Conspiracy Theory Comes to America

Via NPR: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images

Living in the Middle East one drinks deeply from the well of conspiracy thinking. It pollutes the mind, but also trains it.

So while Americans mused over the merits and demerits of Trump and Clinton, I feared the patterns I was watching develop.

To describe would require a full listing of faults, but I mean this post to be more humorous than serious. It excerpts from an article by Karl ReMarks, a noted Middle Eastern satirist.

In it he compares the United States with Arab nations. It is funny while being unnerving. Enjoy, so to speak.

On the secret services:

Let’s start at the beginning. During the campaign we were surprised to learn of the influence that the head of the American mukhabarat (state security, i.e. your FBI) can wield over the election process, simply by choosing to pursue a certain line of investigation. As you may know, this has been a constant feature of our politics since independence. Our surprise turned to astonishment when we started to witness the blossoming feud between the then-president-elect and the American mukhabarat, another important feature of Arab politics.

On top of that, we started to hear reports of foreign meddling in your elections, which some say may have influenced the result. Of course, we are quite familiar with that situation, too, not least because of the efforts of your own administrations over the decades. Yet it came as a surprise to hear talk of “foreign hands” and “secret agendas” in a country like America. We sympathize.

On the bright side, this was also the moment that the conspiracy theories started to spread. You know us; we’re quite fond of conspiracy theories—particularly when they involve plots by external powers—and consider ourselves connoisseurs of the genre. Your plots are a bit rough around the edges, we have to admit, but top marks for creativity. Was the election of Trump a Russian conspiracy? Was talk of the Russian conspiracy a liberal conspiracy to undermine Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to help Trump? Did the mukhabarat leak information to hurt Trump? Was media coverage of Trump’s mukhabarat conspiracy theories part of a liberal conspiracy theory to bring him down? They’re all so deliciously complex and open-ended, much like our own.

On the media:

Of course, another crucial aspect to this transformation is the president’s contemptuous attitude towards the media. My, the delightful similarities. From blaming the press for engaging in secret conspiracies to undermine him to threatening their access to his White House palace to refusing to take questions from certain reporters, President Trump reminds us of several of our own leaders. In fact, an Arab leader complaining about CNN coverage is pretty much a staple of our political life.

This took an interesting turn on Saturday when the president accused the media of manufacturing his feud with the mukhabarat and his Minister of Information Mr. Sean Spicer castigated the media for reporting the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd. The not-so-veiled threats by the president and Mr. Spicer to the media are very much in the spirit of Arab governance.

On protests:

And then there’s the unrest. In the lead up to the inauguration, we started to hear about youth protests against the new regime. Come on! This is bordering on plagiarism now. Please write your own plots and stop borrowing ours. Although, we usually wait for leaders to take power before we start protesting; we like your preemptive revolution approach.

A word of warning though, before embarking on this path. We tried the revolution thing ourselves, and it didn’t work out so well. Maybe you should just adapt to living in the new regime. We were always told that having a strongman in charge is the best solution for Arab countries, otherwise there would be chaos. Perhaps the American people are not ready for democracy after all. Let’s face it America, you look like an Arab country now.



How Dubious are Egyptians?

Last week I highlighted a poor op-ed from the Washington Post. This article from the New York Times is better, but its headline is well, dubious.

New York Times DubiousEgyptians do thrive on conspiracy theory, though they should be accorded a degree of sympathy given the troubles and outside influences on their region.

Now, writing a headline is almost more art than journalism, sometimes crossing the line into marketing. The author is forgiven, and may not have had say in the final wording.

But the body of the article does not quote one single average citizen to make its point. It opens with President Sisi urging Egyptians to even go without food if necessary in the face of threats. Then the closest it comes to demonstrating popular rejection of the message is this:

After Mr. Sisi’s bellicose talk of going without food, “people are just making fun of him,” said Hisham Kassem, a veteran Egyptian journalist sympathetic to the president. “I am disappointed.”

Hisham Kassem is an important voice. As a journalist he should be expected to have his ear on the street. The author does well to quote him, and builds a case against the Egyptian habit of resorting to conspiracy.

Unfortunately, other voices quoted are from influential Egyptians outside of the country. They are critics of the regime, and some have fled for their safety. Their voices are also important, but they are not well placed to demonstrate the popular reception of government statements.

The article also quotes media figures in Egypt, and even an ordinary citizen, who express criticism of the regime:

During parliamentary elections, one pro-government talk show stunned viewers by broadcasting a call from a woman who said her disappointment with Mr. Sisi had kept her from the polls. She cited a much-hyped economic conference hosted by the president that failed to bolster growth, and an expansion project billed as a “new” Suez Canal, which had resulted in a decline in toll revenue. “I am sorry, but we are kidding ourselves,” she said. “I feel cheated.”

And it ends with a powerful statement from a prominent broadcaster who chastised the recourse to conspiracy and urged Egypt to take responsibility for itself:

Lamees el-Hadidi, one of the most popular pro-government talk show hosts, said in a broadcast that the government was compounding the economic pain from the plane crash by scaring away investors with the detentions of a prominent investigative journalist, Hossam Bahgat, and a newspaper owner, Salah Diab.

“If I am now in a very difficult situation with tourism and a foreign plot, do I need to make another problem with investments and another problem with freedoms?” she asked. “We don’t need a foreign conspiracy. We are the conspiracy itself. We conspire against ourselves!”

But these voices concern a popular discontent over the economy and to a lesser degree, over rights and freedoms. These are present, but they do not speak to a ‘dubious’ attitude towards either the state narrative or the conspiracies that swirl around.

I would say the great majority of Egyptians believe that outside forces are out to get them. And this attitude is shared equally by pro- and anti- regime.

And they have good reason. Right after the Russian airline crash, when early speculation imagined a terrorist missile, the UK’s Daily Mail published a story about a British tourist airliner having to take evasive maneuvers to avoid a similar fate.

Besides enraging the Egyptian public, this article was – to use a British expression – rubbished by the UK government:

UK’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond described on Sunday the Daily Mail’s allegations that a British passenger plane “had been seconds” from being struck by an Egyptian rocket last August as a “red herring.”

I have no explanation for the article, but it came amid a media frenzy that has now resulted in the restriction of UK and Russian flights to Egypt, crippling the tourist industry. Already struggling for foreign currency, this crisis is estimated to lose revenue of $280 million per month.

As Salama Moussa has repeatedly written, Egypt must face up to its self-inflicted wounds and take responsibility for itself. Foreign nations can help.

Foreign media has a role to play as well, and the power of shaming – though not appreciated in the Middle East – can be strong. The New York Times article describes well much of what is happening in Egypt.

But it would do better with a proper headline, especially one that is better documented. Perhaps nothing the author could have done would have made a difference, but the result among Egyptians is that this is just one more example of Western media misrepresenting it.

And sadly, they are not short of evidence that can be similarly construed.


US Behind ISIS?

Map of New Middle East

Here in Egypt the conspiracy thinking is strong that the United States, or at least her allies in the region, are a force behind the emergence of the so-called Islamic State.

From the London Review of Books, here is some of the evidence. Fortunately, the author also deals with it along the conspiracy spectrum:

His book went to press before he could take account of the extraordinary revelation that US intelligence had anticipated the rise of Islamic State nearly two years before it happened.

On 18 May, a document from the US Defense Intelligence Agency dated 12 August 2012 was published by a conservative watchdog organisation called Judicial Watch, which had managed to obtain this and other formerly classified documents through a federal lawsuit.

The document not only anticipates the rise of IS but seems to suggest it would be a desirable development from the point of view of the international ‘coalition’ seeking regime change in Damascus. Here are the key passages:

7b. Development of the current events into proxy war … Opposition forces are trying to control the eastern areas (Hasaka and Der Zor), adjacent to the western Iraqi provinces (Mosul and Anbar), in addition to neighbouring Turkish borders. Western countries, the Gulf states and Turkey are supporting these efforts. This hypothesis is most likely in accordance with the data from recent events, which will help prepare safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya when Benghazi was chosen as the command centre of the temporary government …

8c. If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime.

So American intelligence saw IS coming and was not only relaxed about the prospect but, it appears, positively interested in it. The precise formula used in paragraph 8c is intriguing. It doesn’t talk of ‘the possibility that Isis might establish a Salafist principality’ but of ‘the possibility of establishing’ a Salafist principality. So who was to be the prime mover in this process? Did IS have a state backing it after all?

The second piece of evidence is less direct, but comes from a 2006 map of the ‘New Middle East’ published in the Armed Forces Journal. It draws boundaries for an Arab Shia state, an Arab Sunni state, Syria, and Kurdistan.

Here is the author’s interpretation:

What we can make of this is, of course, unclear. At one extreme, conspiracy theorists will argue that it supports their claim that the Western powers have been deliberately creating chaos for unavowable reasons of their own.

At the other end of the spectrum, one could hypothesise that the DIA document may have been read by four unimportant people in Washington and ignored by everyone else.

In the middle, showing more respect for the DIA, we could imagine something else: the possibility that, in 2012, American and other Western intelligence services saw Isis much as they saw Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi groups, as useful auxiliaries in the anti-Assad drive, and could envisage its takeover of north-eastern Syria as a helpful development with no worrying implications.

If Islamic State escaped whatever influence Western intelligence services may initially have sought to have on it and went its own way, this means that people have been playing with fire.

I don’t pretend to know what the truth is. But there is no need to prove malign intent on the part of the Western powers. The most charitable theory available, ‘the eternally recurring colossal cock-up’ theory of history, will do well enough.

It is a very long but thorough article, stretching from the Mamluke era to Sykes-Picot through last century’s cycle of Arab revolutions and coup d’etats, up to the current day. His conclusion is that if the Western world wants to defeat the Islamic State, it must do so through the Syrian army, at least temporarily with Assad at the helm.

It makes for a good read, and also drives you crazy. Just realize that Arab conspiracy theorists are right there with you, and have suffered far more than we who can read the London Review of Books.


Men on Motorcycles

Men on Motorcycles

From the New Yorker, providing an account of the dawn killings between the military and pro-Morsi protestors:

Fifty-one dead at dawn. A doctor who said he preferred not to give his name lives in an apartment building that overlooks the Republican Guard barracks in Cairo. He told me he woke for the dawn prayer before 4 A.M. Shortly afterward, he heard gunfire and went onto his neighbor’s balcony for a better view.

“I saw that the Army retreated about ten metres and began to fire tear-gas cannisters, about ten or fifteen of them,” he said. “I couldn’t see if the other side [the protesters] was shooting, but I heard people through megaphones encouraging jihad. Then I saw four to six motorcycles coming from the direction of the Rabaa intersection to the Republican Guard barracks. Some people were still praying, some were not, because the dawn prayer had finished by then. The men on the motorcycles were all masked, and it was hard to see them through the dark and the tear-gas smoke, but they seemed to be shooting, they were coming from behind the protesters, so they were shooting toward the protesters and the Army. Then the Army started firing. And the protestors were firing. I saw firing from both sides.” As for details, though—what they were firing, whether it was one or two protesters or something more organized—he said that it was dark and that he couldn’t exactly tell.

Men on motorcycles. It is a maddening detail, constantly repeated over the past two and a half years. It has parallels even in the January 25 incidents of snipers firing into Tahrir Square. Back then it was widely suspected to be the police, but to this day no one knows – as no one has been convicted.

If it was the police trying to disperse the crowds, it was a woefully unsuccessful strategy. If anything, the crowds increased and the nation turned against the government. The result, coupled with continual suspicion against the Muslim Brotherhood, made people argue the opposite: Snipers were with Hamas, who acted on behalf of the Brotherhood to help the revolution succeed. Here and there since then, the theory goes, Hamas reappeared to do the dirty work.

Liberal revolutionary activists I know hate this theory, as they believe it is old regime propaganda to let themselves off the hook. Even so, the commission which studied post-revolutionary transgressions on the part of the military – also often assumed to be old regime partial – gave its report to President Morsi, who let it sit on his desk. Did he hold it as leverage to use against the army? Leaked pages suggested their wrongdoing. Or did he hold it because Hamas was implicated therein? To this day – though the day is still early – we do not know.

What is in the report? And who rode the motorcycles? Was it Muslim Brotherhood sponsored, seeking to provoke the army and paint them as killing innocent civilian protestors? Was it the army itself, raising a false flag against the Brotherhood to paint them as extremists and justify jailing their leaders? Was it jihadists seeking to create chaos? Was it foreign powers wishing to do the same? Every conspiracy floats well in a sea of obscurity; they sink where transparent systems are in place.

So is Egypt trying to build one, or protect the old sea of mud? To close, here is the explanation offered  by a friend:

First: MB ignored completely the Egyptian people who asked Morsi to leave as if they are just ghosts. They want to put in equation: MB and the military. It had been always the MB strategy: We (the civil state) vs. the army (military regime) and always neglected the Egyptian people as if there is a vacuum outside these two entities.

Second: Ignoring the Egyptian people we reach this conclusion: the army toppled Morsy and his regime.

Third: Reaching this result we get a new equation: Fighting the army is a national and religious duty.

Fourth: MB international mass media (CNN, Jazira and I would say Euro news) must confirm this equation putting the Egyptian army at the same ignoble level as the Syrian army.

Fifth: This will bring us to the big game in Sinai. The big battle against this “dirty” army will be deployed in Sinai.

Beltagui threatened that violence in Sinai will continue in case Morsy will not return.

It means that if you will not give us Egypt again we will get Sinai and establish our Emirate with the help of Hamas and all jihadists. Something is better than nothing.

Natanayahu asked all Israel citizens to leave Sinai immediately.

The Egyptian army sent military reinforcements to Gaza borders.

Another link

Many attacks against el Arish security forces (the last point that must be reached by Hamas militias to get their alternative homeland)

A priest assassinated in el Arish.

It seems that Russia supports the Egyptian army with a “military satellite” to track the militias in Sinai.

Most probably the scenario they want to implement is to establish an Egyptian sub-state on the area Gaza/Arish under Morsi’s legitimacy (the legitimate president of Egypt). This State will be blessed by Israel and US.

Most probably, this is the reason why US don’t want to announce officially if what happened in Egypt is or is not a coup. They are keeping this card to the last moment.

It was not in US “best interests” to decide yet whether the armed overthrow of the country’s elected president amounted to a coup or not.

If Hamas will get this area (Gaza/Arist) and will establish their new State, US will announce that 30th of January had been a coup. If Hamas and all other Jihadists will fail, US will announce that it was not a coup.

Suez Canal

On the other side, the army deployed military forces in Suez, Ismailia, Port Said and Suez Canal is under strict control.

Closing Suez Canal would be an excellent argument to allow international forces to occupy this vital passage. In this case, the Egyptian army will have problems to go to Sinai and will help the Jihadists to do whatever they want.

This is my reading of the events. I hope that I am wrong. No doubt that the best thing to do to stop this “crescendo” is to announce clearly, loudly and officially that 30th of June had not been a coup but the revolution of a people who are looking for their freedom.

Judge for yourself, but to reach a place of stability, Egypt needs to know who rode the motorcycles.


America Accused of Promoting Sectarian Tension

Yahia al-Gamal

Today, the Deputy Prime Minister, Yahia al-Gamal, publically accused the United States and Israel of fermenting sectarian tension in Egypt. This was on the heels of a similar statement made by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Though it was not their only commenton the matter, which included introspection and self-critique, it continues a path of blaming outside forces, particularly the discredited Israelis.

That the United States was named was particularly surprising to me. On the one hand, the US is still a primary benefactor of Egypt. On the other, as an American, it is difficult to imagine my nation involved in such evil. I can imagine our international pressure, our use of spies, even our meddling in governments and coup d’etats. Such examples are well documented in history.

As a nation we like to believe in our goodness, and I believe that at base this is not a lie. Yet we should not be deceived that our primary motivation, like that of all nations, is for our interest. While pursuit of self-interest is not necessarily evil, it is sub-good. Morality demands the pursuit of the interest of others, along with self.

I discovered a very interesting article today about US history in Syria. Today there is near universal condemnation of the regime, although, in an indirect way, the US had a hand in creating what now exists. The story goes back to 1947, and has stunning old interview footage with Americans who had a hand in ‘democracy promotion’. Here is an excerpt for the article to introduce the subject:

What is happening in Syria feels like one of the last gasps of the age of the military dictators. An old way of running the world is still desperately trying to cling to power, but the underlying feeling in the west is that somehow Assad’s archaic and cruel military rule will inevitably collapse and Syrians will move forward into a democratic age.

That may, or may not, happen, but what is extraordinary is that we have been here before. Between 1947 and 1949 an odd group of idealists and hard realists in the American government set out to intervene in Syria. Their aim was to liberate the Syrian people from a corrupt autocratic elite – and allow true democracy to flourish. They did this because they were convinced that “the Syrian people are naturally democratic” and that all that was necessary was to get rid of the elites – and a new world of “peace and progress” would inevitably emerge.

What resulted was a disaster, and the consequences of that disaster then led, through a weird series of bloody twists and turns, to the rise to power of the Assad family and the widescale repression in Syria today.

I thought I would tell that story.

Click here to read it.

What strikes me at the start of the story is the innocence of the American effort. From appearances, we really were trying to help. As our attempts stalled, however, our interference became more and more direct, until we alienated the population altogether. Development of the Syrian autocracy lies in their own hands, but the United States gave a good, inadvertent jump start to the process.

Conspiracies abound in this part of the world, and while I usually do my best to consider the purported reality behind each one, I cannot bring myself to make sense of how the US profits if Muslims and Christians are killing each other in Egypt. Perhaps I am unwilling to. Less biased readers are invited to fill in the story in the comments.

What we should never do, however, is doubt our own potential for evil. Small moral compromises – even for the sake of good – can easily lead to greater and greater sins. I also believe the maxim to be true: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The power of the United States is not absolute, certainly not in Egypt. Yet if we do not consider our own corruption, we are helpless to prevent its occurrence.

Today, one friend explained the comment from the Armed Forces as indicative of their frustration that the United States is now speaking directly to groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. During the days of Mubarak, the government kept a monopoly on international communication. ‘Manipulation of Islamist groups’, as stated, can simply mean this.

Or it could mean more. I would hope the comments of the deputy prime minister are only a rhetorical play to his audience. Politicians the world over can make exaggerated statements for effect, serving whatever interests they believe fitting. It was not too long ago that Islamist groups called for the dismissal of al-Gamal, due to his supposed anti-Islamist viewpoints. Maybe he is mending fences.

The point is, we do not know. We have many historic national sins; we may have unknown present ones. I doubt the accusation is true. I hope the accusation is not true. Please, may the accusation not be true.


Bahrain, Conspiracies, and US-Iranian Cooperation

The pace of popular protest and change in the Middle East has been bewildering. In such cases limited information, new realities, and subtle biases make the resort to conspiracy theory understandable. Tunisia caught everyone by surprise. When the demonstrations erupted in Egypt suddenly a connection was seen, and widely feared. Who was running the show? What forces were at work?

We had the privilege of being eyewitnesses to much of what took place in Egypt, and we can state that if there were greater forces at work, we did not see them. But, this is the nature of conspiracy theory; it is below the surface, unseen.

Conspiracy theories work off of truths, and therefore have merit. But they also tend to look for unified solutions, and I would argue this often betrays them. Life is complex; multiple forces are at work, a grand narrative is near impossible.

Yet while due to our experiences I believe we have a decent handle on the complexity of Egypt, the situation in Bahrain is beyond me. The Egyptian English website of the popular independent newspaper al-Masry al-Youm carries two articles on the situation there. The first is an analysis of the return of ‘stability’ as the protests have largely come to a halt. It seems that security forces have succeeded in driving back the momentum of the demonstrators, and may be undertaking a quiet crackdown against key leaders.

The second is an interview with Dr. Abdullatif al-Mahmood, the spokesman for the National Unity Gathering proposed by the government to lead dialogue between oppositional forces. The situation has certainly moved past dialogue as a solution, but some of his words may betray his status as a neutral, trusted interlocutor.

The problem with the Shias is that most of them have no loyalty to the homeland. Their loyalty to the sect and its plots comes first. How can we trust them when they put up pictures of Khomeini everywhere they go when he was the military leader of Iran, as well as the religious and secular political leader? How can the state trust them?

A quick primer on the issues at stake: Bahrain has been ruled by a Sunni monarchy for the past two hundred years, supported by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It rules, however, over a majority Shia population. I am unable to say if its rule has been just, or if it has been successful in developing a sense of national unity. Nor am I able to say if the Shia population is loyal to Iran, or if there has been Iranian interference in Bahraini sovereignty. In his interview Dr. al-Mahmood raises interesting points, which are worthy for consideration.

Yet now we run into the problem of lack of familiarity and information. Can his words be trusted? Within the article he makes this startling accusation:

This is all within the framework of a US plan to create a vast Shia state loyal to Iran in the Gulf and in Iraq.

Al-Masry: How is the US aiming for the region to become governed by Shias loyal to Iran, despite the hostility between the two countries?

Al-Mahmood: This is not true. The truth is that there is no hostility between Iran and the US. There are mutual interests and roles between the two. International relations are governed by interests and not by good or bad relations.

And the conspiracy theory deepens. But it deepens in an unexpected way. Not only is this particular uprising (at least) directed by Iran, it is orchestrated in conjunction with the United States.

Before outright dismissal, where might the truth in such an assertion lie? The United States’ interest lies firmly, if uneasily, with Saudi Arabia as the dominant regional power, if only for the open pipeline of oil supplies. Moreover, media coverage of Bahraini protests, from both al-Jazeera and CNN, has been significantly less than what was given to Egypt. Furthermore, US administration comments took President Mubarak harshly to task, whereas pressure on Bahrain’s monarchy has not moved significantly beyond the call to respect human rights. When Gulf Cooperation Council forces landed in Bahrain to help pacify the situation, the US hardly blinked. This conveys the conventional wisdom in Bahrain. Saudi interests dominate, especially since it has a minority population of Shia, and the first domino must not fall. The US will back Saudi Arabia, especially in curbing an Iranian urge to increase its regional influence.

Where then is the deeper, conspiratorial narrative? If it exists, it could go like this. In this part of the world I have heard just enough US-Iran rumors as well as assumed Western anti-Islamic biases to see a logic:

If united, the Arab world, or, variously constructed, the Islamic world could be a powerful competition to Western hegemony. Following World War I and the abolition of the Ottoman Caliphate, the Western powers, namely Britain and France, divided the region into little nation-states. These were reared on the principles of nationalism, in order to give them separate identities and keep them squabbling among themselves. The British, it is said, also nurtured radical Islamic ideologies (Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Wahabbism in Saudi Arabia) to further divide internal populations along religious lines. Extending the thought, the state of Israel was also planted to be a thorn in the side of the Arab world.

The biggest fault line in the Middle East, however, is the Sunni-Shia divide. (I have even heard one voice saying that modern Shiism itself is a British invention.) 90% of the world’s Muslims are Sunni, and the remaining 10% is concentrated in Iran and Iraq, with pockets elsewhere such as Lebanon, Syria, and the Arabian Peninsula. Shia Islam believes that Islamic leadership should remain within the family of Muhammad, whereas Sunni Islam developed a political theology that was more egalitarian, or, interpreted differently, justified obedience to whoever usurped leadership in the Muslim community. At one point in history a minority Shia power emerged from Tunisia and ruled much of the Arab Sunni population from Egypt. Today, it is minority Sunni governments which rule over Shia populations in Bahrain, and formerly, in Saddam-era Iraq and previously.

Returning to the conspiracy theory, then, in terms of good relations with the Islamic world and unhampered flow of oil, the US would do well to favor Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia. Yet, if the US inherits what was (if indeed it was) British policy of divide-and-conquer, under-the-table arrangements to strengthen the minority Shia and promote Iranian interests can make sense too. After all, Iran has abundant petrol resources also, as does Bahrain.

Crazy, you might say? Isn’t Iran ruled by a maniacal despot bent on the destruction of Israel and the Great Satan of America? It certainly seems so. Does anyone believe Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons, despite their statements to the contrary? But, in the Middle East, there has often been a vast difference between public posturing and private sentiment. Could it not be so in the US as well?

Egypt is seen as a bulwark in defense of the Israeli state, being a signatory to the Camp David Accords. With the fall of Mubarak many worry that an anti-Israeli popular sentiment may undue this historic peace. Yet what is often not realized is that all the while Mubarak reaped the benefits of US support upon which preservation of peace hinged, his administration allowed if not promoted the popular sentiment against normalization of the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. The same can possibly also be seen in Syria, where President Assad’s popularity is supported by a strong anti-Israel rhetoric. Yet some analysis sees Israel currently worried if the ongoing demonstrations there unseat this ‘enemy’.

Could the official and popular sentiment in the United States against Iran also be manufactured? If so, it would provide the administration cover to maintain good ties with Saudi Arabia while it fans the flames of Shia-Sunni conflict, laying the groundwork in case a formal shift in ties to Iran ever becomes necessary. Such a scenario is easy to imagine: Saudi Arabians have links to al-Qaeda, and the nation has little semblance of democracy or respect for human rights. Iran, meanwhile, is also undergoing popular demonstrations. Should these topple Ahmedinijad, or at the least lead to a coup d’etat, might we find among the Persians a better civilizational friend? Would not the virtues of their people compare favorably to the (now labeled) backward Bedouin terrorists and debauched sheikhs of Saudi Arabia?

I am not arguing for the conspiracy theory by any means. But all conspiracy theories, at some level, make sense. What I am putting forward, especially as it concerns Bahrain, is that I don’t know much of anything. This ignorance, plus a little knowledge, is fertile ground for conspiracy. But just because you’re paranoid, doesn’t mean they’re not after you, either.

Unfortunately, this is where our world is these days. In time the confusion will dissipate and we will get used to the new realities, becoming comfortable in our illusion of understanding. Yet paradoxically, it is understanding that is vitally necessary. What I have written above is a narrative current in the Middle East. I hope I have carried it forward in a manner respecting its plausibility. Why? Not so that we might lend it credence, but so that we understand and better respect those who hold to it. They are struggling to make sense of the rapid pace of change as much as we are.

Or, they may be manipulators. If so, better understanding will help us to navigate a tricky world of power and self-interest. Those committed to good must be able to see clearly through deceit and ill motivation. Yet they themselves must not yield to the power of an overarching conspiracy theory, neglecting the complexity of each situation. Where demonstrated manipulation exists, it must be rejected. Yet they themselves must know their own heart, that in their commitment to good they are often tempted similarly to smaller manipulations. At least, they are believed smaller. Are others any different?

Among the demonstrators in Bahrain are human rights activists who appear to be committed to democracy and liberal principles of government. Perhaps they are not, or perhaps these are being manipulated by others with more sinister motivations. It is hard to know the right from the wrong. May we have humility in all we profess, conviction to profess what is good, and hope that the profession of good may be mirrored even by those of whom we doubt. Above all, perhaps faith is necessary, that God will sort out our human mess, and redeem every impulse of good, so that all intertwine in a mosaic of his good, just, and eternal principles. May we aid, and not stand in the way.