It is easy to despair of Egypt — a sick society run by a failed state. What keeps the country together is an ancient social fabric and the grace of god. Perhaps also its legendary sense of humour.
Egyptians talk of nothing more than all kinds of state failure, from the near daily deadly road accidents and abysmal health services to the collapsed education system. But do nothing about it. Promises are made by their government, which then blunders when it tries to fix it.
Last week, I began writing about Egypt’s endemic addiction to conspiracy theories, then I lost interest. What can another article do in the face of this mad avalanche !
Then this happened:
On November 11, a French journalist, Alain Gresh, was briefly detained by the police along with two Egyptians, a journalist and a student. Their crime? Discussing politics at a café in central Cairo.
The details were scary, but not new. A woman who sat next to them listening intently to their chat suddenly burst out: “You are destroying our country”.
Worse still was yet to happen.
The woman then rushed out of the café, and came back accompanied by a police officer, who subsequently detained the French journalist along with his Egyptian friends.
"Their crime? Discussing politics at a café in central Cairo"
As Gresh himself wrote about the incident, the most shocking thing of the whole episode which lasted only for a couple of hours was not so much his brief detention: “The most serious issue at stake is obviously not the arrest itself, but the fact that we have been denounced by a 'good citizen'. This move reflects the dominating atmosphere in the country and to which most of the media, including the privately-owned ones, are contributing.”
Clearly, the “good citizen” this time was not a member of the “rabble”, who were sometimes hired to attack “foreign journalists”. She was a well-dressed lady, and the fact that she was at a café in this upper class quarter suggests that the addiction to conspiracies have hit all walks of life in Egypt.
I have been at the receiving end of this madness many times before. I will never forgive myself for succumbing so easily once to “a citizen arrest”. I walked with the man so sheepishly to the nearest army barrack.
The officer there took out the video tape because a tiny bit of the fence of his unit had appeared in the footage. I was filming an old woman sitting on the pavement selling flowers, totally unaware that somewhere in the distance was a dusty building that turned out to belong to the ministry of defence.
My anger and frustration was compounded by my subsequent discovery that the man who arrested me was not a plainclothes policeman as I initially thought, but an ordinary Egyptian “patriot”.
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And this was not the only time. While I was on an assignment in Cairo a few years before the revolution, the taxi driver, who was supposed to take us back to our hotel, suddenly changed route and drove me and my English colleague to the ministry of interior because he thought we were spies. We resisted arrest of course, and my colleague threatened to call the British embassy. Eventually, we were allowed to leave, in another taxi of course.
This is how a relentlessly paranoid discourse disseminated by the state and the media translates on the ground. It is not new. Nor is it in the genes. But the government has for nearly six decades fed the public a daily diet of all kinds of conspiracies, sometimes to cover up its own failures, and, more importantly, to hold the country in an iron fist.
Egypt’s obsession with conspiracies has not always been unjustified. Israel and the old colonial powers have all played their part. In 1956 the three conspired to attack Egypt and re-occupy the Suez area — a fact which is often recycled to justify an unshakable belief in conspiracies today. French and British colonial powers conspired to carve out the collapsing Ottoman Empire after WWI, the disastrous legacy of which is still with us today.
Here is a sample of the maddest theories doing the rounds in Egypt today:
ISIS is the creation of the Mossad and the CIA. Mohamed El-Baradei is an Iranian agent. “Espionage certificates issued by Hamas” – yes, two supposedly respectable news papers published what they claimed was a facsimile — were found with arrested terror suspects. The phrase “an international plot to break up Egypt, and fragment the entire Arab region into statelets” is repeated millions of times by all kinds of politicians, tv anchors and talk show hosts. The few dissenting voices are immediately regarded as part of the same plot.
What is most striking is that you hear such views from university professors as well as taxi drivers.