Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I (Don't) Want to Believe

From January 30th:

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?

1 comment:

  1. with the caveat you're the Egypt expert and I'm just talking out of my ass:

    normally I follow the "never ascribe to malice what can't adequately explained by incompetence" school of thought on conspiracy theories... but it's hard when it comes to, say, Russia and it's ex-KGB/FSB president (the apartment bombing thing is one of the few conspiracy theories I give credence to)... ditto here with Mubarak appointing his intelligence chief as vice president and suddenly their being all this looting and thuggery... especially with his second speech reinforcing the regime's narrative about it being him or chaos... besides being classic Mubarak, the specific tactic smacked as something right out of Saddam Hussein's playbook, as memory serves, he released prisoners as the US invaded.

    it's part logic, part gut check, but if you're a prisoner and suddenly get to escape amid civil unrest, is your first instinct to a) go to ground (or like the Hamas members that AJE reported on, get the hell out of dodge and back to Gaza), b) go on a violent rampage... my instinct is "a", though I'm prepared to believe my instinct is colored by being in an industrial democracy and what Hollywood culture has shown me about criminal / prison life, and it may be different in reality, because it's reality, especially because this is a police state / pissed off at being tortured / detained without trial type situation... still, my overwhelming instinct is if the looters are escaped prisoners, they are of the "we'll let you go if you do x" variety (with maybe some real looting by people not in jail, e.g. straight-forward criminal opportunism mixed with pent-up class-based resentment against upper class buisness-types in hock with the regime... certainly some of the reporting of private jets leaving Cairo airport smacked more of an old school Marxist revolution than the old Islamist bogeyman)

    the reports that came out that the citizen's groups that captured looters (and again with the pro-Mubarak mobs attacking Tafrir Square now) is they are finding police ID on them... which I admit, part of me finds sounds a little too pat, but I agree with your instinct that the regime is the lairs.. and the scenario of cops as looters instead of escaped prisoners (be they doing it themselves or as a condition of their release) is a different ball of wax... I don't know squat about how Egpytian IDs work, but I suppose it makes sense that even secret police would need ID stating so (in "don't arrest me, I'm actually an undercover agent from bureau x..." type situations) and that the current situation so caught everyone off guard that they didn't exactly have time to give the police fake civilian IDs (especially if they had round up cops who aren't normally undercover into such duty), and the spontaneous organization of the citizens was so unexpected, the idea that the goons would get captured and the IDs exposed didn't occur to them... just like it didn't occur to them that the F-16s wouldn't disperse the crowds and make them look even more venal