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Thursday, January 2, 2014

Egyptian Puppet Called Terrorist Mouthpiece

An Arabic-language ad for Vodafone Egypt features a babbling puppet named Abla Fahita, a widow trying to reactivate the phone line used by her late husband.

Egypt’s crackdown on support for the Muslim Brotherhood turned surreal this week as prosecutors agreed to investigate the allegation that a puppet that babbles nonsensically in an advertisement for a multinational phone company was in fact sending coded instructions to Islamist terrorists.

Prosecutors said in a statement that officials from Vodafone Egypt, the local branch of a phone company based in Britain, were summoned to respond to a complaint about the ad filed by a counterrevolutionary video-blogger and singer who calls himself Ahmed Spider. In an appearance on Egyptian television on Tuesday, the little-known blogger spent nearly an hour dissecting what he called the secret codes embedded in the ad, in which a puppet widow named Abla Fahita tries to reactivate the phone line used by her late husband.

In an appearance on Egyptian television, a little-known blogger explained his conspiracy theory that the puppets in a Vodafone ad were sending coded signals to terrorists.

The ad shows the Muppet-like Abla Fahita babbling to a friend on the phone while her daughter, Karkoura, looks for her dead father’s SIM card. The company explained in a statement to The Associated Press that the ad, first broadcast and posted on YouTube last week, was part of a marketing campaign “aiming at explaining how to reactivate a Vodafone SIM card.” The blogger’s reading, the company said, was “irrational” and based on “mere imagination.”

According to Ahmed Spider, however, 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 â€" Rabaa means “fourth” in Arabic.

As the Cairene news site Mada Masr explained, a Vodafone spokesman, Khaled Hegazy, phoned in during the live broadcast to reject the allegations theory out of hand. “I don’t know what to say,” Mr. Hegazy added. “I’m sad that we have reached this level of thinking.”

The figure behind the allegations first rose to prominence in 2011, when he accused prominent supporters of the revolution of being Freemasons and filed legal complaints against the activist bloggers Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bahaa Saber, who were subsequently arrested by the military government that ruled Egypt after Hosni Mubarak was forced from power. The British-Egyptian journalist Sarah Carr noted in a post on her blog about the puppet imbroglio that his attacks on the revolutionaries were amplified by the television polemicist Tawfik Okasha, who has been called “Egypt’s Glenn Beck.”

The accusation that the puppet was being used as a Brotherhood mouthpiece also spread widely on Egyptian social networks. As the Cairene blogger who writes as Zeinobia reports, a Facebook page set up by supporters of the security forces with more than 600,000 followers called for the puppet masters to be arrested for “using unknown symbols and codes.”

The government’s move against what The Economist termed “the Muppet Brotherhood” was widely mocked by English-speaking bloggers, journalists and rights advocates in Cairo. Writing on Twitter, several suggested that the interim president installed by the military was himself little more than a puppet, while others shared Photoshopped images of the puppet in the hands of state security and made references to the Mubarak-era conspiracy theory that shark attacks at an Egyptian resort were part of a plot by Israeli intelligence.

One cartoon posted on the puppet’s @AblaFahita Twitter feed showed an interrogator confronting her with a photograph of Kermit the Frog while saying, “Spider said in his report that you’ve received generous funding from an American mason, isn’t that right?”

None of the Internet gags, however, quite prepared Egyptians for the surreal exchange broadcast late Wednesday, when the satellite channel CBC gave the puppet an opportunity to respond directly to her accuser live on the air.

Appearing via Skype, in character, Abla Fahita confronted Ahmed Spider with the apparently unassailable argument, “I am a fictional character.” According to Zeinobia, who suggested that this dialogue just might herald “the end of human civilization,” the blogger replied with a promise to have the puppet jailed.

The Egyptian satellite channel CBC gave the puppet Abla Fahita a chance to directly confront the blogger who has accused her of sending coded messages to terrorists.

Reflecting on this outburst of paranoia in Egypt, Ms. Carr, the Cairene journalist, observed sadly that “this grand civilization of 7,000 years is once again being held hostage by buffoons.”

“Thus,” she added, “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 Rabaa, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated.”