CAIRO (LA Times) — In Egypt’s current political climate, it was perhaps only a matter of time before the authorities turned their attention to the potential terrorist links of TV puppets.
Executives of a telecommunications provider have been summoned by state prosecutors for questioning over allegations that Muppet-like characters in one of the company’s advertisements made coded references to a terrorist plot. In a statement, Vodafone Egypt confirmed the prosecutors’ summons and called the accusations “irrational,” The Associated Press reported.
Though widely mocked on social media, the authorities’ move is a sobering reminder of the growing scope of their crackdown against the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that last week was formally designated a terrorist organization. It also underscores the appeal of even the most fanciful of conspiracy theories among certain segments of Egyptian society.
The terrorist designation for the Brotherhood potentially criminalized mundane acts such as a Facebook post in support of those arrested in demonstrations prompted by last summer’s ouster of Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Even before that, any display of the main symbol associated with the Brotherhood — a four-fingered salute, alluding to Cairo’s Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque, where hundreds of the movement’s backers were killed by security forces in August — had landed many, from professional athletes to schoolboys, in trouble.
Journalists are also regarded with suspicion. This week, four who work for Al-Jazeera’s English-language service, including an Australian and an Egyptian Canadian, were ordered held for 15 days while allegations of ties to the Brotherhood were investigated. One of the journalists was later released; Al-Jazeera is demanding that the others be freed as well.
The Vodafone ad in question stars a puppet named Abla Fahita, or Auntie Fahita, who is searching for a lost SIM card. In a discussion with another puppet, she wonders why the sniffer dogs at shopping malls can’t be used to search for lost objects.
The ad drew little notice until a blogger and self-styled activist who goes by the name Ahmed Spider brought it to the attention of authorities, together with his interpretation of its message. Spider, who was a critic of the uprising that toppled autocratic President Hosni Mubarak nearly three years ago, proposed that the ad’s true subject was a terrorist attack.
“Dog, garage, guard, mall … these elements tell us that there will be a big mall and an explosion after a dog fails to find the bomb in a car,” Spider told Egypt’s Tahrir television channel late Tuesday. He made an official complaint that was subsequently referred to state security prosecutors, who deal with cases involving terrorism and security threats.
Vodafone Egypt said the ad was designed for marketing purposes only and that its only meaning is an explanation of how to reactivate an SIM card.
Social media users scoffed at the blogger’s theory and the heavy-handed official response to it. “The next accusation could be made against Grendizer,” one Facebook commenter wrote, referring to a Japanese cartoon robot. “Now I’m really worried for the guys at ‘The Muppet Show,’” wrote another.
Online satires quickly surfaced. The face of Abla Fahita was Photoshopped to appear in the background of famous historical images, such as one of former President Anwar Sadat on the day of his assassination. There were also depictions of the puppet being tortured by security forces.
On Wednesday, another TV channel, CBC, purported to interview Abla Fahita, and the interviewee described herself as a comic invention. The blogger, Spider, then phoned in to the show and vowed to send her to prison.
The crackdown on the Brotherhood has resulted in the jailing of its leadership figures and thousands of rank-and-file members. Morsi, the former president, is facing three trials on an array of charges, a number of which carry the death penalty. He is due back in court next week.
(Hassan is a Los Angeles Times special correspondent.)
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