Back on September 11, protestors gathered outside the US embassy near downtown Cairo, furious over reports of a video said to portray Islam and its prophet, Muhammad, in a brutally negative way. By the end of the day the people there would storm the embassy and tear down the American flag, jumpstarting protests that spread through the Middle East, including Sudan, Yemen, and Tunisia. Around the same time, the US diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, was attacked and four Americans killed, including the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens.
Many of us have followed the various controversies since then—about the video and its US-based creators, about the demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere, and about the nature of the Benghazi attack and what UN Ambassador Susan Rice said about it in the days that followed.
As for what started the whole thing in Cairo, Western media seems to have located ground zero—Islamist media in Egypt. Many pointed to a particular talk show host, a sort of Islamic version of Glenn Beck. As John Hudson put it in The Atlantic Wire:
How on Earth did a poorly-produced, wildly obscure 14-minute YouTube clip spark violent uprisings from Yemen to Afghanistan to Algeria to Egypt? The answer is Sheik Khaled Abdullah, an Egyptian TV host who latched onto a trailer of the U.S. film Innocence of Muslims on Sunday, a move that has stoked anti-American sentiment across the Muslim world.
But a closer examination shows that the effort to stir people up about the Innocence of Muslims video came not from Islamist press outlets but from an entirely different camp: several secular outlets of the Egyptian media, largely run by Mubarak-regime supporters bent on discrediting the Islamists in the new government. Secular pro-Mubarak supporters lit the match. If we are to understand Egypt and the Middle East properly, that recent history should be reconsidered in that light.
This was not the first time that old regime sympathizers used local media to stir up trouble for the new rulers. Fearing loss of privileges accumulated under 30 years of Mubarak’s corrupt rule, entrenched business executives and powerful media owners have consistently tried to discredit the new political players among the Islamists, as well as the youth groups who arose after Mubarak’s ouster in February 2011, routinely running unsubstantiated accusations and sensational rumors that show them in poor light. Some of those reports have been re-reported by the western media.
In April, for example, Al-Ahram newspaper ran a story that alleged that the then Islamist-dominated Parliament was considering a necrophilia law that would give husbands the right to have sex with their dead wives for six hours after death. The story was picked by the Daily Mail (it is no longer available online) and The Huffington Post. Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity read the story on their US radio programs. No one in Parliament had even heard of such a law until the story came out.
The early stories on the defamatory movie, The Innocence of Muslims, which had been produced by a fanatical US-based Christian Copt, also had errors and exaggerations. Scenes from the movie languished on YouTube for months, until it was picked up by an Egyptian tabloid called Youm7 (The Seventh Day) on September 6, five days before the US diplomatic facilities were attacked in Benghazi and stormed in Cairo. Youm7’s story incorrectly linked Innocence of Muslims to the controversial Florida pastor, Terry Jones, who, two years earlier had become a household name in Muslim countries after he vowed to publicly burn copies of the Koran. Youm7’s inflammatory story drew seething comments online. (The paper later removed the original story from its website).
The editor of Youm7 , Khaled Salah, is hardly an Islamist. He is known for his pro-Mubarak positions and his support for Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who at one point had designs on the presidency himself. In 2005, Salah had been one of the junior reporters selected by the US State Department under the Bush Administration’s media outreach program, selected to travel around the region in an effort to win allies among cooperative reporters in the Arabic press, according to the Wikileaks US Cairo embassy cables.
Another unwaveringly anti-Islamist newspaper, Al-Fagr, headlined its September 6 story, “Grave Insults to The Prophet.”
The story of the incendiary film was then picked up—on September 9—by Al-Bashayr, a well known news portal that headlined its story, “A Porno About the Life of Prophet Mohammed.” The film was produced in the US, the report emphasized. It also highlighted that the film includes “inappropriate sex scenes” involving the Prophet’s wife. Al-Bashayr is run by Sherif Eskander, a Christian Copt who started his news site under Mubarak and is staunchly anti-Islamist.