Several other secular and anti-Islamist Egyptian media outlets also ran with the story—days before any Islamic group or publication even noticed. And in fact, the stories, online and in print, taunted Islamists for failing to defend the Prophet. They also jeered at the Islamist government in Cairo for allegedly being too afraid of the Obama Administration to demand that the blasphemous film be banned.
The pro-Mubarak media was persistent in trying to get the film noticed. On September 8, two days after its original story, Youm7 ran the story again—with expanded coverage, on a full page in its print edition, now with still photographs from the movie.
Al-Watan News, a daily owned by Mohammed Al-Ameen, a pro-Mubarak real estate development tycoon, reported—acurately—in its story on September 10 that the film features scenes claiming that Muhammad was born to adultery, and that the Prophet later on he killed a man in front of his wife and then had sex with her.
On September 11, Al-Mehwar TV aired a rare interview with the purported man behind the film, Maurice Sadeq, a controversial US-based Christian Coptic activist who had publicly supported Terry Jones’ plan to burn the Koran. Al-Mehwar TV is owned by Hassan Ratib, a cement mogul who made his wealth under Mubarak.
Because of his extreme right-wing views, Sadeq had rarely been given the chance to appear on public TV in the Middle East. Several years earlier, Sadeq had become infamous in Egypt for calling on former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to invade Egypt to “liberate the Christians.”
And this time Sadeq, who has American citizenship, was true to form: he used his appearance on Al-Mehwar TV to attack Muhammad. Hundreds of thousands of viewers across the Middle East, who tune in nightly to the Egyptian channel, watched in disbelief. One caller yelled at Sadeq: “May Allah curse you, you son of a bitch!,” before hanging up the phone.
One of Egypt’s popular websites, Masrawy, owned by Egypt’s richest Christian Copt, Naguib Sawiris, ran stories suggesting that the Islamists had not done enough to defend the Prophet against the film, while the liberal Wafd newspaper, which claims to represent Christians in Egypt, ran a story headlined “the Muslim Brotherhood Lets the Prophet Down.” Masrawy went a further, drawing a link between a visit by a group of US business leaders to Egypt’s new president, Mohammed Morsi, and his initial silence about the film. “Why hasn’t the president or the [Muslim] Brotherhood commented on the abuse against the Prophet?” asked Masrawy’s headline.
By then the Egyptian Islamist media had begun to respond to this rash of stories. “The film is a failed attempt to stoke religious strife in Egypt between the Christians Copts and Muslims,” said Al-Hurriya wal Adalah, the newspaper of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Almesryoon newspaper ran a letter from Islamist leaders on September 11 asking President Morsi to bring those behind the video to justice. Several Islamist groups, as well as easily provoked soccer fans known as Ultras (who played a role in mass rallies against Mubarak), quickly called for demonstrations on September 11, outside the US embassy’s downtown building. The mob scenes that followed were aired live on TV channels beamed across the Middle East.
Western media, instead of noticing how the pro-Mubarak media was fueling the frenzy, tended to single out the September 8 broadcast by Khaled Abdallah, a talk show host on Al-Nas, a conservative Islamist TV channel. In fact, Abdallah aired the least offensive scenes of the video—a sequence where the Muhammad character talks to a donkey to convert it to Islam and get the title of “the first animal in Islam.” Abdallah actually leads with a statement warning against religious tension between Muslims and Christians. He also did not draw any link with the US. In fact, he inaccurately said the film was Dutch, not American.
Yet the British Daily Telegraph described Abdallah as “a rabble-rousing tele-Islamist” while The Atlantic roundly accused him of stirring the fury—even though Abdallah’s show aired three days after Youm7’s original story. NPR’s Steve Inskeep, co-host of Morning Edition, also blamed Al-Nas, in a piece in The Atlantic. Bill Keller, the former editor of The New York Times, followed this line in his column:
It’s pretty clear that the protests against that inane video were not spontaneous. Antisecular and anti-American zealots, beginning with a Cairo TV personality whose station is financed by Saudi fundamentalists, seized on the video as a way to mobilize pressure on the start-up governments in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.
Keller is certainly right that the protests were deliberately stirred up, but wrong about who first did the stirring.