Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi holds forth on ‘Planet of the Apes’

November 28, 2012

President Mohamed Morsi speaks at a press conference. (AP/Nasser Nasser)

Mohamed Morsi, the engineer and Muslim Brotherhood ally who became Egypt's first-ever democratically elected president this year and who last week sent his country's political system into chaos by granting himself sweeping new powers, appears to hold strong views on the 1968 science fiction film "Planet of the Apes."

Morsi, in a lengthy interview with Time magazine, the transcript of which Time just posted online, abruptly transitioned from discussing the U.S.-Egypt relationship to the "Planet of the Apes" movie franchise. Morsi's point seems to be about Egypt's need to take responsibility for its own problems. Or maybe it's about economic self-sufficiency. Or "the role of the art." It's really not clear. Here's the leader of the Arab world's most populous nation:

I remember a movie. Which one? Planet of the Apes. The old version, not the new one. There is new one. Which is different. Not so good. It’s not expressing the reality as it was the first one. But at the end, I still remember, this is the conclusion: When the big monkey, he was head of the supreme court, I think — in the movie! — and there was a big scientist working for him,  cleaning things, has been chained there. And it was the planet of the apes after the destructive act of a big war,  and atomic bombs and whatever in the movie. And the scientist was asking him to do something, this was 30 years ago: “Don’t forget you are a monkey.”  He tells him, “Don’t ask me about this dirty work.”  What did the big ape, the monkey say? He said, “You’re human, you did it [to] yourself." That’s the conclusion. Can we do something better for ourselves?

I saw it 30 years ago.  That is the role of the art. This is the very important role of art.  Gone with the Wind has been treating social problems. Five in Hell. That was the Arabic title. Five Americans working behind German lines and they were using primitive military devices. I think it was Charles Bronson or something like that.  My hard disk still carries a few things!

First, an important point: English is not Morsi's first language, and though he studied in California for several years in the 1980s, he presumably has more important things to do right now than brush up on a foreign language. So try to give him a sympathetic reading in that regard.

Still, the interview, and particularly this digression about "Planet of The Apes," is just bananas. It sounds, for example, as if the president of Egypt may have bit-torrented "The Dirty Dozen," based on his description of "Five in Hell" on his hard drive. Fun game: Try to figure out who represents whom in this story (is the scientist meant to stand for the Egyptian government? For the U.S.? Who is Charlton Heston in this metaphor?) if you feel like killing half an hour.

My favorite part is when Morsi begins an anecdote about "the big monkey" that heads up the "Planet of The Apes" supreme court and has to cut himself off to clarify, "In the movie!" Perhaps he feared we might believe he was describing real-life judges – such as the Egyptian judges on strike this week to protest Morsi's decree granting himself sweeping new powers.

If I'm reading that correctly, then rest assured, Egyptian judiciary: Morsi might have revoked some of your most important powers, but at least he does not think you are a bunch of big monkeys.

Update: New York Times Lede blogger Robert Mackey digs in to the Planet of the Apes script to try to untangle Morsi's metaphor. Two important findings: First, as Mackey writes, it's "difficult to say which scene, in particular, the president was misremembering." Second, Morsi's identification of "the big monkey" as a supreme court chief is even more ironic given that no such character exists in the film. Morsi, it appears, just has judges on the brain.

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Caitlin Dewey · November 28, 2012