Making sense of Egypt: Part One, in defence of conspiracy as a method

Without evidence, one can never prove that there is a conspiracy concocted by human beings. However, the apparent absence of evidence indicting a criminal does not at all mean that the crime was not committed. It is naïve to think otherwise. Consider what happened in the 'football violence' in Port Said at the beginning of February. 

At the beginning of February, a scheduled premier-league football game held in Port Said ended with a 3-1 victory for the host team. Despite this remarkable achievement against record championship-holder al-Ahly, once the game was over the fans of the team that just won, al-Masry, went on a rampage, eventually killing 74 and injuring at least 248 supporters of al-Ahly. This remains the bloodiest day the country has seen since the ejection of Hosni Mubarak from power more than a year ago. 

The event was widely covered by international media, describing it as the worst ever incident of football-related violence in Egypt. Talk of conspiracy was chided as “far fetched” by a BBC correspondent in Egypt, who attributed the violence to the incapacity of poorly trained riot police to keep apart two sets of football fans with a history of mutual hatred. 

Despite the observed increase in football-related violence in Egypt in recent years, pieces of information finding their way to the public since the carnage have left most Egyptians convinced that it was much more than a case of hooliganism going madly out of control. The slow pace of investigation, scarcity of reliable information and inflammatory coverage by the media of this and the other major incidents of violence in Egypt over the last year have fanned the flames of insecurity and reinforced the belief that there was a conspiracy behind the event.  

Protests in Cairo following the deaths of 74 football fans in Port Said. Demotix/Mahmoud Khaled. All rights reserved.

Egyptians are routinely taunted for their readiness to produce and consume conspiracy theories. In a recent meeting, a young ethnographer told me, in a slightly irritated tone, that my problem, like most Egyptians, was that I saw a conspiracy behind everything. We were not talking about the Port Said football violence but about another mysterious phenomenon, the meteoric rise of the Salafis from nowhere to become the second largest bloc in the newly elected Egyptian parliament. The ethnographer explained that the electoral victories of the Salafis were not unusual in a traditionally religious society such as that of Egypt, dismissing a statement I had just made about the suspicious connections between the Salafis and the State Security Investigation Service (SSIS) of the Mubarak regime. 

It is one of the oldest games of politics in the book: divide and rule. The former regime wanted to fragment the constituency of the Islamists and gnaw at their power base: the poor, the illiterate and the traditional middle class. It sought to do so by playing the a-political Salafis against radical Islamists, on the one hand, and the Muslim Brothers, on the other hand. The Salafis were the ones that provided dope for the people: a true Muslim should not disobey a Muslim ruler, the practice of politics is haram, and the Muslim Brothers only cared about power and not enough about God.

Not only did the domestic security apparatus passively tolerate the Salafis, but more often than not they actively encouraged them, directly and indirectly, to spread their views in society. They wanted them to participate in ensuring people’s acquiescence. 

The relationship between the authoritarian Egyptian state and the popular religious movement was similar to that between the Israeli civil administration and Hamas in the 1980s or the Sadat regime and the Islamist students’ movement in the early 1970s. Short of explicit cooperation, it was a convenient, implicit and informal partnership serving complementary and mutual interests and directed against a common foe, the PLO in the case of Israel and socialists in the case of Egypt. 

I do not at all question the integrity of the Salafis. Yet given this background, I continue to be intrigued by their unexpected and impressive political fortunes. I looked back at the ethnographer and told him that without the assumption of a conspiracy, it was actually impossible to understand politics in Egypt, or anywhere else for that matter. As one economist put it, human beings do not just maximize their utility, they do so with guile, “to include calculated efforts to mislead, deceive, obfuscate, and otherwise confuse.” In such a model, economic (and political) agents disclose information in a selective and distorted manner, a fact recognized by Georg Simmel more than a hundred years ago when he wrote about the sociological function of secrecy, which is the stuff that conspiracies are made of. Adam Smith, not an Egyptian, said: “People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices”.

Conspiracies exist. In politics, the assumption of conspiracy is equivalent to the peripatetic notion of prime mover - whenever there is a puppet dancing on a stage, there must be a puppet master somewhere hidden from view. Without evidence, one can never prove that there is a conspiracy concocted by human beings. However, the apparent absence of evidence indicting a criminal does not at all mean that the crime was not committed. It is naïve to think otherwise.

Back to Port Said. Results of the investigation into the violence announced on Wednesday, 14 March, seem to vindicate those who saw a conspiracy behind it. The prosecution has charged seventy-five suspects for their premeditated involvement in the crime, including nine high-ranking officials in the Port Said police force for their alleged complicity in facilitating it. The statement from the investigating authority was not clear about the motivation behind the violence. Many continue to believe that it was meant to punish the fans of al-Ahly, organised in an association of Ultras called Ahlawy, for their active support of the revolution

Prior to the outbreak of the revolution, the Ultras were in constant trouble with the police. This was one reason why they were among those who flocked to Tahrir on 25 January. Initially, the demonstrations on that day were not intended to topple the regime, that came later. Rather, the demonstrators, including members of Ahlawy and White Knights, the Ultras of al-Ahly’s archrival, Zamalek, were protesting against police brutality and were calling, among other things, for the resignation of the powerful Minister of Interior, now on trial accused of ordering the use of live ammunitions against the demonstrators. 

After the collapse of the security apparatus in the early days of the revolution, remnants of the old regime hired hundreds of thugs to disperse the Tahrir demonstrators. Mounted on camels and horsebacks, and brandishing swords, the thugs rode into the square in a scene reminiscent of old Egyptian movies depicting medieval conquests. Members of the Ultras of al-Ahly and Zamalek, with their experience in violent combat gained from years of frequent scuffles with the police, with one another and with other Ultras associations, were the best-organised revolutionary group to confront the thugs and other supporters of the Mubarak regime. After long hours of intense fighting, the Ultras, together with the rest of the anti-regime demonstrators, managed to hold their ground and prevent the invaders from overtaking the square. The army then intervened and separated the two forces. The attackers were eventually defeated and expelled from Tahrir. Many in Egypt believe that the massacre in Port Said, coming almost exactly one year after the so-called battle of the camel, was the belated revenge on the Ultras by thugs and their paymasters from the old regime.

As plausible as this might sound, it will remain not much more than speculation, pending the final verdicts in the trials of those recently charged. According to Egyptian newspaper reports, some in Port Said are arguing that the indictments are politically motivated, made by an insecure regime under public opinion pressure to find and punish the culprits and to placate the angry fans of al-Ahly. They believe that what was behind the violence was not a conspiracy of men, but one of fate. 

The few days prior to the game were exceptionally tense. Young Egyptians celebrated the anniversary of the revolution with angry chants against both the military rulers and the Islamists, who had just won parliamentary elections. In October, November and December, violent clashes between the revolutionaries and security forces in and around Tahrir as well as in other parts of the country left at least 80 dead and many more wounded. On the eve of that fateful football game Egyptians were, and remain, polarised, disillusioned, confused and insecure. 

Ultras demonstrate in Tahrir Square singing songs about policemen following clashes in Cairo Stadium, September 2011.Demotix/Alaa Attia. All rights reserved.

In Port Said, there was widespread unrest during the two days preceding the game. The local government had announced that it would make available to the public low cost housing units. Demand was high. Applicants, however, including some supporters of al-Masry, were dismayed by the large amount of money required as a down payment. They began to demonstrate, blocked a few roads,  surrounded the governorate building and from there moved to the hotel in which the al-Ahly team and some of its fans were supposed to spend the night, as a measure of pressuring the governor to respond to their demands. Such sectoral protests have been increasing in Egypt since the ousting of Mubarak, and some of them have turned violent, adding to the sense of insecurity felt by most Egyptians. The governor eventually succumbed but a rumour spread that he was not sincere and that he only wanted to buy time until the football game was over. 

An explosion into the sort of violence seen in Port Said at the beginning of February, under such a charged atmosphere, did not require a conspiracy but only a spark to set it off. Some claim that this spark came in the form of a placard that appeared in the stands of al-Ahly fans during the game with words on it in Arabic to the effect that there were no men in Port Said. For Egyptians, this is highly insulting and is considered an open invitation for a fight. Port Said also has a dark history when it comes to football violence, especially at games between the local team, al-Masry and the two major teams in Egypt, al-Ahly and Zamalek. In the last football game between al-Masry and al-Ahly, in April 2011, a similar disaster was narrowly averted, not by the police but by the army units that were tasked with maintaining security during the game. 

This time round, the military was nowhere to be seen. Some view this as a typical case of Egyptian incompetence and lack of foresight. The temperature was rising before the game had begun. The police stopped the train taking the fans of al-Ahly to Port Said before it entered the city after angry crowds showered it with rocks, and upon receiving information that some al-Masry fans had gathered at the main station in anticipation of its arrival. The fans of al-Ahly had to complete their journey to the stadium on buses. Throughout the game, fans on both sides did not stop hurling insults at one another. Disregarding all these early warnings and failing to bring in reinforcements to manage the angry crowds are some of the accusations levelled against the governor of Port Said and his security chiefs.

This, however, is a benign explanation of the violence and is rejected by many in Egypt. To them, this was not a case of negligence but of complicity in the murder of al-Ahly fans, of attempting to destabilise Egypt and of undermining the revolution. Those who hold this view ask, why did the police allow known thugs into the stadium in the first place, with their knives, swords and all? Why did the exits of the stadium leading out of the stands, occupied by al-Ahly fans, continue to be locked after the game was over, even though they would normally be opened a few minutes before? And why were two of the three exits welded together upon orders given by the police a few days earlier? 

We may never find out the truth about what happened in Port Said. This is an agonising problem for the families of those who were killed and injured there. But for political analysts, this is not the point. The objective of political analysis is not to judge, as in a court of law, but to understand and put forward a plausible explanation. One therefore could, and should, worry less about the stuff of tabloid curiosity, the identity of the acting subject, and focus more on indentifying plausible mechanisms and on understanding outcomes: who wins, who loses, and what are the implications of any political event for the equilibrium of power among the various players. 

It is here that the assumption of conspiracy is most useful. When information is imperfect, it helps to complete the picture and to join the dots. It is a device, a method of explanation. It allows us to examine and make sense of a complex world, dominated by powerful associations of men and women who do not readily make their selfish objectives, and the strategies they use to pursue them, known to the wider public, and to well-meaning but gullible ethnographers and journalists. It is a tool of critique. It helps to expand the scope of analysis, to throw doubt on and question that which is supposed to be taken at face value and not to be questioned. It is an intuitive attempt to counter dubious accounts of reality produced by those who are in power, their agents and those who wittingly or unwittingly come under the sway of the words and images they circulate and unreflectively propagate them. One of the most powerful tools those unscrupulous power holders have to discredit their critics is to describe their counter-claims as a conspiracy theory, exactly what someone like Tony Blair did when he denied any complicity between his government and giant oil firms before the invasion of Iraq.    

Meanwhile, and until we know the full facts about what happened in Port Said and in other mysterious incidents of violence that have taken place in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak and his cronies, Egyptians continue to feel puzzled, confused and insecure. Many heap blame on SCAF, going as far as accusing its members of fomenting instability in the country to serve their own selfish interest in staying in power. This is not convincing. The story of post-authoritarian chaos in Egypt and the insecurity that Egyptians feel as a result is more complex. The obsession with SCAF by both revolutionaries and many external observers is distracting us from looking beneath the surface to examine the role played by many other forces in the unfolding conflict over the Egyptian state and the hearts, minds and loyalties of the Egyptian people. 

Read on in Part Two

About the author

Ahmed Badawi is a Research Associate at the Zentrum Moderner Orient, Berlin, and Co-executive Director of Transform: Centre for Conflict Analysis, Political Development and World Society Research. He occasionally blogs at www.transform-egypt.blogspot.com.