Conspiracy theories don't fool people
Published in Gulf News, 8 February 2012
By Gordon Robison, Special to Gulf News
The 1990s TV series The X Files featured a mysterious character known as The Smoking Man. As a US government operative he was, according to the series' mythology, personally responsible for the assassinations of both John and Robert Kennedy and of Martin Luther King Jr.
His conspiracies, however, ran far deeper than deciding the life and death of historical figures. One episode showed him meeting with aides and deciding not only the outcome of elections and the fate of foreign leaders, but which teams would be allowed to win the World Series and the Super Bowl.
The Smoking Man came to mind last week amid the diplomatic drama at the United Nations, the horrific football riots in Egypt and the announcement that the Egyptian government is moving ahead with criminal charges against three US-based civil society organisations. Some people apparently believe his real-life successors are actively at work in the Middle East.
The week's most dramatic moment of conspiratorial paranoia came on Saturday when Syria's ambassador made a rambling speech to the Security Council that somehow cited both Lawrence of Arabia and the Balfour Declaration to justify his government's brutal crackdown on protesters.
These long-dead Brits were, apparently, proof that pretty much everyone has been plotting against Syria since the time when it was a mere province of the Ottoman Empire.
A few days earlier, as the football tragedy unfolded in Port Said, Egypt's military ruler, Field Marshal Mohammad Hussain Tantawi, called a satellite TV station and blamed the violence on unseen conspirators. "If anyone is plotting instability in Egypt they will not succeed," he said. "They will get what they deserve."
Then, on Sunday, Tantawi's government moved ahead with criminal charges against the staff of three US-based non-governmental organisations. Two of these teach basic political organising techniques and are offshoots of the main US political parties (and, ironically, had been invited by the military government to serve as monitors during Egypt's recent parliamentary elections). The other group is Freedom House, a human rights monitoring organisation.
Defending the charges a government spokeswoman warned of "foreign schemes that threaten the homeland," according to the New York Times. A retired general interviewed by the paper "insisted that Washington was indeed seeking to destabilise Egypt by financing these groups".
If there has been a single constant during this year of Arab revolution, it has been the belief of every imperilled leader that his people genuinely love and need him and that trouble has only been stirred up by the sinister hands of foreign powers.
A year ago this week, Hosni Mubarak was convinced that America and unspecified other enemies (presumably a thinly-veiled reference to Israel) were plotting against him. It is true that the US helped to nudge Mubarak out of power, but any dispassionate observer would note that this effort was half-hearted at best, and began in earnest only after the momentum of the Tahrir Square protests had made Mubarak's position untenable.
More to the point, why would the US want to plot against Mubarak — its most reliable Arab ally for two generations? Why would it want to destabilise Egypt today? An unstable Egypt serves no conceivable American (or Israeli) policy interest. None. Not last year under Mubarak. Not today under Tantawi and the generals.
It would be naive to deny that conspiracies exist. The history of the Middle East from Suez to Iran-Contra is clear proof of that. But a clear-eyed assessment of these and many other less prominent schemes stretching all the way back to Lawrence's Arab revolt shows that plots are neither as widespread nor as effective as the most fevered among us often believe.
The revolutions that have rocked the Arab world over the last year are a response to 60 years of blinkered misgovernment. Did the US have a hand in creating and sustaining that misgovernment? Absolutely. That, however, is exactly why it is ridiculous to see an American hand guiding the events of the last year.
Washington wants stability and predictability: two things that have been in short supply across the region over the last 14 months. Paranoid leaders claiming that America seeks chaos and instability need to take a more critical look at their own assumptions.
The Egyptian generals ought to know exactly what those American democracy-building groups are doing, because all three have been in Egypt for years and have been monitored constantly while working to promote values (non-violence, working within the system, open political competition) that both Mubarak and his military successors claim to support.
As for the marchers in Syria and rioting football fans in Egypt, none of them need the Smoking Man and his shadowy assistants to stoke their anger at government heavy-handedness and mismanagement. Conspiracy theories may make paranoid government officials feel better about themselves, but in the end they do not solve problems. They feed them.
Gordon Robison, a longtime Middle East journalist and US political analyst, teaches political science at the University of Vermont.