Can a puppet be a terrorist? In Egypt, this is a serious question.

A puppet in a commercial has been accused of espionage. Amid a crackdown on dissent, many Egyptians are too scared of being branded spies or terrorists to poke fun.

Vodaphone Egypt/YouTube
Abla Fahita, a puppet, appears in a Vodaphone Egypt commercial that some Egyptians say is a coded terrorist message.

On Wednesday night, Egyptian television viewers were treated to the sight of a grown man live-debating a puppet.

The doll in question – Abla Fahita – is the star of a new Vodafone commercial, and one of Egypt’s most recently accused spies. The commercial shows Ms. Fahita and her cloth-eared daughter as they search for the SIM card of a deceased relative. As Fahita chats away on her mobile, a radio anchor explains how to make "stuffed turkey" for Christmas.

Vodafone officials have been questioned over accusations that the ad conveys a secret message to the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement which has gone from political powerhouse to pariah status in just five months.

The man on the other side of the television debate, a youth activist who goes by the name Ahmed Spider, has filed a legal complaint against the telecommunications provider, arguing that Fahita’s words were so nonsensical that she must be dropping hints about a bomb plot. This is not the first time the errant puppet has sewn the seeds of sedition, he argued, reminding viewers of a previous advertisement in which she referred to Dolce Ice Cream as a "bomb."

The tale of Abla Fahita offered some humorous respite from coverage of the deepening political crisis that has followed the July 3 ouster of former President Mohamed Morsi. But it also belies the darker side of a country where polarization, fueled by the notion that Egypt is fighting a “war against terrorism," has muted dissent and stifled public debate.

Analysts say that the uncompromising nature of rhetoric deployed by both the government and the Brotherhood is pushing reconciliation out of reach.

Since Mr. Morsi’s ouster, Egypt’s interim government has led an extensive crackdown against the Brotherhood and other supporters of the former president, killing more than 1,000 and arresting even more. The movement was formally labeled a terrorist organization on Dec. 25, after a bomb attack on an Egyptian police headquarters left 16 dead and over 100 injured, although a militant group unaffiliated with the Brotherhood claimed responsibility for the attack.

Messages now scroll across many television stations, exhorting citizens to inform on neighbors they suspect to be members of the Brotherhood. Membership is punishable with jail time, and in some cases, death.

Journalists for state media outlets say they have received instructions to interview neither members of the Brotherhood, nor guests who may shy away from labeling them as terrorists.

“The whole atmosphere is incredibly restrictive. There’s intimidation, physical assaults, even detentions,” says Shahira Amin, who resigned as the deputy head of a state cable channel Nile TV during the 2011 revolution, and now works on a freelance basis. “All of this sends a very clear message,” she says. “If you don’t tow the government line, you are in trouble.”

She describes the impact on Egypt’s public debate as “catastrophic." 

Far-reaching effects

Next week, Egyptians will go to the polls to ratify a new constitution. While civil rights groups have criticized a number of articles within the document, rejecting articles which allow civilians to be tried in military trials, neither state nor private media outlets have engaged in much debate over its content. Instead, a yes vote has been portrayed as a patriotic act and a vote “against darkness."

This lack of freedom to contest issues vigorously in the media is by no means a new phenomenon. Under Mubarak and Morsi too, overt criticism of the ruling authorities was a difficult boundary to cross.

But the notion that Egypt is fighting a war against terrorism has made it even harder.

“With the 'war on terror' narrative, you get to the point where people who are not in favor of the narrative are described as aiding the sedition or the treason that the other side are purportedly trying to promote,” says H. A. Hellyer, nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and the Royal United Services Institute.

He emphasizes, however, that the besieged Brotherhood has also cracked down. “They are not going to listen to any sort of dissent from within their own camp, precisely because they regard the other side as fascists bent on wiping them out of existence,” he says. 

Driving through downtown Cairo, Khaled, a part-time taxi driver, says that he doesn’t know what to believe these days. He doesn’t think the Brotherhood was responsible for the Mansoura bombings, but he is also unaware of any other potential culprits.

“There’s no information out there for me,” he says. “Well, apart from what the government tells us on the news.”

A poll conducted days later suggested that 35 percent of Egyptians believed that the Brotherhood was to blame, despite the fact that Ansar Bayt el Maqdis, a Sinai-based jihadist group, claimed responsibility – a fact that received scant coverage here. In Daqahlia, the governorate where the attack occurred, this number rose to 42 percent.

With the narratives hardening on both sides – the government’s story is one of the need to stand firm in the face of terrorism, while the Brotherhood’s tale is one of injustice – reconciliation seems a dim prospect.

Nathan Brown, a longtime Egypt scholar at George Washington University, likens suggesting Brotherhood members reconcile with the interim government to asking that they make peace with a tyrannosaurus rex. “People think it’s crazy," he says.

“The political discourse is so overheated right now that I see no interest in reconciliation. The result will be very difficult for Egypt because you have a political process that I don't think is capable of healing its political divisions. It's political game in which nobody trusts anybody else.”

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