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Adam Curtis | 15:15 UK time, Monday, 21 February 2011

Very few people in the west saw the present revolutions in the Arab world coming.

I think one of the main reasons is that we are still locked into a simplified way of looking at the Arab countries - above all Egypt - that began in the 1970s.

I wanted to go back and look at the roots of that powerful but distorted vision.

It dates back to the moment in 1977 when Anwar Sadat went to Israel to open the way to a peace treaty - that was then signed in Washington in 1979.


Ever since then we have tended to report on events on the Arab world through the prism of how it will affect the peace with Israel. At the same time western politicians have assumed it was safer to have the strong old men in power to prevent disruption of the peace accords.

These things are important - but by concentrating on them we have ignored a lot of other things and, to an extent, have created an imaginary Arab world.

I have found a fascinating documentary made in 1982 called "Why Was Cairo Calm?"  And I thought I would put it up because it shows very clearly and dramatically how that skewed vision began.

It begins in the days after Sadat's assassination in 1981 by an islamist cell of army officers. The American media had led an outpouring of shock and grief in the United States at the death of the heroic president. All the western leaders then travelled to Cairo to say goodbye to the man who had courageously changed the course of history.

But then they found that practically no Egyptians turned up to the funeral. And the western politicians and the American TV reporters couldn't understand why.

The documentary tries to find the answer.

It tells the story of Sadat's presidency - and how the American TV networks created a fantasy vision of him as a wise democratic leader who had opened up the Egyptian economy to the free market, and was loved by his people for making peace for Israel.

As the film shows - this was a complete illusion. And that when that image was played back to the Egyptian people they were angered and shocked. And the film makes a strong case that it was that anger that contributed to the decision to assassinate the president.

It has a great piece of footage from inside the court where the assassins are being tried. At the end of the trial one of them addresses the western media through the bars of his cage - desperately trying to tell them that they have a fantasy vision of Sadat.


The documentary argues that Sadat became an imaginary American hero - an illusion that he then came to believe. Or as one of the young Egyptians says in the film.

"He lived like an American President, and sadly he died like an American President. On television" 

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  • Comment number 1.

    Thank you as always; I was waiting to hear your view on the Middle East rebellions and I knew that you would have something illuminating to contribute.

  • Comment number 2.

    Thanks for the interesting documentary. Here is another detailed documentary from 60 Minutes of the 1977 riots in Egypt, eerily similar battles to the recent events:


    I think this documentary is pretty illuminating too.

  • Comment number 3.

    A wake-up call for those who see in the protests in Cairo, Manama, etc a massed cry for Democracy. Is it not more likely to be a massed cry for better living standards, however delivered, and an assertion of local identity against the 'globalisation of tastes'? That it may not be the liberation that it is assumed to be by liberals?

  • Comment number 4.

    One thing that has struck me, tangentially related, is average (internet dwelling) US citizens and their views on say Afganistanis - in the 1980s they were virtually honorary US citizens, standing alongside John Rambo in their defiance of Soviet oppression. Now some of the same people, and those they have recruited since then, are often referred to as subhuman savages and similar invective. Whether it is caused by propaganda, tribalism, or whatever, there always seems to be a willingness in any populace to accept their government is doing the right thing in foreign countries - even in sections of the public which normally profess to distrusting government being able to do anything right. Large chunks of the Republican base seem to fit this model exceptionally well, although no doubt it is something that tends to affect everyone, at least to some extent.

  • Comment number 5.

    The Assad dynasty in Syria is supposedly as repressive as any in the Arab world, but it has remained implacably anti-Israel for the two generations of its existence and seems untouched by the current waves of rebellion. Gadaffi is probably more hated for dancing diplomatic tangoes with the likes of Blair than he is for any repression of his oil-rich people. Dictators usually remain popular so long as they are giving the people what they want emotionally, and hate is the second strongest emotion.

    Hopefully Syria will collapse next week and prove me completely wrong... :-D

  • Comment number 6.

    This makes so many things clear. I don't think many in the West or anywhere thought of Mubarak as benevolent, but most people in the US probably just stopped paying attention to Egypt after Sadat was killed. The false economic boom in Egypt during that time is all too familiar, looking back on it after the booms and busts that have occurred since then all over the world. I recall even at the time the stories of how Egyptian contractors would build high rises much higher than they were designed for, with shoddy building materials, and they would collapse. Only subsidies of bread and other necessities kept most of the common people going, and millions lived in illegal slums.

    Perhaps that situation of the early 80s in Egypt is not so different from the more recent economic troubles, the short-term greed and willful blindness that manifested itself in disastrous lending, lack of regulation, etc from the monied financial elites, and the fallout for everyone else worldwide.

    Unfortunately throwing off a dictator in a democratically inspired revolution does not automatically result in democracy, or any kind of stable government for that matter. If the western powers have lost all legitimacy in the eyes of the people of the Middle East, it's for good reason; but democracy doesn't just happen by itself, and the other alternatives are usually some form of authoritarianism or civil war.

  • Comment number 7.

    western power supported these regimes so that they could have some control over the region.not bothered about the people who suffered there.now that they have woken up it has put a spanner in the works of these countries

    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

  • Comment number 8.

    As a great fan of "The Trap" and "The power of nightmare", I am sure that you , Adam Curtis is more than just interested with the events of the Arab world. "The Trap" concluded with a statement worded in the form of " Not all attempts to acheive positive liberty can end in chaos". I never understood what you were trying to convey. Maybe you now have an answer .

    Im sure this blog is just one of many more to come. Im anxiously waiting for them.

  • Comment number 9.

    "Western" foreign policy towards the Middle East has always been firstly to support Israel, thanks to the machinations of the lobby worldwide and here within our parliament - the cross party friends of israel movement.

    Secondly to prop up military dictators and dynastic royal families, that will support Israel and ensure Western interests when it comes to a cheap and plentiful energy source.

    The hypocrisy of our government is there for all to see when David Cameron admits that the UK has been prejudiced for believing Muslims cannot manage democracy & Britain was wrong to prop up ‘highly controlling regimes’ as way of ensuring stability, and then to back his words up with some meaningful action, he takes the heads of eight arms producing companies to Egypt with him to ‘to build democracy’.

    And you wonder why some quarters of the world have a problem with "The West"?

    I recently wrote a piece titled "The Middle East Revolutions – All Part of American Public Diplomacy 2.0 Initiative – The New Shock & Awe?" and would be interested to know how many other's picked up on this.


    It's interesting to note that the neo-cons are all coming out of the iraq induced shadows they have been hiding in for the last few years to claim this is some sort of victory for themselves and their ideology.

    What we are witnessing is a global awakening.

    The quest for political dignity, especially through national self-determination and social transformation, is part of the pulse of self-assertion by the world’s underprivileged.

    The turmoil we are witnessing is a by-product of their political awakening, the fact that today vast masses of the world are not politically neutered, as they have been throughout history.

    Akh The Angry Academic Activist

  • Comment number 10.

    It is easy to present global/western governments as naive, hypocritical, greedy, self-interested etc in there interactions with other countries, and in their apparent disregard for the plight of the majority of people's human rights. However, I suspect that the one over-riding motivation behind most of their actions is the avoidance of uncontrolled war. I realize this is a little ironic given recent history, but I believe the point is still valid. In fact, one could argue that it was the neo-cons abandonment of realpolitik in favour of 'crusading' for democracy that led us into Iraq (less so Afghanistan).

    However badly people suffer under repressive regimes, global war emanating from the middle east would be much worse for everyone.

  • Comment number 11.

    "A wake-up call for those who see in the protests in Cairo, Manama, etc a massed cry for Democracy. Is it not more likely to be a massed cry for better living standards, "

    How are these two things in opposition? If Democracy is to be more than an abstraction--a rhetorical rallying cry for despots, it's material content must be accepted as integral to its reality. Of all the things a people might choose to act upon in exercising its freedom, surly securing the well being of family and hope for their future will always be among the first. What is to be guarded against is the danger of some limited degree of prosperity being bartered off for all the other less tangible blessings of freedom, as under Corporate/Capitalist regimes which dole out less and less to their ever more dependent population of wage slaves.

  • Comment number 12.

    We could be seeing the end of the somewhat ragged Middle Eastern US bloc that possibly represented the last of the surviving 20th century spheres of influence. The current US political elite's response (Dem. and Rep.) is as bewildered as that of Gorbachev in 1989. Decades of US military investment and tacit acceptance of authoritarian rule (and corruption) in exchange for political quiescence to US goals, has now been rewarded with a situation spinning completely beyond US control. Like the Soviets, the US has largely believed their own story; but supporting unpopular rulers is the surest route to losing the support of the Arab street. Huge amounts of aid to Egypt will only cause resentment if the average Egyptian sees no benefit.

    Perhaps we will even discover that the Saudis do not enjoy living under a socially repressive theocratic regime, and the Americans, unless they are prepared to unleash their massive Saudi based military on unarmed protesters, will be as resilient as an apparently massive stone-built cathedral spire hit by an antipodean earthquake.

  • Comment number 13.

    At what point do elite - whether they be the ones with their foot on north african and middle eastern citizenry, or remote, suit-wearing, Ivy League educated bods, accept that they do not in fact have the wholeness of information, nor the soundness of judgement, to justify the frequent concentration, extension and application of their power to things like global market regulation or domestic politics in countries that are not their own?

  • Comment number 14.

    It might be worth digging this one out of your BBC vaults Mr. Curtis.

    "Tuesday 4 May 2004
    Every day brings news of killings and unrest in the Middle East. But is the region's problem not instability but too much stability? Twenty-five years ago, Gadaffi controlled Libya, Mubarak controlled Egypt and Arafat controlled the Palestinians. An Assad ruled Syria, a Hashemite Jordan, a Saud Saudi Arabia. The rest of the world has changed, but not those names. The Arab nations are home to 260 million people but not one is a full democracy.

    In The Arab Crisis (8pm, Radio 4) Maha Azzam goes in search of the Arabs calling for a greater say in their own lives. She begins the two-part series in Egypt, where she was born. "

  • Comment number 15.

    @Jacob Russell
    Parliamentary democracy (“Democracy”) and material wellbeing are not necessarily opposing concepts, but in places like Egypt they tend to be very far apart. The South African case is instructive – another poor country with mass unemployment which is respected because of its relatively large economy and the boldness of its former leaders. In South Africa over the past 15 years of Democracy the standard of living of the average person has not grown at all – see the latest UN Human Development Report – whereas for people in most countries and every single region of the world including Sub-Saharan Africa itself, the experience has been one of sustained growth. Even Egypt and Tunisia had growth at or above the international average for the same period. Parliamentary democracy does not equal material democratisation, prosperity or opportunity, and is not a necessary precondition for those things. This begs the question: If Egypt enjoyed above-trend increases in the level of human well-being for the past 20 years, why were people protesting in Tahrir Square? Or rather, who was protesting in Tahrir Square? Ordinary poor Egyptians, who of course are the majority? Or a larger-than-ever and more-educated-than-ever middle class, eager for respectability and opportunity? And if they get their beloved representative democracy might it not signal the end rather than the beginning of the dynamism of their country as a whole, a la South Africa? Egyptians will probably learn this the hard way. In that bête noir of the West, China, parliamentary democracy of course does not exist, yet the state has been able to extend prosperity to an historically unprecedented number of people. Singapore, another Chinese society with a one-party system, went from colonial basket-case to one of the richest countries in the world – with the world’s leading workplace productivity last year for example – in just a few decades. The dynamism of East Asian societies is unparalleled in human history and it owes nothing to sacred Western ideas like “Democracy”. Perhaps such ideas are really northern European parochialisms on which the world should call time?
    Western idealists should at least wait a few years before getting excited. Neo-liberal economics did for Sadat – and Democracy may well do for whoever comes next.

  • Comment number 16.

    did anyone else see Matt Lucas at 2 minutes 33 seconds :o)


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