Sep 152012
Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted in a Los Angeles County Sheriff's vehicle from his home by officers in Cerritos, California

Nakoula Basseley Nakoula is escorted in a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s vehicle from his home by officers in Cerritos, California. September 15, 2012. REUTERS/Bret Hartman

As protests and demonstrations continue throughout the Arab world in reaction to the Muhammad video (I still will not dignify it with the term “film” or “movie” as some do), a number of developments and articles are worth noting. But most striking – outside of the scenes of the violence in the streets – are two unfolding dramas: the questioning of Nakoula Basseley Nakoula who may be the individual behind the video and the hidden drama of the Egyptian government as it negiotiates the complexities of creating a democracy.

The Mystery Man – Nakoula Basseley Nakoula

From Reuters: Nakoula Basseley Nakoula voluntarily went with officers to a meeting in a sheriff’s station in Cerritos, Los Angeles County. This was not an arrest but an “interview” – and he continues to deny involvement in the video. Officials are looking into possible parole violations – Nakoula was sentenced to 21 months in prison (with five years of probation) for bank fraud. His release was contingent on not using aliases or accessing the Internet, both of which appear to have been done if he is the producer of the Muhammad video.

Nakoula will never end up back in jail for the video with the free speech rights in the United States, but he could for parole violations. Regardless, his name will go down as a waypoint in the history of the Internet for the havoc, destruction and death that could be brought about by a single video clip.

The Egyptian Government’s Drama Behind the Scenes

Egyptian Protestor Runs from Burning Car

Everyone is understandably focusing on the street protests in Egypt and rest of the Arab world, but there is another drama – a fundamental struggle going on behind the scenes as the Egyptian government comes to terms with a functioning democracy.

For decades,  the country lived under the iron fist of a dictatorship with protests and arrests at periodic intervals. But Mubarak could pretty much do what he wanted, with the ongoing calculation that he could only push his people to a certain point. He was a master of knowing where that (somewhat fluid boundary was).

Now that Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi leads the country, it’s not so simple. For days, he has scored points with supporters and opposition parties (particularly with the radical Islamist party Salafi Al-Nour) by keeping security low and letting the protesters have the upper hand. But the very technology that keeps the video in front of peoples eyes – and helped support the overthrow of Mubarak – backfired on the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi who were saying one thing to the West and issuing statements with a radically different tone for domestic consumption.

Sometimes it seems like everything in the digital revolution is a boomerang - no matter how far it gets thrown, you’ll soon be ducking as it comes back at you. From the Wall Street Journal:

Until today, Mr. Morsi’s presidency had appeared less than contrite about the security lapse that allowed protesters to invade the fortress-like U.S. mission. On Thursday, the Brotherhood went so far as to call for nationwide “vigils” in front of “major mosques” throughout the country on Friday—a day in which protests in Egypt have become a ritual.

Though the call for demonstrations smacked of intentional escalation, Brotherhood leaders portrayed the call as a kind of contained catharsis that would move the focus of popular rage away from the volatile flashpoint that is the U.S. embassy.

Essam El Erian, the head of the FJP, said the Brotherhood firmly rejected any attacks on foreign missions and insisted that the continuing violence in downtown Cairo includes “mainly young men” and no politicians.

The Brotherhood’s mixed message was encapsulated by a Twitter exchange between the group and the U.S. Embassy. Just as the Brotherhood’s English-language Twitter account made earnest inquiries about the safety of U.S. diplomats in Cairo, its Arabic-language Twitter account praised Egyptian protesters for “rising to the defense of the Prophet.”

The @USEmbassyCairo Twitter handle replied: “By the way, have you checked out your own Arabic feeds? I hope you know we read those too.”

“I hope you know we read those too” – diplomacy these days gets carried out on Twitter.

Leading a democratically elected government is no simple task in a deeply interconnected world. Especially when what you say domestically (to an electorate with a widespread anti-American bias) is the opposite of what you say to people abroad. We can trip up on this ourselves – just witness how some campaign statements play differently here and overseas – but it’s even more difficult when a democracy is just getting underway. Just as the video has a viral quality about it in the Arab world, so do domestic statements for support of the protesters in the rest of the world. It’s a classic lose-lose situation, and yet, for Morsi to be a legitimate leader in the global community and the government an effective democracy at home, he will have to turn it into a win-win.

I don’t envy the challenge.

Sep 132012

Who is sam bacile?

The story behind the inflammatory Muhammad video, Muslim Innocence, gets stranger and stranger after the awful events in Libya and the demonstrations in Cairo which are now spreading to Yemen, Sudan and Tunisia. People are trying to uncover the identity of  the mysterious pseudonymous writer-director, Sam Bacile, who may or may not be an Israeli real estate mogul (whoever he is, he is now in hiding). An analysis of the video reveals that the controversial parts were dubbed in during post-production and now the actors are speaking out against the project.

Muhammad Video – A Question of Access

First, let’s note that what has plunged areas of the Middle East into turmoil is not the entire film (I’m not even sure it warrants that term), but a 14 minute trailer which has been translated into Arabic and is getting significant airplay, especially in Egypt. If you like, you can watch the trailer which has put Google into an incredibly difficult position. After the death of the Ambassador, they blocked access to it in Egypt and Libya, but it is still available elsewhere on YouTube. Blocking videos is not a road one goes down lightly – Google regularly gets take-down requests for videos for political reasons. On the other hand, once American lives have been lost, Google had to make an effort to limit access.

Badly Done – and then Dubbed

As for the movie itself, as Sarah Abdurrahman has noted in On the Media, the production values are film-student quality at best and show no evidence of a supposedly $5 million budget. The Prophet Muhammad is portrayed as essentially a dim-witted character and a pedophile, and it includes scene after scene of amateurish staging, lighting and camerawork with teenage-level insults directed at Muslims.

Now it turns out that key lines of the movies dialogue were dubbed in after the filming. Abdurrahman does a close analysis of the trailer and uncovers the following instances of dubbing:

1:25: The Islamic Egyptian police arrested 1400 christians.

2:30: His name is Mohammad. And we can call him “the father unknown.”

3:03: Mohammad! Mohammad the bastard! Your lady summons you!

5:14: I’ll help you, Khadija. I’ll make a book for him. It will be a mix of some version from the Torah, and some versions from the New Testament, and mix them into false verses.

6:30: Mohammad is Allah [sic] messenger, and the Koran is our constitution!

8:25: [not dubbed] It is not enough to believe in one God. [dubbed] You must say “God and Mohammad, his messenger.” Now, go read the Koran.

9:04: Is your Mohammad a child molester?

10:27: …[not dubbed] And in all my young life [dubbed] I have not seen such a murderous thug as Mohammad.

Angry Actors

With events spiraling out of control, now the actors are speaking up. Cindy Lee Garcia, an actress from Bakersfield, Calif. has said all of them were deceived about the project. Apparently much of the shooting was done in Los Angeles and green screened so that backgrounds could be added later. According to Garcia, there were no references to Muhammad in the script – he was called “Master George” and the working title was “Desert Warriors.”

The 80-member cast and crew have released a statement deploring the violence sparked by the video:

The entire cast and crew are extremely upset and feel taken advantage of by the producer. We are 100% not behind this film and were grossly misled about its intent and purpose. We are shocked by the drastic re-writes of the script and lies that were told to all involved. We are deeply saddened by the tragedies that have occurred. (from CNN)

You can see the original casting call which was posted on craigslist in July 2011 for an “historical desert drama set in Middle East” - there is no mention of Islam at all.

What Happens Next

The scary aspect of the Muhammad video is that the same digital environment that fosters greater connectivity and helped support an Arab Spring can also inflame false accusations and misunderstanding. The ideals of free speech in the United States are neither widely understood or supported in much of the world. Many of the protesters want the U.S. to “take down” the video – not something we can do. We are in the midst of a cultural/political dialogue – one that we have enough trouble dealing with at home – that is now spreading globally. One has to have a certain Jeffersonian faith that the truth and reason will triumph in the end, but this particular moment seems far removed from that ideal. According to Abdurrahman, Ambassador Stevens was “. . . kind, warm and welcoming. . . genuinely excited to be working in Libya at such a historic moment.” His death is profoundly disturbing. Sadly, it may not be the last consequence of this video.

When we talk about the openness of the Internet, we seldom consider all of the implications of what that concept actually means. We tend to look at the ideal through our own rose-colored glasses, not realizing that openness can serve the purpose of deeply closed minds on all sides.

Jun 022012
Tahrir Square fills with protesters on 2 June over Hosni Mubarak's sentence

Tahrir Square fills with protesters on 2 June over Hosni Mubarak's sentence. Photo: Getty Images

An incredible development as an Egyptian court sentenced Hosni Mubarak to life in prison – the first time this has happened to a standing dictator in the Middle East. However, others were not convicted of charges relating to the Arab Spring and the initial euphoria turned into anger. By nightfall, Tahrir Square was again filled with protesters.

Aljazeera has a good account of the current situation – and it remains to be seen if the promise of the revolution is fulfilled over the coming days:

Thousands of people descended on Tahrir Square to protest on Saturday night, a spontaneous outpouring of anger after a Cairo court sentenced former president Hosni Mubarak to life in prison but acquitted a number of other former regime officials.

The verdict was initially met with euphoria: Egyptians celebrated upon hearing that Mubarak was convicted of complicity in the murder of more than 800 protesters during the Egyptian revolution in January of 2011. It was the first time an Arab head of state had been convicted, and a major accomplishment for the revolution which toppled Mubarak nearly 18 months ago.

But the joy was short-lived. Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, were acquitted of corruption charges, and several senior security officials were found not guilty of murder. Some had wanted Mubarak to face the death penalty; others appreciated the verdict, but expected it would be overturned on appeal.

So they flocked to Tahrir Square, the heart of last year’s revolution, to voice their frustration, not just with the verdict but with Egypt’s post-revolution military leadership.

“It’s garbage,” Najdi Mohamed el-Din said of the verdict. “And it has made us realize something. The revolution of January 2011? We need to do it again, and we need to do it until everyone who was with Mubarak is gone.”

More than 5,000 people had gathered in Tahrir before midnight, and some planned to spend the night. The atmosphere felt almost nostalgic, as if protesters were reliving their roles from last year’s revolution. Many vowed not to leave the square until their demands were met.


Nov 212011

The situation looks particularly grim after deadly clashes in Tahrir Square left 11 dead and many injured this weekend. As one protester put it: “We need a constitution.” Instead, they are getting the brutal hand of the army which appears determined to isolate itself from any democratic solution that may be implemented – in other words, there will be no real democracy.

But there are issues that run far deeper than simply the army’s plans for itself; the real challenge may lie in the complex relationship between the army, the Muslim Brotherhood, and liberals who may be willing to compromise on army proposals over fear of the Brotherhood winning a majority in the elections. From the NY Times:

The Muslim Brotherhood, which helped lead the Islamist rally, issued a statement declaring the ruling military council responsible for allowing excessive violence against unarmed protesters, and it called for prosecution “of all those who commanded this attack.”

But it also issued a pointed challenge to “politicians and intellectuals,” presumably referring to Egyptian liberals. Many have urged the adoption of some sort of ground rules protecting Western-style civil liberties before a potential Islamist majority of the Parliament might dominate the constitutional convention. The military acted on those suggestions to present the liberals with a kind of devil’s bargain: a declaration that would have protected individual and minority rights, but also granted the military permanent political powers and immunity from scrutiny as the guardian of “constitutional legitimacy.”

“Will you respect the will of the people or will you turn against it?” the brotherhood statement read, in a direct challenge to the liberals. “Your credibility is now on the line, and we hope that you will not turn against it.”

There may be no party allegiances when running through Tahrir Square with the military shooting at you, but some may fear that will change when it comes to the ballot box. This may be a turning point if the liberal Nobel-prize winner and presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei is accurate:

It would have been more honorable for the cabinet to say the state has failed and to leave for others to manage the country,” he said, arguing that neither the military-led cabinet nor the generals themselves were qualified. “This is not a crisis,” he said. “The country is falling apart.”

Once again, good video of a grim weekend from Aljazeera:

Oct 272011
A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

A poster of Khaled Said with words “police at service of the people” written on the background

If there was one symbol of the Arab Spring in Egypt, it would be the young Internet activist and blogger who was beaten at a table in an Internet cafe in Alexandria by plain-clothes police and then dragged off into an adjoining building where he was murdered. Khaled Said’s “crime” on the 6th of June, 2010 had been nothing more than uploading videos of police corruption and images of his battered body quickly circulated on the Web. Within days, a Facebook page created by Google marketing executive Wael Ghonim titled “We are all Khaled Said” became the most popular site in Egypt, with thousands of people replacing their own FB profile photos with the victim’s image.

The video that lead to his death does not even seem all that shocking (you can watch it here) – your basic run-of-the-mill police corruption around drugs, but it was more than enough to run him afoul of Egyptian authorities. Watching it, you quickly sense that it wasn’t the video; it was what he was doing with the video – putting it online – that made him a target.

Two police officers involved were put on trial in July of 2010 but it was postponed until February of this year. After three forensic investigations and endless arguments over procedural issues, a verdict was finally reached this week. And the result?

Seven years on a manslaughter charge.

The result has outraged Egyptian activists even though it was the maximum possible sentence. There will be an effort by the family to overturn both the verdict and the sentence and retry them for charges that could carry the death penalty. Activists were also outraged at the scene in the court, where the officers’ families attacked Khaled’s uncle and lawyers, and smashed benches in the courtroom which was closed to the public. As his uncle put it:

This case was like taking the pulse of the revolution, but the verdict tells us that the revolution has been aborted . . . . This is a signal on which direction the revolution is heading.

So I leave this with the image below, the classic Cold War symbol of oppression and freedom, all the more poignant with Khaled Said’s portrait . . . paradoxically the separated concrete slabs and the face staring ahead almost give it a distant echo of the hauntingly beautiful Fayum Mummy portraits from the Coptic period in Egyptian art.  One desperately hopes Khaled’s uncle is wrong. One hopes the walls are still coming down.


Graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski, Khalid Saeed

The portrait of late Khaled Mohamed Said (1982-2010), internet activist from Egypt, was painted during the ceremony of the FES Human Rights Award by the graffiti artist Andreas von Chrzanowski aka Case on elements of the former Berlin Wall © Joel Sames

Oct 122011

Finance Minister Hazem el-Beblawi

And I’m humming a song by the English rock band, The Who. Egypt is in turmoil with protests by Coptic Christians over the burning of a church. Running street battles with the military have resulted in 26 deaths and over 500 wounded, and now the resignation of Hazem el-Beblawi, the liberal Finance Minister and Deputy Prime Minister. The current government is losing credibility and the interim Prime Minister, Essam Sharaf, also offered to resign (Al Jazeera television carried a rumor that the entire government had stepped down (later denied by the Ruling Council).

You know which song I mean. . .

Tuesday night, new evidence confirmed accounts of Egyptian soldiers using live ammunition and crushing protesters in armored vehicles (autopsies reveal 10 of the 26 died from vehicle impact). There’s widespread anger over the military’s handling of the demonstration with Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al Masry al-Youm, publishing a front page editorial condemnation:

The state lost its prestige, the regime is about to fall apart, and Sharaf’s government doesn’t have any credit anymore; the only thing they have left is the dignity of resignation . . . In transitional periods, good intentions, gullible smiles and seeking the consent of the presidential military council are not enough.

I want to scream, “No, no!

This is not what Tahrir Square came to symbolize for people around the world back in January – the military stalls on democratic reforms, blames external conspiracies, kills protesters to maintain “social order”, and pits Egyptian against Egyptian in the streets. People fought and died for something more than this.

Yes, the lyrics of  “Won’t be Fooled Again”:

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around me
Pick up my guitar and play
Just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again
Don’t get fooled again
No, no!

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

There is a lot of video out there, but this one seems to capture the events of the past few days:

Aug 032011


From the most powerful leader in the Arab world to a luxurious palace in Sharm el-Sheikh, to a hospital bed and finally, an iron cage in a military courtroom on the outskirts of Cairo. An indelible image of our era as this is the first time an Arab leader has been forced into a legal proceeding by his own people. Yes, there was Saddam Hussein’s capture and trial, but that was largely due to a U.S. military operation. And it happened in Tunisia, except that the former President, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has been tried in absentia since he now resides (in a no doubt luxurious home) in Saudi Arabia.  Charged as an accomplice in the killing of protesters and corruption for accepting financial gifts, Mubarak and his nine co-defendants (including his two sons, Gamal and Alaa) could face the death penalty.  For complete details, Robert Fisk once again provides a good account in his article “Mubarak Trial Begins” in the Independent as does Aljazeera.

As the day wore on, the proceedings were largely taken up with legal motions and the trial will get underway in earnest on August 15th. The apparent defense strategy by Mubarak’s lawyer, Farid el-Deebis, is to drag the military into the proceedings as he wants Defense Minister Hussein Tantawi to testify, arguing that he was the person in charge of security for most of the 18 days of the protest movement. Shrewd move as Tantawi is now Head of the military council that runs Egypt and it is hard to imagine that the military wants any involvement besides responsibility for holding Mubarak for trial. He also wants to call 1,600 (not a typo) additional witnesses which would drag the trial on for an eternity if granted.

Outside the courtroom, fights broke out as about fifty Mubarak supporters clashed with supporters of the Egyptian uprising. And much further afield, it seems that Syria is using the media focus on the trial as an opportunity to crush the opposition in the city of Hama.

Here are the opening minutes of the trial .

A second video of the not guilty pleas by Mubarak and the co-defendants can be seen on Aljazeera.

Aug 022011
Egyptian workers prepare a hall that will serve as a courtroom for the upcoming trial of the ousted Egyptian president Mubarak. AFP photo
The Iron Cage for Mubarak’s Trial

Tomorrow may be fascinating – or not – depending on what happens in Egypt as August 3rd marks the day Mubarak goes on trial. And in the ultimate irony, the cage he will be held in during the court session is a device of his own making, created to hold religious radicals and secular opponents that he would put through a rubber-stamp legal system and then sign off on their execution warrants. Turkey’s Hürriyet Daily News put it best in an article titled: “From Iron Fist to Iron Bars.”

So if all goes according to the announced plans, Mubarak and perhaps sons Gamal and Alaa, along with a few others will be subjects of the media trial of the decade (well, so far). Word in the street was that it would be postponed, probably until he died, so as to avoid the spectacle of Egypt’s former leader facing the charges against him. Judge Ahmed Refaat, the head of the Cairo Criminal Court, has promised a quick and very public trial – indeed, it will be broadcast live on Egyptian television.

Or not, depending on what happens behind the scenes. We’ll be watching closely this closely but in the meantime, see the excellent piece by Robert Fisk who conveys the irony and view of the trial on the street in a well-written piece, “Egypt awaits first trial of an Arab Spring dictator,” in the Independent.