Egypt’s Israeli conspiracy psyche

Before former Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s unceremonious ousting from power, he resorted to the desperate tactic many dictators attempt when faced with questions they can’t answer. He blamed “hostile elements in the pay of foreigners…manipulated from outside the country.”

When Egyptian leaders employ this tactic, by “foreigners” they might mean Islamic fundamentalists from other countries. But more often than not, it means just one thing: It’s a Zionist conspiracy.

It took less than two days for some prominent members of Egyptian society to blame a Zionist conspiracy for the five Egyptian copy-cats of the Tunisian man who burned himself as a form of protest against the government.

In an effort to analyze the would-be suicides, member of the Al-Azhar-affiliated Islamic Research Academy Magdy Mehanna told Al-Youm Al-Sabei newspaper, "[Suicide] is an objection against God. […] How can a Muslim do this? […] It must be related to the Zionist plans to bring down the Arab and Muslim world.”

From orchestrated power outages to remote-controlled killer sharks, Egyptian accusations against Israel range from the plausible to the ludicrous. The frequency and sometimes absurdity of finger pointing in the Israeli direction has left Egyptians vulnerable to ridicule in the foreign media.

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal went so far as to dub Egypt “a nation of political imbeciles.”

Stephens was particularly incensed by the audacity of some intellectuals to include Israel in their pool of possible suspects for the bombing of the church of St. Mark and St. Peter in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve.

Ammar Ali Hassan, a political analyst who Stephens first singled out, says, “from a subjective and natural perspective, Israel is still considered an enemy of Egypt, and has overtly targeted Egyptian interests by illegitimate means up until recently when Egypt discovered an Israeli spy ring working in Egypt.”

Writing in response to Stevens, Hassan commented that “the imbecile is he who does not assess every single possibility, no matter how small it is."

Egyptian authorities meanwhile blamed "foreign entities" for the bombing, but didn't clearly signal whether they meant Israel or Al-Qaeda.  

Although it happened over 50 years ago, the Lavon affair may bolster Hassan’s justification for including Israel in his selection of possible suspects.

The Lavon affair was a failed Israeli covert operation in which Egyptian Jews were reportedly recruited to plant bombs at American and British-owned targets, with the ultimate aim of the Muslim Brotherhood, communists, and others being blamed for the bombings.

Times were different then, with hostilities still fresh from 1948 and just two years to go before the 1956 war between the countries. The veracity of the claims does not irk some Egyptian intellectuals as much as the negative effects the whole Zionist conspiracy psyche has had on Egyptian society and discourse.

“In the end, we shouldn’t let [the issue of] Israel divert us from the fact that we have real local issues to deal with. Israel or not, we have to deal first with the fact Egypt does have fertile ground for breeding terrorists,” Iman Hamdy, an AUC lecturer on Egypt-Israel relations, says.

According to Hamdy, part of the problem is that, while Israel may not always be clean, Arabs–and Egyptians in particular–like to assume that injustice is perpetrated against them, and never consider that they created a situation internally that allowed certain events to happen.

“In Lebanon we talk about Israel’s sinister role since the 80s, and somehow we forget that they are the ones who had the civil war and invited them in the first place. In the Alexandria bombings we are willing to look into conspiracy theories about who organized the bombing, but we are forgetting that the situation was such that they were able to carry it out,” she says.

The current strain between Israel and Egypt stems from a more substantiated conspiracy theory: Israel’s involvement in the Nile basin, which threatens Egypt’s water security. Israel has long been playing an active role in the looming secession of southern Sudan from the north, which Egypt generally views as a threat.

“Israel is probably involved in the Nile basin issue, but I don’t see why we need to claim conspiracy theories. It is expected. This is just normal regional diplomacy. We compete with them regionally and their involvement in the Nile basin is known,” Hamdy says.

When Egypt experienced a blackout in 2010, and internet outage in 2008, Israel was also a prime suspect. The theory was given credence when reports suggested that a captured spy said Israel was in fact behind the internet outage.

Over the past five years, however, Israel has been accused by Egyptians of being involved in far more than trying to destabilize Egypt through bombings and the disruption of basic services and natural wealth. Theories have included blaming Israel for sending GPS-directed sharks last December to eat our tourists and hence kill off Sinai tourism, and for flooding the market with chewing gum that alters sexual behavior in 1996.

Egypt's intellectuals have almost uniformly deprecated the tendency to so quickly spread such frivolous accusations. “When it came to the shark issue, you have to note that almost every scientist and intellectual immediately came up against the rumor that Israel was behind it.  A line has to be drawn between credible considerations based on historical precedence and conflict, and absurd wives’ tales,” Hassan says.

The Egyptian government has been criticized for allowing the public's suspicions to be diverted toward foreign elements in order to take the spotlight off of their own iniquities at times. “Any government in crisis tries to find a foreign scapegoat against which to direct public angst,” Hassan says. 2010 was indeed a year of crisis for the Egyptian government, which had to cope with labor unrest, food crises and sectarian violence; capped off with elections widely seen as fraudulent.

“The [government] doesn’t always blame Israel directly. They point to 'foreign entities,' as happened with the Alexandria bombings, and they let public consciousness do the rest,” Hamdy says.

Some of the more ridiculous theories–like the shark one–came during periods when Israel was already much referred to in the Egyptian press. Mentioning Israel in the media tends to strike a chord with the population.

Hamdy believes this inherent mistrust and popular desire to accuse the other is not entirely confined to Egyptians. Israelis assume that, for Egyptians, the situation between the countries is more of a “long truce” than anything else. “The problem between the countries is more of an existential one, and that is bound to be a constant source for conspiracy theories,” she says.

Along with many other Egyptian intellectuals, Hamdy says that ultimately it is pointless to keep pointing to conspiracy theories in our country, with all of the other internal and local crises begging to be resolved first.

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