Writing by Patrick Keddie
In her recent book, Sex and the Citadel, Shereen El Feki writes about the increasing scourge of impotence afflicting Egyptian men. El Feki discusses the widely held view that Egyptians’ wilting willies may be down to an Israeli plot, whereby secret agents are deployed throughout the country equipped with belts that emit radioactive waves, or something, that dampen the ardour of unsuspecting Egyptians. It has nothing to do with obesity, smoking too much or the crippling pressure of marital expectations after years of sexual chastity.
When a hungry shark was terrorising bathers in Egypt’s Red Sea resorts, many peoples peculated that it had all the hallmarks of an Israeli plot. Perhaps they had sent it to eat tourists and destroy Egypt’s most vital industry? South Sinai’s governor said the allegations merited investigation.
The shark is not the only animal to come under suspicion as an agent deployed by nefarious foreign powers. A wild bird was recently hauled in for questioning by the Egyptian authorities after a vigilant citizen noticed a suspicious electronic device attached to its body. Could it be a spy-bird, equipped with a camera? No it could not; it was a stork that had been fitted by scientists in France with a monitoring device to track its migratory movements. The bird was cleared of all suspicion and released (although its freedom was short-lived after it was reported that the much-bothered bird was captured again, killed and eaten).
Football is the national sport of Egypt, so it was deeply upsetting when Ghana trounced the Egyptian national team 6-1 in a World Cup qualifying match earlier this month. Sensible people ascribed the defeat to Ghana’s superior footballing skills and the Egyptian defence’s propensity to flap and scatter like startled pigeons whenever the ball came near them.
But the battering by Ghana was so brutal that it was inevitable that some began to cast a suspicious eye on some dodgy decisions by the referee. Or maybe it was somehow a Muslim Brotherhood plot? Perhaps the American coach Bob Bradley was deliberately trying to make Egypt look very silly?
Egypt is a great country for conspiracy theories – the nuttier, the better. In relation to penises, animals or the national football team, talk of agents and conspiracies are amusing and, although genuinely believed by some, are widely shared as a joke. But when they are used to shut down debate or demonise groups of people they become more sinister and even deadly.
The vast majority of Egyptians are very welcoming to foreigners. I have often been shown extraordinary kindness and hospitality in Egypt. But a certain level of suspicion, xenophobia and belief in outlandish plots has long existed and has intensified since the military deposed President Mohammed Morsi in July this year.
The authorities and their mouthpieces in the Egyptian media have whipped up an ultra-nationalist fervour amongst the many Egyptians who supported the military in their action against Morsi. Television channels and newspapers have claimed that foreign journalists and governments support the Muslim Brotherhood en-masse. One Egyptian newspaper even revealed that Barack Obama is a secret member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
On October 6, when Egypt celebrates winning the 1973 war – students of history should note that this conflict actually ended in a stalemate that favoured Israel – I was advised by an Egyptian friend not to join the festivities in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. “They will wonder what you’re doing there and will think you’re a foreign spy” he told me. When I suggested to him that foreign spies would probably look less like me (manifestly foreign with halting Arabic) and more like him, he agreed, “Mmm, yes but anyway that’s what they’ll think.” Foreign journalists were beaten and arrested later that day whilst covering protests elsewhere in the city.
Syrians have become the latest group to be scapegoated by the authorities, accused of collectively supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. Syrian refugees are now being harassed, imprisoned and deported in greater numbers. Tawfiq Okasha, a popular talk show host, recently told his viewers to hand over any Syrians they found (and Palestinians and Iraqis for good measure) to the police.
Muslim Brotherhood figures and supporters have been dismissed wholesale by some as ‘terrorists’. Egyptian figures who have criticized the actions of the military have been accused of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood and therefore supporting ‘terrorism’ by de-facto. The state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram published what it called ‘a blacklist of the fifth column’, a group of people it accused of undermining Egypt by raising concerns over the military’s conduct. In addition to Islamists, the ‘blacklist’ also contained progressive figures who have expressed reservations about the military’s actions, including the liberal, anti-Muslim Brotherhood politicians Amr Hamzawy and Mohammed El Baradei (who has also been accused by some Brotherhood members of orchestrating the military intervention).
Indeed, not to be outdone, Muslim Brotherhood members have formulated their own wacky theories regarding Morsi’s ouster. The Brotherhood have stated that the US and Israel orchestrated the ousting (sometimes Saudi Arabia and Iran’s names have also been thrown into the mix). The Muslim Brotherhood’s official website ‘Ikhwanweb’ briefly hosted an article claiming that interim President Adly Mansour is secretly Jewish. Most disturbingly, Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers have blamed Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority for the military intervention. Sectarian attacks against Christians have soared in the past three months.
Many people will readily believe the most outlandish tosh if it serves their prejudices and their political agenda. If the truth is complex, messy, painful or inconvenient, then perhaps it is easier to deal in gibberish. The thrilling simplicity of a plot can override logic and nuance, discarding the need for evidence. Delusion is a useful political tool, enabling whole groups of people to be attacked and their humanity sidelined.
[This article was first published in the Huffington Post here]