A Jewish Sisi, masonic MB? Egypt’s crazy conspiracy theories are no joke
They may sound wacky – but conspiracy theories eventually lead to the disempowerment of citizens
Bizarrely, it would appear some quarters believe that a man of ‘Jewish origin’, who was seeking to implement a ‘Zionist plan’ to divide Egypt, now inhabits the presidency.
Elsewhere, people are talking about the Muslim Brotherhood as a ‘masonic group that aims to bring a new religion into Egypt’ - something inexplicable, but an idea gaining great currency.
There are great ironies to such theories on the one hand – and disquieting consequences on the other.
There is a particular irony when it comes to conspiracy theories in the Arab world. Arab culture is indelibly imprinted upon by Islamic traditions, irrespective of whether one is referring to Muslim Arabs, Christian Arabs, or Jewish Arabs, for example.
Within the Islamic tradition, the emphasis on verification of information is incredibly important.H.A. Hellyer
Within the Islamic tradition, the emphasis on verification of information is incredibly important – Quranic scholars, for example, will recount to students that the text of the Quran is related through the generations with huge numbers of transmitters at every generation. Thus, authenticity is assured. Specialists on Prophetic narrations, the source of the second basis of Islamic law, developed highly sophisticated systems of sifting through the different kinds of dependability of historical reports – they are still taught today.
When it comes to modern discourse, however, that seems to be secondary to political considerations. Few observers of the Egyptian press can deny that such notions are present, and at senior levels of different establishments – whether that is among supporters of the present political dispensation of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, or among supporters of the previously elected Islamist president Mohamed Mursi.
Sisi’s ‘Zionist plan’ – oh, and manmade tsunamis…
The strange claim of Sisi wanting to implement a ‘Zionist plan’ to ‘divide’ Egypt was not uttered by some kind of radical fringe. Rather, Gamal Nassar, a long-time Muslim Brotherhood member, who held a senior position in the group’s political wing, declared it on satellite television in 2013, with enduring currency for the idea. Adel Azab, head of the National Security’s extremist activity investigations department, put the assertions about the Brotherhood being a ‘masonic group’ forward recently, according to Egyptian media.
This conspiracy theory would be highly amusing, were it not put forward by a former high-ranking military officer in the Egyptian army.H.A. Hellyer
Of course, there are more to pick from. Last week, an Egyptian talk show discussed a conspiracy involving a “world supreme council” which reportedly is trying to wreck Egypt by using “fifth generation warfare”. One of the guests argued that the “new form of warfare involves controlling the climate to create tsunamis, floods and activate volcanoes, as well as directing asteroids towards enemy countries.”
Evidence included a foreign conspiracy blog, an album cover by an American hip hop band (named, “Army of the Pharaohs”), and graffiti paintings in downtown Cairo.
Again – this would be highly amusing, if the guest wasn’t a former high-ranking military officer in the Egyptian army.
A laughing matter?
When one looks at the conspiracies, often bereft of evidence, one is tempted to scoff in amusement. Sisi’s policies in Egypt are worthy of criticism and critique on a variety of levels. The claim about his origins is incorrect on the one hand, and irrelevant on the other. His parents and grandparents are all Muslims, but were he to have Jewish origins, he would have joined the many Muslims in history whose ancestors were Jewish, going from the Prophetic period until today.
When it comes to the Muslim Brotherhood, there are many things that can be noted about the group – but being a ‘masonic group’ with a ‘new religion’ is one of the least likely. Particularly as one piece of ‘evidence’ for this is that the founder of the Brotherhood’s last name means builder – or, mason. If that were truly the case, then the Muslim religious establishment of Egypt has a lot to answer for, for not pointing this out to unsuspecting Egyptians much sooner.
While one is tempted to scoff, it is no laughing matter. There are consequences to such discourse.H.A. Hellyer
My theory: Conspiracies have consequences
But while one is tempted to scoff indeed, it is no laughing matter. There are consequences to such discourse. When, for example, someone claims that a team of journalists were encouraged by “the devil” in order to “use journalism and direct it towards actions against” Egypt, one might want to smirk in amusement – but that formed part of the words of the judge in the original trial against Al Jazeera English journalists last year. He found them guilty.
The conspiracies continue in other ways and fashions. If one wishes to, one can explain the existence of ISIS as a plot of no less than 10 countries, all of them have vastly different policy agendas – Israel, the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UK… the list is endless. (In this regard, I confess, I’ve personal experience – in that as an analyst, I’ve often been accused of being both pro-military and pro-Brotherhood in Egypt, on the same day, but by different people, for the same piece of analysis.)
In the aftermath of the revolutionary uprising in 2011, as elements opposed to the revolution grew stronger and stronger, they argued that revolutionary figures were agents of foreign interests trying to bring down Egypt’s institutions. That kind of discourse is not cost-free – it allowed for the marginalization of that movement entirely from the public sphere, and later on, many were detained.
At the best of times, in stable democratic societies, conspiracy theories are detrimental. They do not inform citizens, but misinform and mislead them, and eventually lead to their disempowerment, as they become accustomed to blaming unseen maniacal forces for everything.
But when such types of theories inform not only the radical fringe, it becomes ever more dangerous – especially in societies that already have such grievous polarisations. Discourse matters – it was only through dehumanisation and demonization of the most base kind that has allowed for the most extreme types of abuses in Egypt by different quarters; the state and otherwise.
Conspiracy theories are, alas, one of the great weapons in that arsenal – and rather than sit back and be amused by their frivolity and idiocy, we all ought to be very concerned about where such discourse can lead.
Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.