May 7, 2020 at 6:55 p.m. GMT+1
Egypt is hardly unique in its attachment to conspiracy theories. For decades, the Middle East has been a hotbed of imagined intrigues (often involving Jews), from the 9/11 attacks through the 2008 financial crisis to the emergence of the Islamic State. Over the past decade, Arabic-language propaganda outlets in Russia and Iran have additionally boosted these narratives, usually with a strong anti-American twist.
Lately, though, these tales have taken on a uniquely Egyptian slant: specifically, the idea that the dark forces plotting against Egypt are doing so because of its presumed role as a leading power in the Middle East and the world — and that its success in combating them affirms this proud status. The prominence of such claims owes a great deal to the concerted efforts of the Egyptian state as well as the population’s intense longing for national pride.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi has managed to meld these factors to powerful effect. Since he came to power in 2013 in the wake of the Arab Spring, state-run media have propagated many narratives based on an alleged Western attempt to undermine Egypt and divide the region’s countries — a threat often described under the heading of “fourth-generation warfare.” Sissi used one of his speeches to army officers to identify a particular vulnerability: the relatively open media environment and the flourishing civil society organizations that he inherited upon his ascent to power. In the past few years, he has attempted to rectify this problem.
The spread of covid-19 has given the state’s propagandists a rich new source of material. One widely shared post on Facebook links the coronavirus to a 10-year-old plot linked to the rollout of 5G networks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, actor Tom Hanks and billionaire Bill Gates all make cameo appearances in this epic saga of spy warfare. The distinctly local twist: The text turned up on a page devoted to Omar Soleiman, a former chief of Egyptian intelligence.
Western critics of Egypt’s dismal human rights record often focus on the government’s crackdown on opposing views. Less noted has been the state’s active role in combating imagined conspiracies with a counter-narrative of imagined successes. For the past few years, the state propaganda apparatus has been bombarding Egyptians with tales of the country’s victories on a daily basis. In 2013, pro-regime media claimed that the Egyptian navy had triumphed in an imaginary conflict with the U.S. Sixth Fleet (including the arrest of its commander). A year later, government-sponsored journalists touted an Egyptian cure for HIV — needless to say, another entirely spurious story.
Even the past is not immune to such lunacies. According to an exhibition organized by the Egyptian military in 2015, the Egyptian military’s alleged contribution was a major factor in the Allied victory in World War I. (In reality, needless to say, the Egyptian contribution to the Allied war effort was negligible.)
But propaganda and conspiracy theories require an audience willing to believe. As ridiculous as these stories sound, the sad reality is that a significant portion of Egyptians are often active and willing participants in such absurdities. The regime’s successful propaganda would have been impossible without the readiness of many Egyptians to suspend rational thought in order to inhabit a parallel universe in which Egypt stands at the center of the universe and triumphs over its enemies.
Egypt’s long and remarkable history is a big part of the problem. The pyramids and other glories of Egypt’s ancient past are not only magnificent symbols but also heavy burdens, a constant reminder for a proud nation that its past will always be greater than its present or future. This has made Egypt susceptible to a desperate quest for deliverance from the woes of the present. Such attempts almost always end in disaster. One of the few leaders to resist this temptation to promise a revival of the past was President Hosni Mubarak. Some argue that his restraint contributed to his downfall. Sissi is not about to repeat that mistake.
Sissi speaks the language Egyptians long for. “Egypt is the mother of the world and will be great as the world,” he often proclaims. Like the pharaohs of old, he is obsessed with grandiose construction projects, from a new Suez Canal to a new capital city. Sissi is not the cause of his country’s problems but merely a tragic and inevitable symptom.
In 1995, Fouad Ajami published a remarkable essay entitled “The Sorrows of Egypt.” “At the heart of Egyptian life there lies a terrible sense of disappointment,” wrote Ajami, who died in 2014. “The pride of modern Egypt has been far greater than its accomplishments.” His words remain more valid than ever.