried out numerous military actions against groups in Lebanese territory.   My final Higazi cartoon alludes to this; two Israeli soldiers stand outside the officers' mess, saying that it's too early for lunch so they may as well go bomb Lebanon before coming back to eat.  They carry large weapons with "USA" written on them.  This, remember, is from the 1970s, or at most early 1980s.


Ahmad al-Higazi and Sha'ban 'Abd al-Rahim are worlds apart in the cultural hierarchy—the former respected, the latter largely ignored by anyone with intellectual aspirations.  Nonetheless one can draw a fairly straight line from one to the other.  By the time one gets to Sha'ban the discourse has diversified in terms of the media in which it appears.  "Anti-Americanism" is perhaps more in the mainstream by the 2000s.  It is well worth noting that 9/11 is irrelevant to the expression of Egyptian criticisms of the United States, except insofar as it drew America into creating a new grievance to add to the old ones.  The criticism was there long before 9/11.  Criticism of American policy toward Israel, Palestine, and Lebanon have been consistent for three decades.  If the U.S. stays in Iraq for three decades criticism of an American presence in that country will also be consistent.  For most non-neoconservative or non-Zionist observers of Egyptian media this is all fairly obvious.  For them I have said nothing new, and indeed many academics may well be inclined to reject the entire topic of "anti-Americanism" as nothing more than a fulfillment of an America-centric view of the world.  Nonetheless there is a persistent and influential campaign to depict Egyptian media portrayal of the United States (often together with Israel) ahistorically, devoid of the context that links negative portrayals of America/Israel to straightforward political opposition. Viewed ahistorically Egyptian media discourse on America/Israel inevitably appears virulent and hate-filled.  When such labels as "anti-American" or "anti-Semitic" are applied, they tend to flatten out all variety, so that the bland al-Ahram editorial explaining that Egyptian opposition to American policy does not equal opposition to American culture, or the politely farcical Ma'alesh Ihna Binitbahdil, are drowned out by al-Usbu's chilling glorification of a murderous dictator.

There is something breathtakingly disingenuous about the American response to the political criticism that underpins discourse on the United States in Egyptian media.  The real question about Egyptian popular discourses on the United States is not what motivates them.  The question is rather what keeps the Americans from just telling the Egyptians that they can do nothing about it, so they may as well shut up.  Putting it this way sounds callous and undiplomatic, but it could hardly be less effective than the so-called "public diplomacy" campaigns that are ostensibly designed to represent America to Arab publics.  Several of the better-known current "public diplomacy" initiatives are not the result of 9/11, or even of the Bush administration.  They were already on the drawing board toward the end of the Clinton administration.  I was in Washington at the time.  It was 2001, but before 9/11.   I was invited to attend a focus group meeting to discuss new initiatives to replace the old Voice of America.  The new scheme that was to replace VOA was exactly the sort of privatization plan for which the Bush administration has become infamous.  In any event, I and the other members of the focus group were given a preview of the concepts for Radio Sawa ("Radio Together"), the television station "al-Hurra" ("the free one" as it's often called), and a magazine called Hi.  The magazine presumably needs no translation.  The focus group was asked if we thought American public diplomacy would be more effective if it were packaged in a way that would appeal to youth—popular music for the radio broadcasts, "lifestyle" programming for the television channel and magazine.   Of course there would be serious content as well—content that would, by definition, be required to represent the American government's point of view.  Every single person in the group replied that the youth-oriented package would only be effective if the policy it represented was changed.  If the policy stayed the same, the audience would see right through it, and the new format could even be counterproductive.

A few months later—post 9/11—the new public diplomacy initiative came on line.  Unsurprisingly, the advice of the focus group was completely ignored.[lvi]  As far as I know Radio Sawa and al-Hurra are still in operation.  At least al-Hurra was the last time I flipped through the Nilesat channels in Cairo.  The private companies who subcontracted this job have various means of claiming that their projects are a success.  "People watch it," or so they claim.  I have never met anyone who said they watched it, but that, according to the advocates of al-Hurra and Radio Sawa, is just because it is uncool to admit it openly.  But they still watch in secret.  Maybe so, but of course such convoluted claims for listenership are almost impossible to contest. The fate of the magazine is perhaps more instructive.  It was meant to be sold, and I once even found a copy on a newsstand in a luxury hotel.  Large portions of print runs were given away.  But it simply takes more effort to pick up a magazine and read than it does to tune in a radio program.  Hi magazine began publication in 2003 in a print run of 55,000 copies, 95% of which were given away.  By 2005 publication of the magazine was suspended in order "to assess whether the magazine is meeting its objectives effectively"[lvii]

The image in Figure 16 shows a billboard advertising Hi.  I saw it while in a taxi in Alexandria.  When it came into view my jaw dropped to the floor, and I immediately made the driver stop so that I could photograph it.  I can only imagine that the

digitally doctored image of Abraham Lincoln raising his hand in a "hi" gesture must have totally mystified about 99 percent of the population of Alexandria.  I may have been the only person in the city who got the joke (or more precisely, the only person who perceived it as a joke).  I have always imagined that Egyptians who saw the image must have thought it was an American-sponsored billboard of one of the Elders of Zion put up in their cities as a provocation.  I hasten to add that of course I am aware that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a well-known anti-Semitic fake that probably began in Czarist Russia, and is now widely available in Arabic translation throughout the Arab world.  In reality the vast majority of Egyptians were probably just stumped by the strange sight Abraham Lincoln saying "hi".  Most probably ignored it, just as they ignored the magazine it advertised. 

In conclusion I will simply note that all the public diplomacy in the world will remain impotent in the face of Sha'ban and Politicsploitation.  Or even in the face of the absurd Saddam propaganda published in al-Usbu'.  There is perhaps more hope for America in the fact that criticism of U.S. policy has become so routine that the public may become bored with it.  Not that the public is not serious about its criticisms.  American officials seem to operate on the assumption that either Arab criticisms of U.S. policy do not matter because the Arabs cannot do anything about it anyway, or that massive subsidies to a heavily armed and frequently hostile state right next door to Egypt somehow is none of their business and should not matter to Egyptians.  If one really wanted to pursue this topic, the real question should not be posed from the American side; it should not be "why do they hate us?"  We know the answer to that.  A few of them certainly do hate us, but they and a crushing majority of their fellow citizens, who do not necessarily hate us, all object to our policies.  Instead, the question should be posed about the Americans: Do any of them really believe that Egyptians are not serious about what they say about our policies?  It hardly seems credible, but perhaps there are a few who genuinely believe that Egyptians just do not understand our intentions, and that they can be persuaded.  If so, it seems to me they have their work cut out for them.  Because for most Egyptians Sha'ban stated it succinctly: "al-sura wa al-kitaba; Amrika wa Isra'il"; "heads or tails; two sides of the same coin: America and Israel."  What really matters to Egyptians most is what America and Israel do, not what they stand for.  That, at any rate, is what they have been saying in their media for the past thirty years. 

Walter Armbrust is a co-publisher of Arab Media & Society.  He is the Albert Hourani Fellow of Modern Middle Eastern Studies at St. Antony's College and University Lecturer, University of Oxford. He is a cultural anthropologist whose research interests focus on popular culture and mass media in the Middle East. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, and editor of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond

About Walter Armbrust

Walter Armbrust, publisher and senior editor of TBS, is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford. He is a cultural anthropologist whose research interests focus on popular culture and mass media in the Middle East. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt, and editor of Mass Mediations: New Approaches to Popular Culture in the Middle East and Beyond. Dr Armbrust is currently working on a cultural history of the Egyptian cinema.

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