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.
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.
A spokesman for the US embassy in Cairo confirmed that his post had been monitoring local media reaction to the controversial film. But he added that they were focused on the content of the movie and not on which Egyptian media outlets were reporting on it, or on their political bias. “Our response to the video was based on the content of the video itself, not on who was sharing it in Egypt,” wrote David Linfield, acting press attaché at the US Cairo embassy, in an email.
Linfield said the embassy did pick up the warning signals in the daily local press briefs that get sent to Washington, DC. “We did,” Linfield said, in a subsequent phone interview from Cairo. “That’s why we started preparing and so on.” He said the embassy prepared a statement condemning the attempts of some individuals in the US to “hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
But as the embassy worked to douse the flames, others were fanning them.