CAIRO — The holy month of Ramadan brings with it not only prayer and abstinence but the largest television audiences of the year as families break the daily fast with bountiful evening meals that last for hours and are eaten in front of TV sets.
Egypt's eight channels boost their advertising rates during Ramadan and vie for viewers by broadcasting soap operas and often-controversial series.
This year, the controversy has gone international, with censors allowing the broadcast of "Horseman Without a Horse," about an Egyptian journalist struggling against British imperialism and Zionism. The series, set in the Middle East of the 19th and 20th centuries and billed as a historical drama, premiered Wednesday.
"The series presents historical facts commenting on the beginning of Zionism," director Ahmed Badr Eddin said.
And that is exactly what has ignited a rancorous global debate that has reached the U.S. State Department and stirred anger in Israel and among American Jewish organizations.
At least some of the research for "Horseman" is allegedly based on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a century-old document recognized almost universally as an anti-Semitic fraud concocted by the secret police in czarist Russia. Hate-filled at best, "The Protocols" spells out the alleged secret plans of Jewish leaders to attain world domination and was cited by Adolf Hitler.
U.S. Ambassador C. David Welch met with Egyptian officials to express concern that "Horseman" could inflame anti-Israeli tensions and, if it relied on "The Protocols" for research, would present a grievously erroneous account of history.
The controversy reached the office of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, with spokesman Nabil Osman issuing a statement saying it was "immature" and "unintelligent" to prejudge a work of art. The series does deal with the Zionist movement and the plight of the Palestinians, he said, but it does not promote anti-Semitic or religious hatred and is not based on "the so-called Protocols."
"It is neither acceptable nor reasonable to selectively heap accusations of anti-Semitism on artists simply because they sympathize with the plight of the Palestinian people and thus are critical of Israeli policies and practices," he said.
"The Protocols," which Jews consider "a warrant for genocide," is widely available in the Arab world. Scholars here say it is not used in any Arab studies center and is issued only by poorly regarded publishers. But critics say the presence of "The Protocols" reflects extraordinary ignorance of or deliberate disregard for Jewish sensitivities.
Arabs "don't see it as anti-Semitic; they see it as anti-Israeli," Abdel Moneim Said, head of the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said in the Cairo Times. "The whole Israeli-Palestinian situation is distorting everything in the region.
"People are feeling a big insult and a deep wound, and the only way to strike back is by doing things like this," he said. "They discovered that this is what makes Americans and Israelis mad, and so they do it."