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From Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 7 -13 November 2002, Issue 611

Protocols, Politics and Palestine

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

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-a-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."

From Al-Ahram Weekly Online, 7 - 13 November, 2002, Issue 611

Dream's wake-up call?

How long will the government tolerate private satellite channel Dream TV? Shaden Shehab digs for answers

Dream TV, a private satellite channel primarily owned by Egyptian businessman Ahmed Bahgat, received a warning on Sunday from the General Authority for Free Zones, that "strict measures will be taken" if the channel "again tackles serious subjects in a sensational manner". The authority is the body responsible -- among other things -- for issuing and revoking licenses of private satellite channels located in the 6 October Media City free zone. Its warning was directed at the channel for tackling "very sensitive issues" for Egyptian and Arab societies.

But what exactly are these "sensitive issues?" The warning specifically referred to a programme hosted by the channel's vice president and star presenter Hala Sarhan -- a talk show whose topic was divorce amongst young Egyptians. The show's discussion went on to cover a broad range of subjects, including the issue of masturbation and its effect on marital relationships.

Media observers interviewed by Al- Ahram Weekly seemed surprised at the authority's move, arguing that the channel has dealt with sex-related issues in the past with nobody showing much concern. Why now, they asked?

When Dream TV -- which is 10 per cent owned by the state-run Egyptian Radio and TV Union (ERTU) -- was launched in November 2001 as the country's first private satellite channel, Egyptians were not overly optimistic about the venture being serious or successful. The general mood was that the channel -- private or not -- would play it safe when it came to society's taboos, always keeping in mind that some red lines cannot be crossed. Entertainment was expected to trump "sensitive" or political issues.

For a few months, these suspicions proved correct. Dream 1 -- launched a few months before Dream 2-- mainly featured video clips, live musical performances, and shows that merely interviewed movie stars or singers. The channel, nevertheless, became quite popular because it always seemed to air new songs before other Arab satellite channels did. And because state-run TV was forcing music producers to pay airtime fees to have their video clips broadcast, Dream TV became popular amongst artists as well. With the launch of Dream 2, people were in for a surprise. The number of talk shows, interviews, and other programmes that were hosted by high- calibre journalists gradually expanded, as did their subject matter -- which eventually did deal with "sensitive" issues, from thorny political talk to sex- related themes.

"The idea was to have one independent channel that includes a mixture of entertainment and information. But we found out that the Arabs, and especially Egyptians, are hungry for something better, more credible and more thoughtful. So we decided to have Dream 2, and the more different shows we aired the more success we attained," Osama El-Sheikh, the channel's general manager, told Al-Ahram Weekly. Dream TV is open to all types of opinions and ideologies, he said. "Let people express themselves, let people be entertained, let people choose what to believe in and what not to believe in."

During the talk shows, especially those hosted by Hala Sarhan, issues of all sorts were discussed -- many of which viewers could not expect to watch on Egyptian TV. Her talk shows allowed space for criticism of the government on controversial issues while the government itself was trying to soften criticism at the same time on its own channels. After about 400 people died in Egypt's train inferno disaster in February, Sarhan's show hosted guests who accused the government of being "corrupt and incompetent". Although Dream's programmes allowed government figures to express their views, they were also fiercely counter-attacked by the other guests.

When senior political analyst Mohamed Hassanein Heikal chose "to address the nation" via Dream, the channel's credibility was at its peak.

Heikal, a close confidante and advisor to late President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, rarely publishes his work in the Egyptian press or appears on TV channels, despite his extraordinarily popular appeal.

Heikal has thus far done three two- hour shows entitled Al-Ustaz (The Professor), each of which made a point of discussing hot political topics using an approach entirely different from the media's standard. Needless to say, the shows have all had a huge impact.

"Heikal topped the list of people we wanted to appear on Dream. We contacted him several times but he refused," El-Sheikh said. "Then suddenly, he contacted us and told us he wants to talk. It was my idea that he appear alone without a presenter."

Heikal first appeared last March when Israel reinvaded the West Bank and placed Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat under siege. He criticised the Arab Summit in Beirut, the Saudi peace initiative and those who viewed Arafat's siege as more important than the dangerous situation befalling the Palestinian people themselves. In the second appearance, which was broadcast in July, Heikal pointed to information disclosed by a British official about "secret" clauses in the Camp David accords stipulating that Egypt play a role in maintaining security in Gaza. His third appearance was on 4 October in which he stressed that contrary to widely-held beliefs, Iraq and the Arab world are not the US's ultimate target, but merely the battlefield.

By then, although Heikal had not spoken about Egyptian politics, it appeared as though Dream TV had managed to successfully avoid government interference in its affairs. The word on the street was that "Dream enjoys unprecedented freedom of expression." When prominent broadcaster Hamdi Qandil, who hosts Egyptian TV's popular Ra'is Al-Tahrir (Editor-in-Chief) programme, attacked the Beirut Arab Summit and the leaders who participated in it, for being all talk and no action when it came to helping the Palestinians, the broadcast was abruptly cut off. Today, in addition to Ra'is Al- Tahrir, Qandil also hosts a show on Dream. Dream was the only Egyptian channel that chose to air a lecture that Heikal gave on 14 October at the American University in Cairo (AUC) entitled 'The Future is Now'. This time, Heikal chose to talk about Egypt and its future. He proposed that a national dialogue take place throughout the remaining three years of the current presidential term in order to reach a collective national decision on drawing a new map for the future. Going further, Heikal commented on speculation surrounding the bequeathing of the presidency in Egypt. Heikal reminded the audience that President Hosni Mubarak and the son around whom the speculation revolves, Gamal Mubarak, have both emphatically rejected that notion on a number of occasions. Egypt is not like other states, Heikal said, that are governed by sectarian, tribal or clan politics. Republics, he argued, do not allow for the inheritance of power.

The lecture was broadcast two times and was supposed to appear again, until the channel canceled it for "technical reasons". But a Dream TV source said the channel was "advised" not to continue airing the lecture. Will Heikal's show continue appearing on Dream every three months in accordance with his agreement with the channel? Despite El- Sheikh's confident "of course," observers have their doubts.

Since 17 October, the channel has been criticised from all sides. It was the Liberal Wafd Party who took the initiative, starting a ferocious campaign which accused the channel of airing "scandalous" programmes that even "embarrass prostitutes", as the party's mouthpiece Al-Wafd announced on its front page.

Al-Wafd newspaper cautioned the government "to monitor how the billions in loans taken from banks are spent on programmes about masturbation."

As a result, Minister of Information Safwat El-Sherif asked the General Authority for Free Zones to investigate the channel's violations. At the same time, he said that, "examining violations does not mean imposing restrictions on private satellite channels' freedom of expression." Prominent Al-Ahram columnist Salama Ahmed Salama said that "an injustice has been done to Dream TV. A private TV channel should not necessarily be one of traditional views, but one that is more open. There is nothing wrong with discussing issues that for long were described as taboos. The viewers will simply [get that material] from other [non-Egyptian] channels. At least [on Dream] the programmes host Egyptian guests who know that there are certain limits within our society. If there are red lines, then why allow private TV ownership in the first place? The government should not contradict itself," Salama said.

Another prominent journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, "the whole issue is not about Hala Sarhan's show -- it is about airing Heikal."

On Saturday, Bahgat himself appeared on his own channel, as a guest of a talk show hosted by columnist Magdi Mehanna. Ironically, the show resulted in Mehanna's removal as chief editor of Al-Wafd. Wafd Party Chairman No'man Gom'a dismissed him the following day on the pretext that Mehanna had been working for Dream TV without the notification and approval of the paper. Strangely, Gom'a did not notify Mehanna in person but chose to dismiss him via a statement on Al-Wafd's front page. "It is essential that a chief editor, especially of a political party [paper], be totally loyal to it, so his loyalty would not be split between two media-related jobs that could potentially clash," the statement said.

During Mehanna's show, Bahgat said that Dream's budget does not originate from the LE1.6 billion in bank loans he has received over the years. He also stressed that he is not one of the businessmen who received loans without sufficient collateral and subsequently defaulted on them, indicating that his assets amount to LE1.7 billion. Bahgat explained that because he was spending so much on advertising -- some LE40 million annually -- he might as well spend the same amount on his own TV station and air his ads for free. Bahgat owns numerous businesses in fields as varied as furniture, electronics, appliances, marble, plastics and medical equipment, as well as a suburban amusement park and subdivisions called, respectively, Dreampark and Dreamland. He also has his own sports club and is planning to establish a newspaper.

As for Dream TV, Bahgat said that if it was not for the "encouragement and support of the government, we would not have achieved such success". But the mogul also said that "in Egypt, people do not want to face reality. We ignore problems and assume they will be solved on their own." He assured viewers that there would be no dilution of the political issues discussed by the channel, as some press reports have speculated. "On the contrary..." he said, inspiring many to speculate that "after all that hustle and bustle, time will only tell how far and long will Dream be tolerated."

From the News World of 14 November 2002

Al Jazeera Dealt New Blow By Kuwait

Arab satellite TV channel al-Jazeera, which was recently thrown out of Kuwait, has been dealt a further blow there after it w as ordered to pay damages for slandering the country.

Al-Jazeera, which many Kuwaitis believe is biased towards Saddam Hussein, has said it will most likely appeal the court ruling ordering it to pay US$16,670 to the four Kuwaiti lawyers who brought the action. The TV station also faces the prospect of paying a further US$66,000 in damages.

The action follows a live talk show broadcast on February 5 where a guest accused Kuwaitis of being "the Jews of the Arabs" and of stealing Iraqi oil before the 1990 invasion. Al-Jazeera says the fault was with the person who made the accusations, not with the broadcaster, and pointed out it had cut the programme short because its host was not happy with what was being said.

The Kuwaiti government shut down al-Jazeera's offices there earlier this month because it said the broadcaster was "not objective". 
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From the News World of 14 November 2002

Jordon Releases Al Jazeera Journalists

Two newspaper journalists also working for al-Jazeera were held for 24 hours by the Jordanian government in a move seen as part of a continuing campaign by regional Arab governments against the satellite TV station.

Yasser Abu Hilala and Samir Abu Hilala were arrested for "disseminating false information" shortly after Yasser had sent al-Jazeera a report on clashes between militants and Jordanian security forces. Samir had also just spoken on an al-Jazeera news report about the unrest.

The charges were dropped yesterday and the two men released.

Ann Cooper of press freedom watchdog CPJ criticised the treatment of the two men. "While we welcome the release of our two colleagues, detaining journalists because they report the news or express opinions is reprehensible." Read more? News World recommends:


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