I Tried to Get a ‘Simpsons’ Writer to Admit That the US and Fox Orchestrated the Arab Spring
Conspiracy theories about politics and the US are as big of a cultural staple in the Middle East as hummus and pita.
In Egypt, the news broadcasters served as Mubarak’s puppets until 2011 when independent news sources popped up after the uprising. State-run news still exists in Egypt, and censorship is far from gone. Journalists face imprisonment on charges for anything from defamation to terrorism if the network they’re associated with “disturbs the peace”—basically talks smack about the government. It’s not just journalists; a puppet was accused back in January for “sending coded messages of terrorism” in a Vodafone commercial.
Since Egyptians don’t know who to trust, their imaginations often run wild, conjuring their own ideas and stories about “what’s really happening” to make sense of the chaos that surrounds them. Stories usually involve Zionism, the US, and the Muslim Brotherhood in some diabolical and fantastical plan on the basis of zero logic.
A quick plot refresher: In this episode, Bart, Milhouse, Nelson, and Ralph form a boy band the Party Posse, make a hit song called “Drop Da Bomb,” and in the music video, they drop a bomb on what appears to be an unknown Arab country but the Syrian opposition flag is prominently displayed on the jeep. Since the flag didn’t exist and the Syrian opposition wasn’t a thing in 2001, the conspiracy theorists took to Facebook and claimed that the US has been behind the Arab Spring the whole time. The revolutionaries are either foreign-backed, no-good scum trying to destabilize the region OR they had responded to subliminal messages sent through American pop culture that would only be in syndication in the Arab world years later therefore the collapse of the region couldn’t be traced back to the US government. Pretty fucking clever.
Well, these devious US antics couldn’t possibly get past the people who gave the world beer and algebra. The theory quickly migrated from social media to the actual news on May 5, when Tahrir TV anchor, Rania Badwy, aired the music video segment of the episode. In her analysis she points out that the conspiracy started on Facebook but she ends with, “The episode was created in 2001 before the Syrian opposition even existed… This raises many question marks about the Arab Spring and about when this global conspiracy began.”
Who knows! Maybe the US actually mapped out the Syria uprising 13 years ago, and the hard evidence is this Simpsons episode. Did the US send subliminal messages to the Arab youth so they’d revolt against their leaders? My Egyptian blood might’ve been jonesing for a good conspiracy, but I needed validation. There was only one way to find out, so I called up Tim Long, the writer of the “New Kids on the Blecch” episode, and tried to get him to admit to me that the US actually orchestrated the Arab Spring.
VICE: I just want you to know that this is a safe space, and you can be honest with me. Did you know that the Free Syrian Army would exist 13 years ago when you wrote the episode? Tim Long: I’ve been making a lot of jokes about how I totally knew and that was the secret reason I wrote it. I don’t want to make that joke in print, because people take these things very seriously. I will say to you that I did not know that.
So it wasn’t a subliminal message sent to the Arab youth to revolt against their leaders? It so wasn’t and the whole thing is so headachey, because the thing about being a comedy writer is that you’re a coward and you’re not willing to take stand on anything, much less a conflict that I don’t even begin to understand. It’s hilarious. The ironic thing about this [episode] is that it’s about subliminal messages. The idea is the Bart and his friends are recruited to join a boy band, but it turns out that the guy who recruited them is using it as a recruitment tool for the US Navy. There are all sorts of backward sentences in the song; it’s not a small episode in terms of its scope. Crazy things happened, but we did not take into account that it would somehow fuel the Syrian uprising.
"I once saw the Alamo in Texas while high on LSD. It was dirty and boring, but I had a good time and laughed a lot. I wish I had a tab of acid now because this place is dirtier than the Alamo and almost as boring. I know it’s the oldest man-made thing I’ve ever seen, but I just don’t give a shit."
As I scrambled up piles of cardboard and across varied detritus, I eventually peered over a metal barrier into the porcine enclave beyond. The two dozen or so pigs on the other side quickly scattered away to the shadows before slowly returning to where they were, munching on orange peels and the other organic materials left for them.
“Welcome to Garbage City!” yells one man below me, before continuing on in his business of compressing and packaging used cardboard. “You like the pigs?” he asks me.
Moises Saman’s Stunning Photos of Humanity in Conflict Zones
Peruvian photographer Moises Saman has spent the past few years living and working in Cairo and documenting the effects of the Egyptian revolution on the city’s residents—though he might argue that “documenting” is the wrong word. His work willfully avoids a chronological, ordered, historical view of the uprising, instead focusing on capturing humanity and the emotions of the participants. We spoke to him about how he maintains faith in humanity after working in war zones for years and the irrelevance of “objectivity” in relation to his work.
VICE: I heard that it was images of the Balkan conflict that initially made you interested in photography. Is that right? Moises Saman: Yeah, that was the first time I had any interest in photojournalism. Seeing that work in the mid- and late 1990s was an inspiration.
That seems odd, even by the standards of war reportage—the Balkans conflict always seemed to me a brutal and especially grim war. What was it that hooked you? I don’t know if it was necessarily anything particular about the photos, though amazing work was done there. I think it was more to do with that specific period in my life. It was a time when everything clicked in my head—when I started paying attention to the news and the world. Covering that war day in, day out was the moment that I “dialed in,” if you know what I mean. I became interested in the world beyond my personal bubble.
Cairo, Egypt. May 2, 2012. Anti-military protesters beat a man they allege was a pro-military thug during clashes near Abbaseya Square in central Cairo.
You went to the Balkans at the end of the conflict there—how did that trip effect your newfound awareness of the world? I went in 1999, in the summer. I was totally unprepared and it was a badly thought-out trip. My good friend who was meant to be with me pulled out, so I went alone. I maxed out my credit card and didn’t sell one picture from the trip. I had tried to read up on the situation, but once I was actually there, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing at all.
I needed to do it, though. I think good things came of it, and my experiences there matured me a bit. I went there, and I made mistakes, but thank God I came home in one piece. If anything, it reassured me that I wanted to continue exploring photojournalism.
A lot of your work tends to be done in war zones. How do you feel about the tag of “war photographer”—is it a label you resent? I don’t know if “resent” is the right word. But I don’t like it. I think it’s full of connotations that don’t really represent what I’m about as a photographer. It’s true that I tend to work in a lot of conflict zones. Somehow I hope my work is not just seen as something that is only related to conflict—people killing people and so on. Within the context of violence and repression, I try to find some moments that transcend that.
Sometimes it doesn’t work, of course, but it’s what I aim for. I look for moments that we can all relate to. It’s not just about showing events and images that eventually we all will become numb to—pictures of dead people or violence. So “war photographer” is a term I shy away from.
Abdullah Elshamy, an Al Jazeera correspondent, has now been in prison for 175 days and on hunger strike for a little over two weeks.
"I’ve lost a number of pounds. I only rely on liquids. The littlest effort makes me feel dizzy,"he wrote in a letter smuggled out of his prison cell, where he isn’t allowed access to pens or paper. “But it’s what I feel compelled to do in order to raise awareness about the importance of freedom of speech.”
Abdullah—who was arrested during August last year when armed police violently cleared a sit-in by supporters of former president Mohamed Morsi—is one of four Al Jazeera journalists in jail, all held on vague charges while prosecutors prepare formal proceedings. They are among the dozens of reporters in Egypt who have been beaten up or detained over the past six months. Nine more have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011.
These arrests and many of the deaths are symptomatic of what the country has turned into since the army ousted the Muslim Brotherhood–affiliated Morsi last summer. Egypt’s interim government is doing everything in its power to silence Brotherhood sympathizers, crushing the country’s revolutionary street movements by issuing a law that effectively bans any form of public protest.
Fifteen years ago, China changed its policy so people could buy their own homes. Real-estate investments boomed, and new cities began popping up each year, many inspired by western design and mimicking iconic locales like Paris and lower Manhattan. The problem is: people don’t live here. One ghost city in Inner Mongolia, built to house one million people, is now an empty shell of unoccupied skyscrapers and abandoned construction sites. VICE checks out this and other urban failures to figure out how China’s preoccupation with growing its GNP turned “supply and demand” into “build now, sell later.”
Segment 2: Egypt on the Brink
Over two years ago, Arab Spring climaxed in the overthrow of President Mubarek in Egypt. But for many Egyptians, the situation has actually gotten worse, as has the man who replaced Mubarek: Mohamed Morsi, elected under the radical Muslim Brotherhood banner. VICE visits the embattled streets of Cairo, where opposition to Morsi has resulted in renewed mass protests and violence in Tahrir Square. Among those we meet: members of the Black Bloc, youthful revolutionaries who disguise themselves with hoods and scarfs while vowing to oust Morsi and destroy the Muslim Brotherhood.
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Egypt’s Mohamed Mahmoud Anniversary Protests Were Pretty Surreal
The second anniversary of the 2011 Mohamed Mahmoud Street clashes was a confusing day of demonstration. Hundreds gathered in Cairo Tuesday to pay tribute to protesters killed by riot police during a crackdown on the Egyptian revolution two years ago, but wanting to commemorate those who lost their lives was about as close to an overall common ground as it got. Demonstrators included people who support the army, people who support the Muslim Brotherhood, and people who support neither and don’t want to be ruled by either a military junta or Islamists.
Thankfully, the scenes of November 19, 2011 weren’t repeated, but small scuffles did break out near the Egyptian Museum just off Tahrir Square as pro-army groups exchanged verbal—and then physical—threats against their opponents. For the most part, it was a peaceful day of demonstrations dominated by the “third square” movement that opposes both the army and the Brotherhood.
In the build up to the day’s events, various groups released statements outlining their plans for the day. The pro-Brotherhood “Anti-Coup Alliance” made it clear that they had no intention of going anywhere near Mohamed Mahmoud Street or Tahrir Square, “so as not to give a chance to the conspirators to fabricate violent incidents and blame them on the [Anti-Coup Alliance].” They kept their word and their protests were mostly confined to areas away from central downtown Cairo.