Paranoia and Puppets in Post-Morsi Egypt
I have blogged before about conspiracy theories in Egypt, but it looks as if I’ll be doing so more and more since conspiracy theories–particularly those about the Muslim Brotherhood and its foreign allies–have increasingly gone mainstream in Egypt.
One of the most interesting is the weird investigation at the beginning of this year into
Abla Fahita is a puppet character (who has her own Facebook page) who has appeared regularly on television over the past several years, primarily on YouTube but also on Egyptian television. She and her daughter Karkura interact with humans and other muppet-like characters in humor ranging from innocuous to satirical.
She also appears in advertisements. And therein lies a tale.
Apparently Abla Fahita appeared in the fall of 2013 in an ad for Doleca New Bomba Ice-Cream. (This ad has been pulled from YouTube so I can’t share it here)
Periods of civil violence are probably times during which marketing researchers should advise their clients not to name their new ice cream names like “bomb.” Its asking for trouble.
Trouble came from a character named Sameh Abou Arayes, a financial analyst who made a name for himself on television and Facebook as a spokesman for the “things were good under Mubarak and everything that has happened since January 2011 has been a disaster” perspective.
It is hard for me to tell if this is meant to be taken seriously, or if he is just being ironic, given the stupidity of advertising an ice cream as tasting like a “bomb” at a time when bombings are taking peoples lives. But when two bomb attacks occurred in Cairo, and another in the Sinai a few days after his post, Arayes apparently became serious.
Shortly afterward, the following video appeared on TV. It features Abla Fahita in a skit explaining how to reactivate a SIM card.
A counterrevolutionary blogger who goes by the name Ahmed Spyder, posted a blog and video explaining that hidden messages coded into the advertisement were instructions to Muslim Brotherhood agents on when and how to attack a particular Coptic church. Here’s Spyder–who has previously been given traction by counterrevolutionary broadcaster Taufiq Ukasha–explaining his theory on TV:
Vodafone felt obliged to issue a statement denying that the advertisement carried any subversive messages.
Now, Egypt allows any citizen to file charges with prosecutors, and Spyder apparently did just that. Prosecutors have the right to dismiss such charges, or to investigate them. In this case, the prosecutors felt it necessary to investigate, and questioned Vodaphone executives about the issue.
Although they did not choose to prosecute, some popular reaction–including a Facebook page created against Abla Fahita (which has since come down)–urged them to.
Also, Abla Fahita apparently got hate mail posted to HER Facebook (well…she’s a puppet. I should say “the Facebook page created in her name…”)
Fortunately CBC Egypt gave Abla Fahita an opportunity to confront her accuser (virtually) and deny that there were any hidden messages in the advertisements.
It is difficult to take this seriously, of course. Most of the international coverage of this is ironic in tone, as if unable to quite believe this is really happening. Most blog posts dismiss it with disgust at the “stupidity” of Egyptians.
But “stupidity” in this sense simply means refusing to accept as authoritative the same premises as the writer.
Conspiracy theories and popular paranoias like this are rooted in a very common human impulse–an effort to find an identifiable cause for the seemingly incomprehensible social disorder that plagues Egyptian society.
The primary premise necessary for accepting the Abla Fahita cosnpiracy theory is the claim the government has been promoting through every device under its control: that the Muslim Brotherhood, backed by evil entities overseas including the United States (and Israel and possibly Iran), foiled in ts efforts to impose an Islamic theocracy, is seeking to disrupt the country both by subversive activities and violence.
The second premise is that as a banned organization the Muslim Brotherhood must use secret methods–like coded broadcasts–to spread its messages. Surely this notion is not absurd to anyone who has viewed spy movies, including Egyptian spy movies, which turn on just such plot devices.
I will admit the specific process used by Abou Arayes and Spyder to “decode” the ads are absurd from the viewpoint of anyone with even a little training in semiotics. But so are the interpretations used by the main character in the worldwide best-selling The DaVinci Code, or Evangelicals who try to make the case that Allah is not the Arabic cognate for the Hebrew and Aramic words for the God of Abraham but a completely different (pagan) god.
In Connected in Cairo I discuss the way that the moral panic over Pokemon in the Gulf states led to the ultimate banning of the game, cartoons and other Pokemon commodities. Yet in Egypt, a similar moral panic failed to engage the Mubarak regime.
What is clear is that in the new Egypt, even the most farfeteched versions of the basic premise that the Muslim Brotherhood is seeking to undermine the Egyptian nation can find a ready audience not only among the hoi polloi, but among those members of the state bureaucratic system whose job it is to investigate such accusations.
There are two obvious reasons for this. First, in the current state of things prosecutors fear that if they DON’T run after these kinds of things, no matter how absurd, they will be on the wrong side of public opinion in the current anti-MB, anti-US & Israel mood.
The second is that they are responding to directives from above to embrace such absurd investigations as a way of sending a message. Andrea Teti argues–in the context of the sentencing of the three Al-Jazeera broadcasters–that the absurdity is the message. He writes:
the greater their absurdity, the more effectively the new regime makes its point: Cross us at your peril; there is nowhere to hide.
“Egypt: Puppet Ad Draws Terror Accusations.” Associated Press. 2 January.
Cunningham, Erin. 2014. “Egypt’s latest terror suspect: The popular felt-and-yarn puppet Abla Fahita.” Washington Post. 2 January.
Lim, Hae-in et al. 2014. “Netizen Report: Egyptian Government Furious With Popular Hand Puppet.” Future Tense at Slate. 8 January.
Tarek, Sherik. “Wannabe wants Vodafone puppet jailed for threatening national security, investigation underway.” (Archive) Ahram Online. Thursday 2 January.