Egyptian Intifada: The ultimate conspiracy theory and the uses of fear
CAIRO, Feb 11, 2011 (Veterans Today) — If you thought the idea that 19 Arabs with box-cutters could bring down the World Trade Center (both towers!) was a stretch, you’ll love this one: In an effort to turn the Egyptian public against the ongoing uprising, the embattled Mubarak regime has promoted the ultimate conspiracy theory, involving elements from Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, Qatar, the US, and — wait for it — Israel.
“The news that was broadcast on Egyptian state media in the first days of the uprising wasn’t news, it was madness,” Gamal Fahmi, political analyst and managing editor of opposition weekly Al-Arabi Al-Nassiri, told Veterans Today. “Madness that reflected the regime’s desperation.”
On Saturday, January 29, the fifth day of the uprising, Egyptian state media — along with certain private satellite television channels — began to report that these hostile powers were all working together to “destabilize the homeland.” From behind the scenes, state media alleged, the conspirators were directing and financing the tens of thousands of demonstrators who had converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
“The most dangerous foreign conspiracy strikes Egypt,” read one headline in the February 3 edition of prominent government daily Al-Akhbar. Similar headlines followed, including, “Hezbollah commando unit, supported by Hamas, infiltrates Egypt from Sudan,” and, “The Iranian hand in the recent disturbances.”
Meanwhile, state daily Al-Missa reported that certain US-based NGOs were “recruiting Egyptians to overthrow the regime.”
One day earlier, Al-Ahram — Egypt’s most widely-read government broadsheet — had asserted in its evening edition that protesters were being “supported by [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu.” The same paper went on to report: “Muslim Brotherhood supports Tahrir Square demonstrations with financial support from Qatar and Iran.”
On February 2, the private Al-Mehwar satellite television channel — owned by regime-connected business tycoon Ahmed Rateb — aired a live interview with a woman who claimed to have helped instigate the ongoing wave of demonstrations. Her image distorted to protect her identity, “Shaimaa” confessed to having been trained in “sabotage and subversion” by “a group of Zionists in the US and Qatar.”
“It was absolutely ludicrous,” said one stunned viewer. “Flipping through the channels, I found one government news program blaming the uprising on a US-Israeli conspiracy while another government channel was blaming Iran and Hamas.”
State media, along with its compromised private-sector counterparts, failed to provide an explanation as to why the US and Israel aimed to topple the Mubarak regime — their best friend in the region — or why the Zionist state had been suddenly moved to ally itself with its sworn enemies Hamas and Hezbollah.
“Grouping together Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Qatar, America and Israel — claiming they had all united to bring down the Mubarak regime — was farcical,” said Fahmi. “The idea that Israel and the US would ally themselves with anti-Israel resistance groups could only come from a lunatic.”
Fahmi added: “It’s well known that everyone involved in state media organs, and in the private satellite channels owned by regime-friendly businessmen, are agents for the ruling regime.”
It was not the first attempt by the government to use misinformation to turn public opinion against the uprising, which has only grown in scope and intensity within the last 17 days.
On January 29 — later dubbed the “Day of Terror” — state television reported that commercial areas in Cairo, Alexandria and the northern canal city of Suez were being looted and torched by roving gangs of armed criminals. The news spread like wildfire, fueling panic among the already-terrified public.
“We heard reports on state television that criminals were breaking into homes and stealing and killing. We even heard reports of rape,” Amal Mahmoud, 48-year-old mother of three, recalled. “For the next three days I was terrified, while my husband — along with most men in the area — set up a neighborhood watch.”
The rumors of murder and mayhem, however, turned out to be false. Belying accounts in the media, a stroll down one Cairo street the next morning — which had purportedly been looted the night before — revealed pristine glass storefronts. The only exception was a building, now gutted, housing offices belonging to an unpopular member of the ruling regime.
The psychological operation against the public — and that’s what it was — had two chief objectives: to terrify protesters into running back home to protect their families and property; and to promote the false impression that the withdrawal of police would inevitably lead to security breakdowns.
“I left the Tahrir Square demonstrations after receiving terrified calls from my wife and mother, who were afraid for their lives,” Ahmed Hashem, 28-year-old protester from northern Cairo, said at the time.
But the misinformation campaign ultimately failed, and the demonstrations, both in Tahrir Square and throughout the country, have only grown larger. Mubarak’s televised address on Thursday night — in which he delegated authority to newly-appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman but stopped short of resigning — has only strengthened demonstrators’ resolve.
The regime, meanwhile, appears to have lost control of the formidable state media machine, making its grip on power that much more precarious. On February 6, the three most widely-read state newspapers — Al-Ahram, Al-Akhbar and Al-Gomhouriya — all proclaimed their support for the uprising.
By Adam Morrow and Khaled Moussa al-Omrani
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