European cellphone provider Vodafone is being investigated by Egyptian officials on suspicion that it used well-known Egyptian puppet character, Abla Fahita, to transmit a coded message to Muslim Brotherhood terrorists in a recent TV commercial. See if you can follow along.
The Egyptian government received an elaborate complaint from blogger Ahmed "Spider," an activist who supports former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, who saw the ad and thinks it can, and should be read as a directive to carry out a terrorist attack. Spider has dabbled in conspiracy theory before, and his complaint lays out the symbolism and significance of each scene in full conspiratorial glory.
In his defense, the commercial alone doesn't appear to make much sense. The Associated Press recounts the ad's premise, and it sounds confusing.
Fahita and her daughter Karkoura search for her deceased's husband sim card, while explaining to her friend over the phone about another character "Mama Touta." In the background, a radio anchor explains how to make "stuffed turkey" for Christmas while sitting next to a cactus from which ball ornaments were dangling. She says she asked the building guards to get a sniffer dog of a shopping mall to search for missing things and gets money in return.
In his complaint, Spider warns that "Mama Touta" is a secret name for the Muslim Brotherhood, and that references to the mall and the dog mean the attack will take place at a mall. The New York Times reports that Spider, who is also a singer and video blogger, spent nearly an hour explaining the theory on Egyptian television this week. Spider went into great detail in defending his suspicions, according to the Times:
The opening image of the ad, a four-pronged cactus decorated for Christmas, was intended to inspire attacks on Coptic Christians when they celebrate the holiday next week. A red ornament on the
cactus, he claimed, represented a bomb, and the number of branches was a reference to the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in Cairo, where hundreds of Islamists were killed in August when the security forces attacked a sit-in — Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic.
Vodafone responded to the accusation by saying that the commercial was intended only for "marketing aiming at explaining how to reactivate a Vodafone sim card and attract audience to the product," adding that "the advertisement carries no other meaning and any other interpretation other than that is mere imagination or personal opinion of some of the audience."
The puppet pandemonium follows the Egyptian government's designation of the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group, and has been seen by many as an example of the new leadership's paranoia. Egyptians took to Twitter to express their dismay with the hashtag #freefahita:
The seriousness with which the Egyptian government has treated the allegation shows just how unstable the country's political landscape has become. The entire country has been in limbo since former Egyptian president and Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi was removed by the military in August and replaced by acting president Adly Mansour. The opportunity to point out that Fahita may not be the only "puppet" in the spotlight was too good to pass up.
I'll bet Adly Mansour is glad that another puppet is finally getting all the attention. #Egypt— Patrick Galey (@patrickgaley) January 2, 2014
Since then, the Muslim Brotherhood has been shut out of the country's leadership, despite having been democratically elected into office last year. Bursts of violence have left Brotherhood supporters cowed and disenfranchised, and the country's future in question. Political analyst Ziad Akl told the Washington Post that the Vodafone incident is emblematic of the country's troubles:
“As stupid as it is, it’s very telling,” Ziad Akl, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said of the puppet case. “It says a lot about the patriotism frenzy we are in. There is definitely a sentiment of fascist nationalism that you either subscribe to, or face being labeled a traitor."
Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr agreed, writing on her blog:
We have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.
At least Fahita has had the chance to defense herself. In an interview with Egyptian network CBC, the puppet patiently explained that she is just a "comic character." Spider responded by calling into the show and threatening to have her jailed. Yes, arguing with a puppet on TV is what has become of political debate in Egypt.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.