When a European laboratory announced two weeks ago that an infected shipment of Egyptian fenugreek seeds was the source of an E. coli epidemic that killed 48 Germans and a Swede, the Egyptian agriculture minister didn’t apologize, nor did he call for an investigation into the matter.
The problem had nothing to do with Egypt, the minister, Ayman Abu-Hadid, told Egyptian press.
"Israel is waging a commercial war against Egyptian exports," he explained, and with that the case was closed.
Abu-Hadid isn’t the only minister in Egypt's post-revolutionary government to blame Israel for his country's woes. In June, Deputy Prime Minister Yehia El-Gamal told the Lebanese news site Al-Nashra that Israel was inciting sectarian strife between Muslims and Christians in the country.
“Israel understands that a strong Egypt is a danger for them and they want to make Egypt weak,” El-Gamal said. "Nothing breaks or weakens Egypt more than sectarian tension or clashes between Muslims and Christians.”
Conspiracy theories – with Israel fingered as the power behind the scenes – were common currency in the years Husni Mubarak ruled Egypt. Many Egyptians expected that with the transition to a more open, accountable and democratic society, the politicians and press would no longer need to point to cabals to explain away problems.
Egypt’s press today is freer than any time in the last half century, but the government remains in the hands of the Mubarak-era army leadership, and the cabinet, even after this week’s reshuffle, is made up of veteran politicians. And, even though Egypt and Israel are formally at peace, many Egyptians remain hostile to the Jewish state. Travel, commercial ties and cultural links are minimal.
"Conspiracy theories are part of the texture of our culture," Hani Henry, a psychology professor at the American University in Cairo, told The Media Line. "Even if we have a democratic government, the problem will not go away."
He says blaming Israel for Egypt’s problems could be both a cynical attempt by politicians to distract the public or an honest belief that Israel is constantly conniving against Egypt. In either case however, conspiratorial thinking was deeply ingrained in Egyptian thinking.
The Egyptian government, nominated and directed by the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF), is struggling with soaring unemployment, a sharp decline in tourism and inflation of nearly 12%. Given these troubles, it is much easier to blame an outside enemy than take responsibility and face public rage, experts say.
The arrest in mid-June of Ilan Grapel, a 27-year-old American-Israeli law student, on charges of spying for Israel and stirring social unrest in Egypt was viewed by many Egyptians as a government ploy to deflect public attention from its shortcomings. Grapel traveled to Egypt as part of his work for a charity helping African refugees. His family, as well as the Israeli government, deny he was involved in espionage.
"Those scoundrels want to occupy the people with the spy so that they don’t talk about Mubarak and the gas [exports to Israel] …Come on, it’s the same old regime, nothing has changed," one Facebook commentator wrote.
When protesters and police clashed at Cairo’s Tahrir Square at the end of June, leaving 1,000 injured, SCAF announced that it was all part of an “organized plan” to destabilize Egypt.
“Here we come to the question that blew off the lid of Pandora’s Box: Who sent the thugs? And all kinds of answers start popping up, and with each answer an entire world of sneaky intrigues and mischievous plots reveals itself to an audience yearning for an action-packed story that absolves them from blame and holds some invincible power accountable for their misery,” wrote Sonia Farid, who teaches English literature at Cairo University, on the Al-Arabiya television website.
Ishaq Ibrahim, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, a Cairo human rights organization, says that decades of Western failure to address the Palestinian issue has caused Egyptians to become bitter and suspicious of the West. However, he added, that doesn’t exempt them from examining their own mistakes.
"I don't like hearing about conspiracy theories," Ibrahim told The Media Line. "Even if we assume there was external intervention, someone from the inside must have contributed."
While he understood why simple Egyptians would blame the Israelis for the E. coli epidemic, Ibrahim says that such statements from an educated government official are unacceptable.
"The government is placating the sentiments of the masses," Ibrahim said. "Rather than leading the way and enlightening the people, they are feeding their fears."
Conspiracy theories have been a part of Egypt's political discourse since the days of populist President Gamal Abdul Nasser, who toppled the Egyptian monarchy almost 60 years ago and was the first in a line of dictators that ended with Mubarak.
"There always has to be a foreign threat," Henry said. "In Nasser's day, imperialism was the bogeyman. Today imperialism has been replaced with Israel. It's a way of uniting a fragmented society."
In the years before Mubarak was ousted last February, international conspiracies led by Jews or by Israel were regularly employed by government officials and echoed in the media.
When Culture Minister Farouq Husni lost his bid for head of the United Nations Agency for Culture and Education (UNESCO) in 2009, he blamed a Jewish plot "cooked up in New York" for his failure. Some outrageous theories have become the laughing-stock of Western media. In December 2010, for instance, the governor of South Sinai blamed the Israeli Mossad spy agency for a spate of shark attacks in the resort town of Sharm Al-Sheikh.
In the early days of unrest in Egypt, an anonymous figure, cited as a former journalist, went on the pro-Mubarak Al-Mehwar television station to accuse Israel of backing the demonstrators in a bid to throw Egypt into disarray. She claimed to have been trained by Jews in the US to destabilize the government.
The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent anti-Semitic text purporting to describe a Jewish plan for achieving global domination, is only one example of many books espousing Jewish and Israeli conspiracies to be found in bookstalls on Cairo's streets.
Experts detect subtle changes in the way conspiracy theories are used
and perpetuated. Although Israel and often the US continued to be
blamed for the country’s problems, Egyptians are more preoccupied these
days with internal politics, Marina Ottaway, an expert on Arab politics
at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington
think-tank, told The Media Line.
"Old habits die hard," she said, referring to the use of conspiracies
even today. "However, neither Israel nor the United States figures
prominently in what is happening in Egypt. They are not motivating the
actions of the participants."
Another change from the Mubarak-era conspiracies is that Egypt’s press
is far less beholden to the government. SCAF has attempted to forge
direct contact with Egyptians through Facebook. With 1.2 million "fans,"
SCAF's Facebook page features official statements commending the
courage of the protesters and offering public opinion polls on issues of
Henry of AUC says the conspiracy theories are being generated by Egypt's
sensationalistic media, not because the government necessarily favors
them. "They [the media] want to score a few points with society," he
said. "There are no ethics whatsoever about what is said."