- By David KennerDavid Kenner is the Middle East editor at Foreign Policy. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon, and has been with FP since 2009 (a long time, he knows). He worked for FP previously in Cairo, where he covered the early days of the Arab Spring, and before that in Washington. He has attended Georgetown University and the American University of Beirut and has reported from Libya, Egypt, Gaza, Turkey, Lebanon, and Iraq.
CAIRO — Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Courthouse is a six-story behemoth looming over the eastern shore of the Nile. It is modeled in a neo-Pharaonic style: 14 lotus and papyrus columns stand at the entrance to symbolize Ancient Egypt’s laws of wisdom; pharaonic sketches adorn the façade. So it was only appropriate that Egypt’s modern-day pharaohs chose this location to set the course of the nation’s future.
By now, interested parties have digested the facts of the case: On June 14, Egypt’s constitutional court issued verdicts that simultaneously dissolved the Islamist-led parliament while blessing the presidential candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, a career military man and the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak. The decision wipes out the meager progress Egypt has made toward democracy, and sets the stage for a revival of the old networks of power that ruled under Mubarak.
But there is a difference between knowing the verdict and understanding the reason behind it. Both before the ruling and after it, Egypt has been seized by speculation about what the ruling is trying to accomplish, and what it says about the balance of power in the country.
And it’s not only the court verdict: Egypt today has become a republic of rumors, where citizens are more or less free to voice their opinions but as helpless as ever to uncover the motivations of the powers that be. These gaps in knowledge have spawned no end of hypotheses and conspiracy theories — a phenomenon that will only increase as the country enters a particularly murky period.
"What do they were we are, stupid?" asked Salam Ayyash, an activist who says he has been involved in anti-government demonstration since Mubarak broke his promise to seek a third term in office in 1993, when asked whether the ruling would be politically motivated. "It’s SCAF [Egypt’s ruling military junta], it’s the CIA — doing this two days before [the presidential election]. They do it very well. Chapeau!"
At the front of the crowd, close to the barbed wire that separated the demonstrators from the courthouse, a woman who gave her name as Yasmeen echoed the collective disillusionment with the judicial system. "We can’t get justice from the courts — there are remnants still in control, they have their interests," she said. "Businessmen back Shafiq, support him with money. They won’t allow it."
The judiciary, which had been under Mubarak’s thumb during his rule, has done nothing to ease popular skepticism about its mission. In a televised news conference last week, the president of the Egyptian judges association declared, "we are people of politics," and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of undertaking "a systematic plan meticulously designed to destroy this country." This only served to confirm many Egyptians’ fears: The revolution in Tahrir Square had not reached the courthouse a few miles away.
But in a world of incomplete information, when do reasonable suppositions enter the realm of conspiracy? Abdel Galil El Sharnouby, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former editor of Ikhwan Online, had a question for me: Why had Foreign Policy offered such positive coverage of Muslim Brotherhood figure Khairat al-Shater? It was, he argued, indicative of the U.S. government’s support for the Brotherhood.
"It is known that Foreign Policy is close to the centers of power in Washington, so it can not stray too far from that line," he said. "It is like Ahram [the state-owned newspaper] in Egypt."
Conspiracy theories in Egypt have proliferated to support every conceivable political inclination — and they’re not merely the purview of the man on the street. Shafiq himself has tried to shift blame for the death of protesters in last year’s revolution away from the security forces and onto the Muslim Brotherhood, saying they were seen throwing Molotov cocktails from the top of buildings during the infamous "Battle of the Camel" on Feb. 2, 2011. By way of explanation, he said he had "read this in a newspaper."
Admittedly, being governed by secretive and Machiavellian rulers only stokes fears that an "invisible hand" guides events. There was allegedly a "conspiracy of silence" to protect Mubarak during his trial, a "malicious conspiracy" to divide Egyptians during anti-Christian violence last year, and a conspiracy against revolutionaries during a deadly riot following a soccer game. Just because you’re conspiratorial, after all, doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.
But other times, the conspiracies take particularly extraordinary flights of fancy. In 2010, Israel had to shoot down Egyptian claims that it was deliberately stoking deadly shark attacks in Egyptian resorts along the Red Sea. At 11:11 am on Nov. 11, 2011, the Egyptian government shut down the Great Pyramids due to fears that "Jewish" or "Masonic" rituals would be held there at that time.
Of course, there is a world of difference between believing that Egypt’s military government is rigging the political game in its favor and that Jews and Freemasons are trying to harness the powers of the pyramids. But the common thread in this proliferation of theories is a lack of knowledge about the levers of power, either domestic or international. And as Egypt’s representative institutions steadily dwindles and politics retreats behind closed doors, more conspiracy theories are sure to proliferate.
The temperature in Cairo peaked at 95 degrees at 2:30 pm, fraying the nerves of the protesters, soldiers, and passersby alike. Traffic along the corniche road along the Nile was backed up roughly a half mile due to the demonstration and army presence outside the courthouse. At nearly the same time the court issued its verdict, a man stepped out of a taxi in the midst of the demonstrators to praise Shafiq. The taxi was quickly beset by protesters before speeding off, instigating the only mini-clash of the day.
"It’s an old game they play, to divide the people," one of my colleagues said by way of explanation. Was that true? Well, it’s a theory.