Friday, February 3, 2012

In Egypt, conspiracy theories sometimes have merit

Armed bank robbery. Scores killed in a football brawl. American tourists kidnapped.

One year after the uprising that sparked national pride and hope in Egyptians, the wave of unprecedented incidents – as well as renewed clashes between demonstrators and police in downtown Cairo – has many asking: What is happening, and why?

Many believe the incidents of the past few days are anything but coincidence, and with reason. Just days before masked gunmen robbed the HSBC bank in New Cairo, an upscale Cairo suburb, Egypt’s de-facto ruler cancelled the country’s three-decade-old Emergency Law.

Put into effect in the wake of late President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, the series of laws prohibit more than five persons from gathering in one place without prior permission and allow search and seizure without a warrant, among other things.

The first armed bank robbery in modern Egyptian history occurring just after the cancellation of the law seems unlikely to be pure coincidence.

And despite an age-old rivalry between Cairo football team al-Ahly and Port Said team al-Masry, Egyptians refuse to accept that mere team rivalry is to blame for the 73 deaths after Wednesday night’s match in Port Said.

Many have questioned the inaction of the country’s hated Central Security Forces, who stood by and watched the violence instead of intervening to stop it. One match-goer said he and others were not searched by security upon entering the stadium, perhaps explaining how some al-Masry fans were able to enter the match with knives.

The real question is whether recent events are an honest representation of Egypt without the Emergency Law or whether someone – the ‘who’ is as always unclear – is orchestrating events.

One theory is that the government or the ruling military council – in power since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down in February 2011 – is stirring up trouble as an excuse to reinstate the Emergency Law. Removing the law was one of demonstrators’ primary demands during the 2011 uprising, and remained a source of contention as the military continually delayed its repeal.

Others blame the ubiquitous “foreign hand.” One theory reported on state television today was that the ongoing clashes in downtown Cairo are a US-German plot in retaliation for the Egyptian government’s raid on a series of foreign NGOs earlier this year.

Both suggestions may sound like conspiracy theories, but in Egypt conspiracy theories are selcdom as impossible as they seem.

In one example, documents “liberated” by Egyptians citizens during the so-called Amn Dawla Leaks last spring revealed former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly was involved in the New Year’s Eve bombing outside an Alexandrian church that shocked the country.

The government had tried to pin the incident on an al-Qaeda faction based in the Gaza Strip.

Today images of clashes between demonstrators and police glare once more from television screens. The upraised arms of demonstrators and the unfaltering wave of an Egyptian flag can be seen through a foggy haze of tear gas. Both sides throw stones, and the wail of an ambulance occasionally cuts through the dull roar of the clashes and the television presenter’s voice.

The images are painfully and eerily reminiscent of earlier clashes: the battle of Mohamed Mahmoud in November 2011, the June 28 clashes, and, perhaps most poignantly, the infamous Battle of the Camels.

On February 2, 2011 Egyptians watched and lived in horror as men on horses and camels and wielding clubs and machetes attacked what for nearly five days had been a peaceful demonstration in Tahrir Square. Yesterday, exactly one year later, the current clashes began, sparked by the deaths of more than 70 people at a football match.

Public opinion is sharply divided.

“This had to happen,” said one young Egyptian, watching the images today on the television in a small town an hour outside Cairo. “The revolution has to continue.”

Others fear the economic impact of continued clashes.

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