CAIRO — Egypt's
Supreme Constitutional Courthouse is a six-story behemoth looming over the
eastern shore of the Nile. It is modeled
in a neo-Pharaonic style: 14 lotus and papyrus columns stand at the entrance to
symbolize Ancient Egypt's laws of wisdom; pharaonic sketches adorn the
façade. So it was only appropriate that Egypt's modern-day pharaohs chose this
location to set the course of the nation's future.
By now, interested
parties have digested the facts of the case: On June 14, Egypt's constitutional
court issued verdicts that simultaneously dissolved the Islamist-led parliament
while blessing the presidential candidacy of Ahmed Shafiq, a career military
man and the last prime minister of Hosni Mubarak. The decision wipes
out the meager progress Egypt has made toward democracy, and sets the stage
for a revival of the old networks of power that ruled under Mubarak.
But there is a
difference between knowing the verdict and understanding the reason behind it. Both
before the ruling and after it, Egypt has been seized by speculation about what
the ruling is trying to accomplish, and what it says about the balance of power
in the country.
And it's not
only the court verdict: Egypt today has become a republic of rumors, where citizens
are more or less free to voice their opinions but as helpless as ever to uncover
the motivations of the powers that be. These gaps in knowledge have spawned no
end of hypotheses and conspiracy theories -- a phenomenon that will only
increase as the country enters a particularly murky period.
"What do they
were we are, stupid?" asked Salam Ayyash, an activist who says he has been
involved in anti-government demonstration since Mubarak broke his promise to
seek a third term in office in 1993, when asked whether the ruling would be
politically motivated. "It's SCAF [Egypt's ruling military junta], it's the CIA
-- doing this two days before [the presidential election]. They do it very well. Chapeau!"
At the front of
the crowd, close to the barbed wire that separated the demonstrators from the
courthouse, a woman who gave her name as Yasmeen echoed the collective
disillusionment with the judicial system. "We can't get justice from the courts
-- there are remnants still in control, they have their interests," she said.
"Businessmen back Shafiq, support him with money. They won't allow it."
which had been under Mubarak's thumb during his rule, has done nothing to ease
popular skepticism about its mission. In a televised news conference last week,
the president of the Egyptian judges association declared,
"we are people of politics," and accused the Muslim Brotherhood of undertaking
"a systematic plan meticulously designed to destroy this country." This only
served to confirm many Egyptians' fears: The revolution in Tahrir Square had
not reached the courthouse a few miles away.
But in a world
of incomplete information, when do reasonable suppositions enter the realm of
conspiracy? Abdel Galil El Sharnouby, a
former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and former editor of Ikhwan Online, had a
question for me: Why had Foreign Policy offered such positive coverage of
Muslim Brotherhood figure Khairat al-Shater? It was, he argued, indicative of
the U.S. government's support for the Brotherhood.
"It is known that Foreign
Policy is close to the centers of power in Washington, so it can not stray too
far from that line," he said. "It is like Ahram
[the state-owned newspaper] in Egypt."
theories in Egypt have proliferated to support every conceivable political
inclination -- and they're not merely the purview of the man on the street.
Shafiq himself has tried
to shift blame for the death of protesters in last year's revolution away
from the security forces and onto the Muslim Brotherhood, saying they were seen
throwing Molotov cocktails from the top of buildings during the infamous
"Battle of the Camel" on Feb. 2, 2011. By way of explanation, he said he had "read this in a newspaper."
Admittedly, being governed by
secretive and Machiavellian rulers only stokes fears that an "invisible hand"
guides events. There was allegedly a "conspiracy
of silence" to protect Mubarak during his trial, a "malicious
conspiracy" to divide Egyptians during anti-Christian violence last year,
conspiracy against revolutionaries during a deadly riot following a soccer
game. Just because you're conspiratorial, after all, doesn't mean they're not
out to get you.
But other times, the conspiracies
take particularly extraordinary flights of fancy. In 2010, Israel had to shoot down
Egyptian claims that it was deliberately stoking deadly shark attacks in
Egyptian resorts along the Red Sea. At 11:11 am on Nov. 11, 2011, the Egyptian
down the Great Pyramids due to fears that "Jewish" or "Masonic" rituals
would be held there at that time.
Of course, there is a world
of difference between believing that Egypt's military government is rigging the
political game in its favor and that Jews and Freemasons are trying to harness
the powers of the pyramids. But the common thread in this proliferation of
theories is a lack of knowledge about the levers of power, either domestic or
international. And as Egypt's representative institutions steadily dwindles and
politics retreats behind closed doors, more conspiracy theories are sure to
The temperature in Cairo
peaked at 95 degrees at 2:30 pm, fraying the nerves of the protesters,
soldiers, and passersby alike. Traffic along the corniche road along the Nile
was backed up roughly a half mile due to the demonstration and army presence
outside the courthouse. At nearly the same time the court issued its verdict, a
man stepped out of a taxi in the midst of the demonstrators to praise Shafiq.
The taxi was quickly beset by protesters before speeding off, instigating the
only mini-clash of the day.
"It's an old game they play,
to divide the people," one of my colleagues said by way of explanation. Was
that true? Well, it's a theory.
Daniel Berehulak /Getty Images