x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Egyptians’ attitudes towards foreigners harm their country

Conspiracy theories about Egypt are helping nobody.

There is a tendency to not let the facts get in the way of a good conspiracy theory. Its credibility matters little if it validates one’s pre-existing opinions. In the Arab world, “foreign conspiracy” gets a receptive audience because there has always been foreign involvement in this region.

But conspiracy theories are an effective diversionary tactic. Outsiders are often blamed, sometimes because it is true but also because it is expedient. This has particularly been a hallmark of the politics of the so-called Arab Spring, including in Egypt. Hosni Mubarak blamed foreign powers for the popular revolution against him, as did subsequent military rulers.

Some Egyptians – including friends of mine – seem willing to believe anything involving foreign media and western plots or even Palestinians and Syrian refugees. Some go so far as to claim that the Muslim Brotherhood is not really Egyptian and many of those detained or killed by security forces “don’t look Egyptian”.

Mr Morsi “invited terrorists from all over the world to destroy Egypt, the professional terrorists from Al Qaeda, like the ones who did September 11 and cause bombings all over the world”, a childhood friend told me. “Egyptians aren’t such a bloody people. We are peaceful. Egyptians would never burn mosques and churches and wipe out our beloved country”.

The country’s chronic fuel shortages have also been blamed on foreigners. The fuel crisis would end once the authorities closed the border with Gaza, as if 1.6 million impoverished Palestinians had somehow been diverting the energy needs of more than 80 million Egyptians. Palestinian meddling apparently does not stop there: Hamas helped Mr Morsi escape prison during the uprising against Mr Mubarak.

The plot thickens further: US President Barack Obama paid the Muslim Brotherhood $8 billion (Dh29.3bn) for Mr Morsi to give 40 per cent of the Sinai to Hamas. When I asked someone spreading this rumour if she really believed it, her response was: “Yes, because Egypt’s media is reporting it.”

News organisations propagate such narrative. Foreign media is criticised for being biased towards the “terrorists”. Many journalists under attack have no ideological sympathy with the Brotherhood.

Mr Obama’s brother supposedly finances the Brotherhood; the president himself supports extremists in Egypt; his ambassador plotted with the Brotherhood to destabilise the country; the US embassy placed snipers on rooftops to kill anti-Morsi protesters in Tahrir Square; and Senator John McCain employs Brotherhood members. These allegations appear in the Egyptian media, so they must be true too.

Regional and European countries that criticised the authorities have been singled out. So are Syrian refugees, who have been unfairly targeted. Mr Morsi welcomed them and opposed the Damascus regime, which led to allegations that the Brotherhood paid them to shoot soldiers and anti-Morsi demonstrators and that they have a central role in the current opposition.

And of course the Brotherhood were no better. During their tumultuous year in power, journalists were accused of being tied to foreign agendas, with recurrent calls for “purging the media”.

What will such people think of next? What they lack in critical thought, they make up for in imagination. One would find it funny if not for the dangerous repercussions, amid a highly polarised environment of unbridled nationalism, paranoia and intransigence.

TV hosts and guests have called for the execution of Palestinians and Syrians suspected of helping the opposition. Popular talk-show host Tawfik Okasha reportedly urged Egyptians to arrest Syrians in the streets and to destroy their homes if they did not heed a 48-hour ultimatum to stop supporting the Brotherhood.

It has become much more difficult for these refugees to enter Egypt, with many being turned away. Those in the country face arrest, threats of deportation, hate speech and physical attacks. Even children are not spared. As The Guardian wrote: “Syrian refugees in Egypt ... have borne the brunt of the rise in xenophobia.”

These violations have been documented and condemned by respected international human rights groups. Local organisations raising similar concerns are accused of being funded by outsiders.

Foreign journalists have been detained, verbally harassed and physically attacked. International media watchdogs that condemn such actions are accused of being part of this elaborate conspiracy.

Feeding the paranoia serves the authorities, for now at least. They can portray themselves as guardians against foreign meddling. This is a tried and tested formula, for example, in the US’s “war on terror” and its many international spin-offs.

While this deflects attention from the country’s problems, it does not make them go away; on the contrary, they fester until they are impossible to ignore. As such, it is a short-sighted, misguided and self-defeating strategy. The increasing xenophobia could further damage relations with those from whom Cairo needs vital political and economic help, such as the United States and the European Union.

The perception that Egyptians view and treat foreigners with hostility will not help a struggling economy that relies heavily on tourism. Nor will it advance the efforts to convince the world that the country is on the promised path to democracy, inclusivity and respect for human rights. Ultimately, the belief that foreigners view Egyptian sentiment negatively may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and co-founder of Arab Media Watch, an independent, non-profit media watchdog set up in 2000