Golden Oldies: Egyptian Conspiracy Theorists

I used to write about Egypt a lot, I keep finding old articles. This one is particularly informative because it highlights the duplicitous role government controlled media played in fostering conspiracy theories. The government of Egypt systematically filled the heads of its citizens with garbage for decades. I have every sympathy for them, but I worry about how they are going to put together a modern functional government.

Egyptian Conspiracy Theorists
By Aaron Mannes – November 3, 2004 12:00 AM

Egypt’s chattering class must have been surprised when Egyptian security arrested several Egyptians for the October 7 bombings at tourist resorts in the Sinai. Egyptian pundits had asserted that Israel must have orchestrated the attacks. But don’t expect a retraction. From the 1997 Luxor massacre, to the crash of EgyptAir 990, to 9/11 and now the Taba bombing, every major event is presented through the prism of vast forces — usually Israeli — conspiring to destroy Egypt. While this penchant for conspiracy is written off to ignorance and poverty, in fact the conspiracies are engineered from the top and serve the purposes of Egypt’s regime.

Consider the statement (courtesy of MEMRI) of Dr. Dhiaa Rashwan, an expert on Islamic fundamentalism at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies: “This operation is the [work] of a security apparatus… and the one who gained the most was Israel, and thus one should attribute [the operation] to Israel. For the Israeli security [apparatuses] it is easy to carry out an operation on lands adjacent to its borders and then retreat into Israel…”

The al-Ahram Center is Egypt’s most distinguished think tank. Dr. Rashwan’s s statement is roughly equivalent to a Brookings scholar claiming the CIA masterminded 9/11. Although to truly understand the statement’s significance in Egypt, imagine if Brookings was part of the same organization as the New York Times, and the U.S. President appointed the chairman of the organization. (The al-Ahram Center is part of the al-Ahram Foundation, a conglomerate that publishes Egypt’s leading newspaper — al-Ahram — and numerous other periodicals. The government appoints the chairman of the al-Ahram Foundation.)

Rashwan repeated these comments to several Arab media outlets. Nor was Rashwan atypical. Numerous establishment figures — former officials and government-controlled newspapers, including the house organ of the ruling National Party’s policy committee — insisted that Israel orchestrated the Taba bombings in order to force Egypt to cooperate more closely with Israel and distract the world from Israeli actions in Gaza. One analyst speculated that the attacks were part of a convoluted Israeli plot to re-take the Sinai.

Whether Egypt’s experts actually believe these fictions or not is impossible to ascertain. But, their conspiracy spinning serves the regime’s ends. First, blaming Israel exonerates Egyptian security for any failings, since they could hardly have been expected to foil a plot by the all-powerful Mossad.

Blaming Israel also downplays the very real possibility that al-Qaeda and its Egyptian affiliates remain active. The Egyptian regime, while deeply flawed, has vigorously cracked down on radical Islamist terror. In fact, it was the defeat of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya and al-Jihad, which led their leaders to flee the country, and into the arms of bin Laden. These leaders, especially al-Jihad leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, played a key role in pushing al-Qaeda to concentrate on the “far enemy” — that is the United States. If after a decade of vigilance, with security forces unrestrained by human rights concerns, al-Qaeda and its affiliates can still launch an operation in Egypt it is an embarrassment to the regime.

Finally, the chorus irrationally claiming that Israel committed the bombing, allowed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to again appear as the indispensable man. Asked about the conspiracy theories, Mubarak replied, “I don’t know what happened. First we need to investigate in depth… I cannot accuse anyone, Israel or others, until the investigations lead to results.”

This apparent moderation shores up Mubarak’s standing as the only figure who can prevent the emergence of a radical Islamic Egypt. This stance is central to his credibility. In the over two decades since Mubarak ascended to the Presidency, Egypt has been characterized by economic stagnation and a steady decay in freedom. The only defense for Mubarak’s regime is that it is preferable to the Islamists.

Besides serving the regime’s tactical need to distract the Egyptian people from the crisis de jour, the government encourages conspiracy theories to demoralize the Egyptian people and keep them compliant. Conspiracy theories foster what leading Egyptian liberal writer Tarek Heggy describes as, “a defeatist attitude that runs counter to pride and self-dignity and to the notion that nations, like men, can shape their destiny.”

These convoluted tales find a ready audience among Egypt’s poorly educated, impoverished masses. But, as the genesis of the conspiracy theory surrounding the Sinai bombings demonstrates, those at the top of the Egyptian pyramid use them as a tool to distract and discourage everyone below.

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