Does dividing and ruling Egypt need an outside conspiracy?

Descending into Cairo International Airport at 4am you enter the diaphanous layer of orange smog over the city: disgusting, weirdly exciting. Then coming out of the metro tunnel (still not having slept in like 3 days) you pass the sidewalk newsstand and are greeted by this somewhat offputting picture:

Welcome home.
The bleeding xenophobic nastiness is the cover of this month’s October magazine, announcing the cover story on “The Maspero Fitna [sectarian strife] and the Plot to Divide Egypt.” I bought for the issue to see what it was all about, then had trouble figuring out where in the house to place it so it wouldn’t catch me by surprise and gross me out to see the Nile flowing out of Uncle Sam’s shirt cuff; this isn’t something you want on your coffee table.  The whole issue seems to be about justifying and glorifying Egypt’s armed forces in the wake of the Maspero massacre: not only the cover story, on which more in a minute, but also some smaller pieces. One columnist lamented that 6 October was simply treated as a convenient day off, whereas it should be held sacred as the commemoration of “the greatest Arab military victory in modern times” (pretty sad).  Another columnist suggested that in the atmosphere of insecurity and uncertainty now gripping Egypt, it is necessary for the people and the army to “renew their faith in one another” (!) and become closer than ever.

Now to the cover story. I noticed ten years ago – and it is still largely true though maybe a bit less so – that in Cairo there is always one meme per day making the rounds, the same phrase repeated by everyone from the doorman to the college president; then the next day the whole country gets a secret memo with the new meme of the day. After Maspero it was “foreign hands” inciting sectarian violence because they “don’t want the country to be stable.”

So riding around in various taxis ten days ago, I had heard fragments of this “foreign hands” theory. One man believed it was chiefly Israel planting provocateurs among the Christian demonstrators in order to destroy the country and take it over, because “I know Copts – some of my best friends are Copts – and Copts are basically cowards – they wouldn’t want violence.”  Another man thought the Maspero massacre was done by Salafis paid by Gulf powers like Saudi Arabia, “to reduce the country to chaos to show their own people that a revolution doesn’t lead to anything good.” (That’s actually a pretty good one.)  Whatever the particular agent, I wondered where people got the idea of blaming someone else for what clearly seemed to be a state-perpetrated massacre of civilians and an episode of sectarian street violence incited by the state-run media (see Bassam Youssef’s scalpel-sharp Jon Stewart-style piece on the incitement).

Now, reading the magazine, I discovered where they got it: from the state-run media!  October is a state-run magazine that costs less than 40 cents.  Even if you don’t buy it, you see the headline on the sidewalk.

The cover story is by retired general Hossam Sowilam, whose complex theory proposes a variety of conspirators.  Of course Israel and the United States, but also Iran, Qatar (it hosts al-Jazeera), and perhaps some Palestinian groups, among others, who knows.  Why would these diverse enemies want to create a chaos-paralyzed or divided Egypt? Each has its reason, but the basic idea is to take it over, or destabilize/disempower it in order to “pursue the Broader Middle East Strategy outlined by George W. Bush.”  Colonial grand strategy is unproblematically applied to the contemporary United States, disregarding the very great price (in money and credibility) that the U.S. has paid precisely not to split up Egypt but to maintain stability and the appearance of unity in its government.  Egypt’s armed forces are the only positive character in the piece.  My favorite part is where he invokes the Crusades to ask who liberated Jerusalem and answers himself (anachronism, what anachronism?): the Egyptian Army!  Led of course by Saladin, or Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi. You can read the whole incoherent rambling theory (in Arabic), or look at Thanassis Cambanis’ recent Atlantic post on his interview with the same guy.

Sense-making is not the point here; the buckshot approach allows a reader or viewer to choose one strand of the theory; the whole need not cohere.  Sense-making was also not the point of SCAF’s fuck-you press conference one week ago, in which the generals deployed the abusive-spouse defense (“I didn’t hit her, and anyway she started it”) not so much to clear the cloud of fear Maspero created as to exploit it. As if to say, hey, we hold the monopoly on legitimate and illegitimate force, so we don’t actually need to make sense.  We are in power; we can kill demonstrators on Sunday and brazenly lie about it on Wednesday.  For a lot of people outside the Twittersphere, this strategy actually worked; many ordinary people sided with the army and against the demonstrators.  (“What were the Copts raising so much trouble about, anyway? We have never had a problem with them here. We’ve always treated them very nicely.”)

I almost thought that press conference was the end of it, the door slamming shut for good, but fortunately the reaction to Maspero continues. On TV right now,  journalists Mona Shazly and Ibrahim Eissa are grilling two SCAF generals, not only about Maspero but about basic questions of Egypt’s government, in a special three-hour (so far) talk show co-hosted by two independent TV stations.  The generals are patronizing and again make no sense, oscillating between hectoring and damage control (“They did not respect the proper rules and procedures of demonstrations. The soldiers were scared, they wanted to avoid becoming casualties like their comrades. Any country’s military in our position would have reacted the way we did”); the journalists are being polite (Mona, the same TV host who interviewed Wael Ghonim in the midst of the revolution last Feb, has this affect as though it made her really, really sad to tell SCAF to their faces they are doing a terrible job running the country). But at least the conversation (or missed opportunity for conversation, since they are pretty much talking past each other) is happening publicly.  They are even taking questions from the public via Facebook and Twitter etc.

There have been some good ones from the journalists: does SCAF really plan to hand over power? Does it want Egypt’s cabinet to be weak and dependent? Doesn’t SCAF realize that it is a political power now with a political role, so it needs to think like a politician and not just react like an army? Aren’t they wrong to pretend “all’s for the best in the best of all possible worlds” (ليس بالامكان ابدع مما كان) in Egypt’s security apparatus?  Who knows if this interview will really lead anyone to recommit to the revolution project.  But in a state where the military apparatus has appropriated the voice of God (in a few different ways) in the past 60 years and especially the past 9 months, at least people are still making the gestures of trying to see past the generals’ cynical theodicy.

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5 thoughts on “Does dividing and ruling Egypt need an outside conspiracy?

    • Thanks for the link – interesting! But I want to emphasize that conspiracy thinking is not some kind of Arab anomaly; it is 1) fostered by all authoritarian regimes as a way to build unity and explain away their failures 2) deeply comforting to disempowered people who would like to think that there is SOME larger authority (not to say deity), however malicious, actually capable of masterminding what’s going on. Hence the myth of American omnipotence, the deep-seated erroneous belief that somehow the war in Iraq is serving American interests. Further, conspiracy theorizing in the Arab world is a rational response to a long history of REAL conspiracies, including some that are almost implausibly complex, in and against various societies and governments of the Middle East. The history of colonialism, divide-and-rule etc. is not that distant. This is the point I make about Hamlet: his father really HAS been killed and the murder covered up; his uncle really IS conspiring with the British to take Hamlet’s life (“Do it, England!”); something really IS rotten in the state. Any wonder he is a bit paranoid, perhaps ungracefully so?

      • I agree that this isn’t anything specific to the Arab world and is common in authoritarian regimes. A colleague suggested another explanation that seems plausible to me: the idea that someone must be “behind” events, that someone must be directing them, could be partly a product of the culture of the military, in which all collective action follows orders from above, and never emerges spontaneously or from below. Hence when Egypt’s generals see collective action, they assume that someone must be directing it, giving orders.

  1. Is it surprising that after long practice under an autocratic regime ordinary people can no longer separate their own opinions from official “suggestions”? It is not on their interest.

    Need an outside conspiracy? Yes it does. It is only human to blame someone for your failures — no particular need for cynicism. An alternative would be to blame someone inside. This is typically used to start massive repression, arrests, etc. Placing the enemy outside is a sign that for the moment the generals actually do not want blood and in fact prefer unity.

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