When I heard yesterday that thousands of people had escaped from prison, I didn't believe it at first, nor did I believe initial reports that people were roaming the city vandalizing property. And when I found out that some prisoners had escaped, and people were vandalizing the city, my first response was that the government was behind it all, sending thugs to vandalize and loot in an attempt to discredit the protesters and raise fears of anarchy.
“So you're getting into the conspiracy theory spirit?” a friend said, in response to my doubts.
People look for all sorts of pathologies in Arab Culture ™ to explain conspiracy theories – powerlessness, disconnectedness from reality, obsession with appearances, extreme pride, and every other stereotype in the book. But consider the possibility that people also just have good reason to be skeptical of what they hear. That's been on my mind a lot, for a simple reason: the government lies. All the time. Brazenly. Why should I trust them when they say that thugs are roaming the streets? Why should I believe anything they say whatsoever?
These are the same people who said that every last person who was shot by the police during protests, was a looter. Including the seven year-old. These are the same people who, when cops pulled a twenty eight year-old man out of a cybercafe this summer, and beat him to death, went on to tell the press that the man did not die of being beaten up, but died choking on a bag of weed he was trying to swallow before the cops found it. And they kept saying this after the coroner leaked pictures of his broken body.
That young man, by the way, was named Khaled Said. Before the internet went down, one of the biggest groups organizing the protests was called “we are all Khaled Said”, and it's perfectly true. All Egyptians under the Mubarak regime are, or could at any moment become, Khalid Said. Any Egyptian could be pulled off the street and killed by some cop having a bad day, or because (as was rumored in Said's case) they witnessed policemen committing a crime, or for no reason at all, and they can be sure that the government would lie and lie and lie to cover it up. And that despite the shamelessness and obvious cynicism of the lies, they would almost certainly get away with it. For decades. For those of you, like me, who grew up under gentler circumstances: imagine for a moment what it's like to know, every day, that you could be killed and nothing would happen. Word may not even get out, and even if it did, human rights groups would complain, but it would all be pro-forma, one step in a dance nobody really expects to stop. Think on that, I don't think you'll be surprised by how angry Egyptians are. I think you'll be surprised by how restrained and peaceful their protests are, relative to what they've been put through.
I mean, it's not the worst regime in the world. We're not talking about the wholesale slaughter of dissidents or unpopular minorities. But what they did do was a different kind of galling: it was daily viciousness and venality, the slow-bore grinding down of a people until, everyone thought, they were too tired and scared to do anything about it, all thinly covered by a layer of lies and speeches about 'slow progress', which somehow never seemed to happen.
I'm always amazed that they feel the need to tell these lies. Their response to everything threatening is to just deny reality, and just to be sure, accuse anyone who speaks out against them of being a drug dealer, an Islamist, or both. Even when nobody believes them, the government keeps saying these things, perhaps because it can, perhaps because they're sociopaths, or perhaps because they know that their foreign patrons – the constituency that really matters – will not openly contradict the lies. Doing so, apparently, is too diplomatically thorny. You wouldn't want to destabilize an important ally, the thinking went. So when Khaled Said was murdered, the US knew perfectly well what had really happened, but spoke in the oddly denatured language of diplomacy, about the need for human rights and reform and civil society and so on. The government, in the face of angry protests and lukewarm reproach from the Americans, did what it always does, and what it is still trying to do right now, when by all rights it should be over and Mubarak should be on a plane: They responded with some nice words – not admitting anything, of course – and said that reform was important, steps are being taken, committees are being formed, so go home. Or else the Islamists will take over.
No wonder people are inclined to see a hidden side to any political story: there usually is one. That's the norm with these people. And for the record – I still think the government is behind much of the looting and vandalism. Call me a conspiracy theorist if you're so inclined. Why would I not assume the worst of these monsters?