Bad movie blues

The movie is bad, the standard of living is worse

The Arab world hates America. Nobody denies this fact, but it’s not just the Arabs. The Iranians hate America, the Russians can’t stand America, and even Benjamin Netanyahu loathes America. Hatred for America is not unique to Arab genes – it is trans-cultural and trans-ethnic. However, the world also admires America to the same extent that it hates it, because America is an economic and military power. What is more, Hollywood has caused us to identify with America’s heroes – and as we well know, cinema has a hypnotic influence on the psychology of the masses.This influence was recently manifested in the violent events which led to the murder of the American ambassador to Libya and the siege of the American embassy in Cairo. Surprisingly, this influence did not stem directly from the movie slandering the Prophet, but was spread by rumors. After all, those who took to the streets to protest and burn are not great cinema-goers, and most are unable to afford a computer. It is enough that the infidel Americans insult the Prophet for them to rampage against anything associated with America or the West, even though the producer of the movie is in fact an Arab.

Islam in power

It’s interesting that these events broke out in Egypt after the Arab Spring had handed the regime to the Muslim Brotherhood on a silver platter. It’s also interesting that the Arab Spring endeared itself to the West, which admired the Egyptian and Tunisian youth who brought down the corrupt dictators. Of course, corruption and a regime of tycoons are not an exclusively Arab phenomenon, but in fact very western – and thus the East and West come together. However, this time those attacking and burning were not the educated Facebook youth, able to distinguish between a good movie and a cheap provocation whose only aim is to incite the masses. Those responding to the call to guard the Prophet’s honor came from remote villages, from neighborhoods of poverty, from the slums. These people were forgotten by the Arab Spring and abandoned on the margins of society: After the revolution, the main themes of the demonstrations and public discussions did not concern the problems of the poor, but rather issues like religion or secularity, democracy or Islam, the role of the Army and how to deal with the culprits of the Old regime. When the poor asked for something, they were accused of being selfish.

Commentators in the Arab media are united in their firm opposition to the violence. In Egypt some made the effort to find out who the protesters were, and noted soccer fans, the “Ultras,” residents of the poorest quarters, who are always present in clashes with the police. These youth were at the vanguard of the revolution, yet—judging from the daily Arabic press over the past year—the way the new regime treats them is no different from the way the old regime treated them: You’ve done your work, now get out.

Until recently, the slogan “Islam is the solution” had been used to incite millions of young people against the old regime, the infidel regime which had sold its soul to the American-Zionist Satan and squandered the state’s resources at the expense of the people. The trick worked; the Muslim Brotherhood won the hearts of the oppressed and now they are in power. Apparently, there is no need for demonstrations in front of the American embassy, because the new Islamic president can simply close it and declare war on America in the name of the Prophet, as bin Laden and the Taliban did in Afghanistan.

But this won’t happen. Mohammed Morsi as president is not the same as Morsi in opposition, and religious demagoguery has made way for state pragmatism. When the riots broke out, the Muslim Brotherhood tried to ride the wave and even called for a demonstration of millions in Tahrir Square. But a single telephone call from Obama worked wonders, and the demonstration was cancelled. While still in opposition, Morsi preached in the name of religion against the International Monetary Fund, because its loans bear interest—a thing forbidden by Islam. Today, Morsi requests financial aid from the IMF while asking the US to cancel a billion dollars of Egyptian debt and invest millions in the Egyptian economy. Then this awful movie appears and mars the celebrations.

“Islam is the solution” but capitalism is the means. Morsi faces a broken economy, and his regime is shaky. To rebuild the ruins left by the preceding regime, Morsi has no choice but to count on capitalists at home and abroad. He may be Islamic, but Morsi is first and foremost a capitalist; thus the riots in front of the American embassy are a direct challenge to his regime and expose its real face.

For years Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood sowed seeds of storm, and now they are reaping the hurricane. Those who made cynical use of the pain of the masses to undermine Mubarak’s regime see their extremist Islamist competitors using the same method against them. The moment Morsi turned his back on those he brainwashed in the past, he created a vacuum which was quickly filled by Islamists more extreme than he, people who see him as an infidel. If proof is needed, they can note how he turns to the IMF, cozies up to the West, and has even made haste to send an ambassador to Tel Aviv.

Walking the wire

Morsi is walking a very thin line. On the one hand, in an attempt to maintain his popularity, he asks Interpol to bring the filmmakers, who hold Egyptian citizenship, to justice. On the other hand, he sends pacifying signals to the West. But America will not accept mixed messages. Morsi is no longer in opposition, and Egypt, a nation of great strategic significance, must take a clear stand before it drags the whole region into anarchy. The US has frozen aid to Egypt until after the American presidential elections, leaving Morsi high and dry, while ensuring he does not fall into the flames ignited by the film.

Far from the headlines and the public gaze, Morsi also faces another equally urgent issue. Millions of teachers, production workers, bus drivers, doctors, university staff, students and parent committees have brought Egypt to a grinding halt. These are not the incensed masses releasing their frustrations by torching an embassy. These are the productive masses who keep the wheels of the economy turning, and who now demand social justice. The Muslim Brotherhood was quick to associate the Ultras with the striking workers, accusing the latter of receiving foreign aid and acting for foreign interests. However, the workers are making the same demands they made to Mubarak – the demands which led to his ouster.

The Muslim Brotherhood pleads, “This isn’t the right time,” but the workers reply – “If not now, when?” The revolution demanded democracy and social justice. Democracy was achieved, but it has been used by the Muslim Brotherhood to take over the media and the main regime strongholds. Social justice for workers has been denied on the grounds that their demands could not be met, even though many Egyptians are unable to survive on their wages alone. Teachers offer additional private lessons, doctors run private clinics, factory workers do hours of overtime. Meanwhile the workers see how the Muslim Brotherhood sends police to arrest trade union leaders and disperse student demonstrations at the universities, just as the previous regime did.

Parliamentary elections are due early next year, after the new constitution is approved. Neither America nor the Prophet’s honor is high on the agenda. Egyptians’ immediate concerns are bread, education, housing, economic security, and social security, as well as freedom of association, freedom of speech, and the right to strike. During its rise to power, the Muslim Brotherhood lost many points; Morsi won on technicalities but failed to win the knockout. If he continues on the economic path followed by his predecessor— favoring the rich, disregarding the poor, privatizing the economy, passing favors to his party people, and accepting the dictates of the IMF—he will lose his parliamentary majority. The anger of the youth may break out against the Americans, but Morsi well knows that it is really directed against him. Demagoguery brought him to power, but now he needs to act – and this he seems unable to do.

About Yacov Ben Efrat