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Sphinx, Lies, and Audiotape

Why conspiracy theories are so popular in Egypt.

Cairo, Egypt -- On a hot July evening this past summer, toward the end of our interview, Aref Desouki, vice-chair of a faction of the liberal Ghad Party, suddenly got defensive. After dodging questions about Egyptian State Security’s infiltration of his party, the bespectacled, cane-carrying mathematics professor wanted to emphasize that political conspiracies aren’t unique to Egypt. “You are controlled in the U.S. by an underground government,” he said, completely seriously. “A secret government that is related to the Zionists and the Jewish-Christian Zionists. For at least forty years, the U.S. has been more supportive of Israel and no U.S. president can go against this or he will be killed, like Kennedy. And when Clinton talked about Arab rights, they sent Monica to his office. And Monica is Jewish.”

Through nearly five months of interviews with opposition leaders in Egypt, I have come across perfectly well-educated people who happen to believe that the CIA killed Marilyn Monroe (because of her affair with Kennedy); MI-6 killed Princess Diana (because she was dating Dodi Al Fayyad, a Muslim); and the U.S. government was behind 9/11 (because a few Al Qaeda operatives couldn’t have possibly pulled off such a large operation), among many others. Yet inasmuch as these conspiracy theories typically emerge from deep-seated bigotries within Egyptian society, they are also fueled by the fact that, for nearly six decades, there were real conspiracies against the Egyptian people.

Slowly but surely, some of these conspiracies are coming to light. Earlier this month, activists stormed Interior Ministry, State Security, and police headquarters nationwide, finding numerous documents demonstrating the Mubarak regime’s deep interference in Egyptian political life. The activists found personal files containing printouts of their e-mails, transcripts of their phone conversations, data on their Skype conversations, and information on their Facebook activity. State Security tracked both their political work and personal lives, apparently digging for intimate details to humiliate regime opponents publicly.

In one document, State Security chief Hassan Abdel Rahman ordered a local officer in Beheira to “investigate the tax position” of Al Gabha Party Secretary Ibrahim Nawwar. (Al Gabha is a liberal party founded in 2007, which took a number of strong stances against the Mubarak regime, including boycotting the 2010 parliamentary elections.) The document noted that Nawwar “defended” Al Gabha Party chairman Osama Al Ghazali Harb’s decision to open local party’s headquarters for various liberal opposition movements’ activities. Another set of documents contained e-mails between leading liberal youth activist Esraa Abdel Fattah and her ex-husband, which indicated that State Security knew that reconciliation was possible and used agents to circulate rumors of an affair.

The documents also shed light on State Security’s immense spying capabilities. One document reportedly contains a full transcript of a meeting among top youth leaders, held in a tent that was erected in Tahrir Square during the revolt. The activists believe that State Security listened in through their cell phones, which can be tapped even if they are powered off, and, to avoid this kind of surveillance in the week prior to the January 25 demonstrations, they used to put their phones in an iron pot in another room during their meetings. But it became impossible to take this precaution after they began camping out in Tahrir Square.

Yet the most outrage-inducing documents suggest that State Security planned the January 1 bombing of Al Qiddissin Church in Alexandria, which killed 23 people and injured 70 more. A letter to Interior Minister Habib Al Adly, dated December 2, 2010, reportedly indicates that State Security used an imprisoned Islamist to help coordinate the attack, and contains information regarding the church’s entrances and exits. This thoroughly discredited the Mubarak regime’s January 23 announcement that an Al Qaeda-linked Palestinian group had executed the attack, during which Mubarak congratulated the police on state television for finding the perpetrators. Apparently, this was the dictator’s last-ditch effort to discourage the protests that would be held on Police Day two days later.

Of course, it is impossible to know whether any of this is true. The very fact that the documents pertaining to the church bombing were found so quickly raises important doubts about their validity. But since some conspiracy theories now have even a shred of documentary proof, conspiracy theories are most likely here to stay. After all, people now have ample reason for believing that their suspicions about their own government were completely justified. And these documents will likely encourage them to remain suspicious moving forward.

The only long-term solution for this problem is for future Egyptian governments to operate with maximal transparency. To its credit, the Supreme Military Council, which currently governs Egypt, took an important step recently when it announced the closing of State Security. And the public’s widespread acceptance of the results of last Saturday’s referendum on proposed constitutional amendments suggests that a more democratic future may hold the key to finally banishing some of the Egyptian people’s suspicions.

Eric Trager is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pennsylvania and an associate scholar at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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