CAIRO — The Egyptian government's crackdown on suspected Islamists has come to this: a terrorism probe focused on a puppet.
Abla Fahita — a Muppet-style character who regularly appears on Egyptian television — went on the air Wednesday night to deny allegations that her lines in a recent commercial were coded messages to the recently banned Muslim Brotherhood organization.
"I am a comedic character," Fahita, a gossipy widow, said in an interview with Egypt's CBC network.
The investigation of the puppet is an extreme sign of a climate of fear and paranoia in Egypt that has intensified in recent weeks.
Since a coup ousted President Mohammed Morsi in July, the military-backed government has arrested thousands of people believed to be tied to the Islamist group he was associated with, the Muslim Brotherhood. Lately, even more repressive security measures have been adopted following a spate of deadly bombings blamed on Islamist militants.
Authorities have arrested people — including a young schoolboy — simply for displaying pro-Brotherhood signs or paraphernalia. And this week, secret police detained four journalists with the Qatar-based news channel Al Jazeera English, alleging that the reporters — including one Australian — had joined the Brotherhood and helped incite riots. The network denied the charges.
And now, there is the investigation of the puppet. She has been accused by a little-known activist who goes by the moniker Ahmed Spider. The young man filed a legal complaint that was forwarded to special terrorism prosecutors.
"As stupid as it is, it's very telling," Ziad Akl, a political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, said of the puppet case.
"It says a lot about the patriotism frenzy we are in. There is definitely a sentiment of fascist nationalism that you either subscribe to, or face being labeled a traitor."
The military has enjoyed broad public support for removing the democratically elected but deeply unpopular Morsi, who had lost support because of rising crime, a sinking economy and his courtship of hard-line Islamists while in power.
The swelling nationalism — fanned by the country's state- and privately-owned media — has given the army-backed government the legitimacy to quell further dissent in the name of national security.
Today, opposition to the government is being suppressed even more brutally than it was under strongman Hosni Mubarak, the longtime ruler who was forced out in the Arab Spring revolt in 2011. And the campaign against government critics has gone beyond Islamists.
In November, authorities jailed some of Egypt's most prominent pro-democracy activists under a draconian new protest law that severely restricts free assembly. Security forces have arrested hundreds of students who have staged regular anti-government rallies on university campuses across the country.
The string of recent bombing attacks — many of which involve jihadist groups based in the Sinai Peninsula — has spurred public calls for a strong response from the state.
The government last week designated the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization, one of the most serious moves against the group in its 85-year history.
Morsi himself is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 8 on charges of involvement in the killing of protesters outside the presidential palace in Cairo in December 2012.
Officials have made a series of seemingly far-fetched allegations against Morsi and the Brotherhood, including that they conspired with Iran to seize power in Egypt. Morsi has also been charged with stealing livestock from a prison complex he escaped from during the 2011 uprising.
In a post about Fahita on her blog, Inanities, the British Egyptian writer Sarah Carr said the public mood in Egypt has become "almost fascistic in its reverence" for the elimination of opponents or critics of the state.
"Sometimes it seems that Egypt does extreme tragedy and extreme comedy and nothing in between," Carr wrote.
Signs of the paranoia about potential enemies are rife. Last fall, security forces in the country's south detained a stork they suspected of spying because it was wearing an electronic tracking device.
The puppet Fahita's suspicious messages were allegedly transmitted in a new commercial for the telecommunications company Vodafone. Security officials summoned Vodafone executives Thursday to interrogate them.
In the ad, Fahita is shown speaking with someone on the phone about how to find and reactivate her late husband's telephone SIM card. She mentions using a sniffer dog at a shopping mall in an effort to locate the card.
In a statement, Vodafone said the skit was meant to explain to consumers how to reactivate old cards. But Ahmed Spider, an opponent of Egypt's 2011 uprising against authoritarian rule who filed the complaint, interpreted the reference to the mall as a suggestion for the location of a forthcoming bomb attack.
Other phrases in the commercial allegedly allude to the government's recent seizure of Muslim Brotherhood assets, Spider says. He adds that the appearance of a cactus adorned with Christmas decorations in the commercial is a threat of violence, with the ornaments symbolizing bombs.
The Associated Press said it received an emailed statement from Vodafone that called Spider's interpretation of the ad "mere imagination."
On social media sites Thursday, the investigation of Fahita was widely mocked. Twitter users started the hashtag #FreeFahita.
"We are laughing about the puppet now, but replace the puppet with anything else — another symbol, another figure — and the media can manipulate and do anything with it" in this climate, Akl said.