To the naive observer, the Egyptian television series "Knight Without a Horse" might seem like basic fare, with jiggling belly dancers, jealous wives, and men in mustaches plotting against colonial rule.
But this seemingly innocuous series stirred controversy weeks before it hit the screen. The United States, Israel, and Jewish groups have denounced its inclusion of a long-discredited, anti-Semitic forgery. Egyptian officials have denied that the series is anti-Semitic. And Arab intellectuals and artists have accused the US of stifling free expression and called on Israel to stop killing Palestinians before criticizing the program.
The 41-part series, which runs during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, has become a launching pad for people to voice their often extreme anger at America's Middle East policy and Israel's actions in the occupied territories. Observers say programs like "Knight" are one of the few ways people in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries can safely express political beliefs.
"In the Arab world, where people are not allowed to demonstrate or hang slogans, it is quite clear they will find other ways to express their anger," says Salama Ahmed Salama, managing editor of Egypt's largest daily, Al-Ahram. "It is a kind of resistance, especially at a time when the television is filling our eyes and ears with daily massacres of Palestinians, and we are constantly reminded of the incompetence and impotence of the Arab world."
As the series begins, its main character - played by well-known Egyptian actor Mohamed Sobhi, who also co-wrote the script - discovers the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a discredited 19th-century Russian tract that purportedly proves the existence of a Jewish plot for world domination. From its content, the hero learns that his true enemy is not the British, but the Zionists.
Mr. Sobhi clearly understands the political power of his series. Indeed, he warns that "Knight Without a Horse" is but one of many cultural broadsides to come. "They [the Americans and Israelis] see that a program I make is equal to a nuclear weapon," he declares. "Well, we have a lot of these weapons that we're going to make."
While many of the mass media in the Arab world are state-controlled, and censorship of the media and arts is widespread, governments sometimes officially tolerate programs like the Knight series in order to strategically exploit public frustration with America and Israel. US allies Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example, see this as one way to distract the public from domestic concerns, analysts say.
For similar reasons, anti-American and anti-Semitic rhetoric is state policy in more repressive Arab countries, like Syria, Iraq, and Libya. There the media "are used to gain domestic support by highlighting foreign enemies and giving excuses for the continuation of dictatorship, corruption, and incompetent government at home," says Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, in Herzliya, Israel.
While they have always been a force, anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism in the Arab media and arts have escalated in recent years. A recent editorial in the Saudi Arabian daily Al Riyadh claimed: "Life stopped in 'Israel' yesterday for two minutes, while the warning siren whistled all over the occupied territories of Palestine, in memory of the 6 million Jews, about whom 'Israel' lies, saying they were killed in Nazi crematoriums."
Walid Kazziha, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says the root cause is what Arabs see as the United States' unquestioning support for Israel and, more recently, its push for war with Iraq.
"It began with the Bush administration dragging its feet and not doing anything to solve the Middle East conflict," he says. "It was topped off by Bush receiving [Israeli Prime Minister] Sharon some six to seven times and describing him as 'a man of peace.'"