- Published on Friday, 30 September 2011 08:19
- Category: Letters From Egypt
As an American, I am used to politics being partisan and even at times vitriolic. But at least there is usually some agreement on the rules of the game and the validity of the constitutional system. Although political opponents criticize their adversaries as being servants of particular agendas, these cries generally do not descend into the realm of conspiracy. Yes, some on the “Left” believe there is a theocratic effort to take over the US government, and some on the “Right” think liberal secular humanism is bent on destroying “traditional” American values. Yet on the whole, the mantra proves true: Politics is the art of compromise. Following the vitriol, most American politicians do just that, and most Americans appreciate it.
In contrast, an American resident in Egypt – if he pays attention to local politics – will find the entire political culture awash in conspiracy theories. The tendency is to be dismissive; it is the response of a paralyzed people seeking to blame others for their problems, and a government actively encouraging the paranoia. Yet as a respected Egyptian journalist friend with experience on both sides of the Mediterranean told me, foreign hands have been meddling in Egypt for centuries. In other words, the palpable paranoia in this country is fueled by reality.
Even as an American, the longer you live here with an open heart to the people, the more the culture of conspiracy can take hold. There are a thousand applications to choose from, but of particular concern recently is the threatening developments in the Sinai: a regional Holy Grail of conspiracy, at the intersection of Israel, Camp David, the ruling Egyptian military council, and Islamic terrorism.
The story in brief goes that Palestinian terrorists crossed into southern Israel from Gaza through the demilitarized Sina, and killed a number of Israeli citizens during an attack on the port city of Eliat. Israel quickly targeted those it held responsible, for which Hamas unleashed heretofore largely suspended rocket fire into Israel, until a ceasefire was brokered. Meanwhile Israel also pursued fleeing Palestinians into Sinai, killing several Egyptian officers in the process.
Prior to this tragedy, Islamist forces in Egypt conducted a massive rally in Tahrir Square and elsewhere to demand an Islamic government. In the Sinai city of Arish that evening armed bandits purporting to be Islamists attacked the local police stations, engaging in a firefight with authorities. They allegedly identified themselves as al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, seeking the establishment of an Islamic emirate in the territory. The presence of al-Qaeda in Egypt had long been denied by the government, and was rejected once more. Yet the armed forces in the days to come cooperated with Israel to allow the movement of military personnel into the peninsula – as required by the Camp David Accords – in an effort to clamp down on armed groups. This mission was pursued more urgently following the terrorist attack on Eliat.
During the Egyptian revolution it is said that several prisons were opened and jailbreaks took place in others. A large number of these escapees remain at large, and it is reasonable to assume many have sought refuge in Sinai. With Camp David regulations limiting military presence in the Sinai, and a restive Bedouin population long frustrated with government neglect and resistant to government authority, the region has a reputation as a lawless frontier. To make matters worse, during the chaos of the revolution police stations were attacked and weapons caches plundered. Unrest in Libya has also reportedly contributed to a dramatic increase in arms availability in Egypt. Many neighborhoods have witnessed violence in family feuds, gang activity, or attacks on police. While still small in scale, these incidents forebode what may be an emerging crisis in the Sinai, especially as the doctor of Osama bin Laden, also an explosives expert, has been allegedly identified in the territory.
Or is it a crisis at all? This is where the power of conspiracy threatens to take over. From the Israeli side the benefits of a crisis are many. Israel has suffered widespread social protests over housing costs this summer. Israel faces a dramatic challenge to its Palestinian policy as the issue of statehood is submitted to the United Nations. One can wonder also if Israel was not averse to testing the nascent Egyptian military authority to see which way its domestic winds might blow when it comes to Egypt’s commitment to its international agreements. More wildly, might preparations be underway to retake the Sinai to establish security, or dump responsibility for Gaza onto Egypt, or expand Gaza at Sinai’s expense, or else craft Sinai anew as an independent buffer state?
Conspiracy theories can take aim at the ruling military council as well. While still fairly popular with average Egyptians, it has come under severe criticism for its handling of the transition to democracy. Reuniting the people against the common enemy of Israel could take attention away from these complaints. Moreover, could the specter of terrorism in the Sinai lead to restoration of full Egyptian sovereignty over the territory through an amending of the Camp David Accords with Israel? Might greater Egyptian control of the Sinai pave the way for the threatened million man marches from Cairo to Jerusalem in support of Palestinian independence?
This is the nature of conspiracy, to delve further and further into the extreme. Conspiracy is built on explanation without information, striving to make sense of confusing events in the absence of transparency. Yet who can deny that the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others exercise influence over Egypt’s affairs? Do recent events represent an attempt to escape from this influence, or a confirmation thereof?
Whether or not Israel intended the recent incursion as a test for the military council, it has quickly become one. Popular protests quickly surrounded the Israeli Embassy, and were allowed to continue for several days. Mixed messages have been sent about recalling the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv. Calls for a joint investigation into the incident have been issued. Meanwhile the government is erecting a wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy to provide further protection just in case. Many Egyptian parties and politicians are calling for a harsher response to Israel, following the example of Turkey. Is the military council treading nimbly between the niceties of diplomatic language and the fury of popular demands? It is too early to tell. After all, it was a full year between the Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara flotilla and the full diplomatic rift between Israel and Turkey. The test is still underway, and its results may be long in coming.
For the American living here, such conspiracy musings may be merely entertaining. But they can summon great passion from Egyptians. The label of “conspiracy” is dismissive and degrading, but there remains great concern by American residents and native Egyptians for the direction of the story toward greater instability. Al-Qaeda or not, weapons are proliferating, and extremist movements are (likely) in the Sinai. Increased tension between Israel and Egypt can just as easily lead to war as to greater mutual respect and sovereignty. Conspiracies of invention and play-acting for the benefit of domestic distraction are possible, but they could also become self-fulfilling prophecies.
If hope can be found, it is in the establishment of transparent institutions of democratic governance. People must rule, and be able to hold their elected representatives accountable. The military council has promised to hand over authority to a civilian government, but the process is still underway. Though a million conspiracies posit why this will not happen, it is yet within the power of Egyptians to see the process through successfully. As one American who still believes in the reality of our freedom and independence, I wish the same for Egypt.
By Jayson Casper, Aslan Media Citizen Reporter in Cairo