-- During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as Egyptians lounge in front of television sets to digest their long-awaited evening meal after a day of fasting, it has become something of a tradition for Cairo stations to capitalize on the peak viewing season by airing controversial soap operas.
Last year's hit focused on polygamy. The year before, the most popular drama dealt with Egypt's Coptic Christian minority. Both programs sparked lively living-room discussions in Cairo. But this year, the special Ramadan program has provoked an international confrontation, with the United States and Israel accusing Egypt of complicity in anti-Semitism.
The series, "Horseman Without a Horse," is about an Egyptian journalist who struggles against British colonialism and Zionism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is inspired in part by the "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,"a century-old tract believed to have been fabricated by the secret police of Czar Nicholas II of Russia. The vituperative document, which purports to reveal a secret Jewish plot for world domination, was used in early 20th-century Russia and in Nazi Germany as a pretext for the persecution of Jews.
The U.S. and Israeli governments, as well as Jewish groups in the United States, have lashed out at the Egyptian government's decision to allow the broadcast of the 41-part series, which began Wednesday night. The serial also is slated to air on about 20 other television stations across the Arab world during the month of Ramadan, which started Nov. 6.
A State Department spokesman said the U.S. government is concerned because the program "appears to give legitimacy to something that's so odious, that's so insulting and so thoroughly discredited." The New York-based Anti-Defamation League has called on officials in Egypt and other Arab nations to "put a stop to programming that appeals to ignorance, hatred and anti-Semitism." This week, 46 members of Congress wrote to President Hosni Mubarak, whose government is the second-largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel and urged him to take the series off the air.
But Egypt, insisting the program is not anti-Semitic, has refused to back down, citing freedom of expression. Mubarak's spokesman, Nabil Osman, issued a statement saying that "prejudging a work of art . . . before seeing the actual production is simply an immature, unintelligent attitude." The program, he said, should be judged as it unfolds and not be subjected in advance to "intellectual and emotional terrorism."
The program is the latest manifestation of the Arab world's intense anger over Israel's hard-line policies in dealing with a two-year-old Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. Criticism of Israel and its Zionist philosophy, long a common refrain in Arab nations, has escalated in recent months. Israel and Jewish groups contend much of that rhetoric is tinged with religious hatred. In a letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell complaining about the series, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, said the program is part of "an ongoing pattern of anti-Semitic incitement in the Egyptian media which reverberates beyond Egypt alone."
Egypt's information minister, Safwat Sherif, said the series was carefully reviewed and government censors concluded it did not contain material that could be construed as anti-Semitic. Mubarak's spokesman said the show was being attacked simply because it was critical of Israel.
"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," Osman said.
The series deals with the Zionist movement and the plight of the Palestinians, but the show's star and producer, Mohammed Sobhi, maintained it does not promote anti-Semitic hatred. Sobhi said in an interview that "only 1 percent of the show is based on the 'Protocols.' "
"It's a political comedy," he said. "It is against Zionism, but it is not against the Jewish religion."
The serial's content has been difficult to judge from the first few episodes. The first installment begins with a narration by Sobhi as he and dozens of exhausted compatriots walk through a desert in 1948, in the aftermath of Israel's victory over the Arab armies that attacked the new nation created in what had been British-mandate Palestine.
"The armies of the free have been defeated by treachery," he says in a mournful voice. "Beloved Palestine is lost, grabbed by Zion's sons through organized plundering."
The second and third episodes rewind the clock several more decades, to the years of Ottoman rule in Egypt. In a later episode, according to the show's producers, a group of men fighting against British occupation find a copy of the 'Protocols' and have it translated. The men remark that the document appears to be an accurate forecast of events they are witnessing.
U.S. officials said staff members at the American Embassy here plan to view each episode. "We'll be watching very, very closely and raising these issues as appropriate depending on what actually airs," said the State Department spokesman, Richard Boucher.
Sobhi, a balding man with a deep voice who is one of Egypt's most popular actors, has offered contradictory versions of whether he believes the "Protocols" to be true.
He said in an interview that he believed the tract was a forgery. "I don't believe any sane human being would write something like this," he said. But in an earlier interview, with the Egyptian weekly newspaper Rose el-Youssef, he said his research revealed that 19 of the 24 protocols had been put into practice.
"Years ago, people were scared of this book because it shows what they were plotting," he said at a news conference this week. "But why are they scared of this book today, when their plots are clear to everyone?"
The series was produced by Dream TV, a year-old, largely private satellite broadcaster in Cairo that has courted its share of controversy over the past few weeks. Government broadcasting authorities launched an investigation of the station, 10 percent of which is owned by the Egyptian radio and TV union, after a popular talk show hostess broached the subject of female masturbation on a live broadcast. Another talk-show host recently touched on an even more taboo subject here -- presidential succession -- by lambasting the idea that Mubarak might be succeeded by his son, Gamal.
The dispute over the Ramadan series has all but guaranteed that Dream will lure most television viewers over the next few weeks, attracting people who might not have considered watching 41 hour-long installments that begin at 12:30 a.m.
"I'm curious," said Mohammed Adly, 41, a grocer in Cairo, who has been tuning in every night. "If Israel and America are so upset, it must be worth seeing."