Published on Aslan Media: An American Perspective on the Culture of Conspiracy through the Lens of Sinai

The Sinai peninsula and the present day Israel...

The Sinai Peninsula

In the last day or two I had my first text published by a source outside of Arab West Report. Aslan Media is a new media project from Reza Aslan, an author of several books on Islam such as ‘No God but God’ (read and enjoyed) and ‘How to Win a Cosmic War’ (hope to read soon). The following text was featured on the front page, but has now moved to the sidebar. Click here for the direct link.

 

As an American, I am used to politics being partisan and even at times vitriolic, but all agree on the rules of the game and the validity of the constitutional system. Moreover, though 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 government, and some on the Right find liberal secular humanism on the prowl to destroy traditional values. Yet on the whole the mantra proves true: Politics is the art of compromise. Following their vitriol, most American politicians do just that, and Americans appreciate it.

In contrast, the American resident in Egypt – if he or she pays attention to local politics – finds the culture awash in conspiracies. Worse, many of them are directed at his or her home shores. 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 has said, with experience on both sides of the Mediterranean, foreign hands have been playing in Egypt for centuries. A palpable paranoia is fueled by reality.

The odd thing as an American is that 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 recent concern is the development of threats in the Sinai. Here is found 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 is that Palestinian terrorists crossed into southern Israel from Gaza through the demilitarized Sinai, and killed a number of Israeli citizens during an attack on the port city of Eliat. Israel quickly targeted those it accused of responsibility with military retribution, for which Hamas unleashed heretofore largely suspended rocket fire into Israel, until a ceasefire was brokered. Meanwhile Israel also pursued fleeing Palestinians into Sinai, and several Egyptian officers were killed 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 several hour long 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 been long 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, as well as a restive Bedouin population long frustrated with government neglect and resistant to government authority, Sinai has a reputation as a lawless frontier. Furthermore, when police stations were attacked during the revolution the weapons cache was opened. 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, it is 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 prepared for submission 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 influence 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 can take aim at the ruling military council as well. While still overwhelmingly popular with average Egyptians, it has come under severe criticism by revolutionary forces for its handling of the transition to democracy. Reuniting the people against the common enemy of Israel could diffuse attention to these complaints. Moreover, could the specter of terrorism in the Sinai lead to restoration of full Egyptian sovereignty over the territory, through amending the Camp David Accords with Israel? More wildly, 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, or even eventual Islamist government hostility against Israel?

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 an 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 this as a test for the military council, it has quickly become one. Popular protests quickly surrounded the Israeli Embassy, and were allowed to continue 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, may have been rebuffed, but are still open. Meanwhile the government is erecting a wall around the building housing the Israeli Embassy, to provide further protection in case of need. Many Egyptian parties and politicians are calling for a harsher response, especially 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 to Gaza, and the now enacted 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 entertaining, but they can summon great passion from involved Egyptians. To make clear, the label of ‘conspiracy’ is dismissive and degrading, reflecting a subtle superiority of ethnocentric origin. Of greater concern, to both Americans resident and Egyptians permanent, is 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 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 could also become self-fulfilling prophecies. Egypt is a peaceful nation; it is likely to remain so. These trends, however, are worrisome.

As to the culture of conspiracy, orientalist bias or not, the world is not the same as it was at America’s independence. George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and succeeding presidencies set the nation on a path of isolation from European politics keeping the colonial powers from interfering in the Americas. It is questionable if this is even a possibility for Egypt today. To hint back at conspiracy, is it even possible in America?

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 representation accountable. The military council has promised to hand over authority to a civilian government, and this 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. As one American who still believes in the reality of our independence, I wish the same for Egypt. May she win for her people such an honorable right.

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