By the fifth anniversary of the 25 January Revolution, the conspiracy theory had become a mainstream way for many to understand the uprising as well as its causes and repercussions. In the beginning, talk of conspiracy was untenable and weak and sometimes merely a joke, but it gained momentum and more advocates have since developed mechanisms, channels, and stories to promote the theory. Today, it has become a version that competes with the events of the revolution that are still fresh in our minds.
Definition of conspiracy
Conspiracy is an intellectual construct that gives an abridged version of events relying on purposefulness, intention to do harm, and secrecy. Using conspiracy theories to explain events is based on a specific view of oneself and the world, and involves a certain way of thinking, logic, and rhetoric.
Conspiracies adopt a teleological interpretation justifying an outcome caused by an intentional action by a beneficiary of this event, whether this is a speculative interpretation or based on evidence. In reality, conspiracy theories are a natural and omnipresent social phenomenon with a variety of elements that may not even agree on the same goal.
Assuming perfect planning and absolute control of events is illogical and unrealistic, at least in light of diverging goals and behaviours of various actors who may not even agree on the same goal. It is more likely there are many disconnected conspiracies that can run parallel, cross or diverge, and controlling all elements in order for a conspiracy to unfold exactly as planned is an unreasonable assumption.
How did the conspiracy narrative of the 25 January revolution move to the foreground?
The conspiratorial explanations of the revolution began early on amid rumours of meals, food, and foreign currency per diems being handed out as pay for protesting. After Mubarak stepped down and the revolution was in full swing, conspiracy theories continued to circulate but in limited circles. No one really tried to refute them because they were seen as humorous folklore of the ridiculous that rarely appeared on the periphery of public debate by insignificant people or entities.
In time, however, belief in a conspiracy gradually gained ground until it became a mainstream view of the January revolution and the Arab Spring as a whole, out of the belief that revolutions are a premeditated conspiratorial act using domestic elements who were trained or incited or funded to overthrow or dismantle Arab states and empower their enemies. Many historical similarities were made and frequently referenced the Sykes-Picot agreement that divided the region along colonial lines.
There are two elements why the January conspiracy gained momentum over the past five years. First, the context; second, protagonists.
First: Context promoting the conspiracy theory
1- Psychologically. From the viewpoint of political psychology, people are predisposed to believe the revolution is premeditated or preplanned because of the psychological and social shock that jolts all values and social institutions that were stable before the eruption of the revolution. Thus, there is a "public" that is receptive to accumulative historical conspiracies against the country, and defines the act of revolution and its aftermath in this context, especially during times of uncertainty and crisis.
Accepting conspiracy theories is part of a natural psychological need for understanding. Conspiracy is a comfortable explanation of incoherent events and creates clear causality that views this confusion and chaos as coherent and planned events that can be easily understood and dealt with consciously and psychologically. It is also easy this way to directly blame someone for the crises and problems. Historically, the French Revolution is the focus of conspiracy literature whereby several conspiratorial explanations assert that it was triggered by the actions of several secret movements and societies at the time, such as the Freemasons, Jacobians, and Iluminati.
Fear is the main component of conspiracy theories and the fearful state of mind is linked to breaking with the familiar, uncertainty, growing personal and collective threats, changing routine, the disruption or threatening vital functions of society such as schooling, transportation, travel or services such as power and fuel. These phenomena give rise to conservatism in some sectors of society that have been harmed and want to restore a "normal" life pattern. They are also more prepared than others to accept the conspiracy theory either because it is easier to understand or more convincing, or in line with their desires or interests.
The atmosphere of crisis that followed the January revolution, especially in the economy, and failure of the revolution to achieve its ideas or the dignified life that it promised, compounded the psychological disposition of some social strata to accept and reference the conspiracy theory (especially sectors that were not directly involved in the revolution or unenthusiastic in the beginning, or those who were harmed the most).
2- Security narrative. The revolutionary condition by nature is linked to security instability and trends such as growing protests. The collapse of the police and opening of prisons at the beginning of the revolution also spread unusual forms of crimes that threaten personal and collective security such as armed robbery, kidnapping, and roadblocks that became common crimes soon after the revolution.
This sense of danger was compounded by rising terrorist threats at home and recurring attacks on army and police officers, as well as a growing terrorist threat in the region from the likes of Islamic State (IS) and its expansion at the expense of countries across the border. This looming and growing regional threat and the collapse of some regional countries after the eruption of revolutionary movements or were dismantled or saw extended civil wars, enforced the security narrative that enhances the sense of being targeted and conspiracy.
Thus, early on there was talk of a conspiracy theory targeting Egypt to carve it up. For example, media coverage in a national newspaper about funding of NGOs, raids and arrests connected to it, quoted judicial investigators as saying there is evidence of implicit plots to divide Egypt. Also, that some international societies are implicated in these plots. Security suspicions at all stages following the January revolution resulted in cases and incidents such as the "homing pigeons" who were reportedly carrying microfilm in January 2013, and investigating officials at a communications company because of a puppet commercial that was claimed to be coded with orders to harm Egypt.
3- Lack of information. Rumours are rampant in the absence of clear information. Scarcity of basic information about revolutionary events during those 18 days and critical events that followed, was a fertile environment to create conspiracy theories and embed them. A fact-finding committee was formed to investigate the events of the revolution, its findings were announced at a news conference two months after the revolution, and was published in some newspapers. The Muslim Brotherhood regime appointed another fact finding commission after it came to power in order to review new evidence in the prosecution of the previous regime. However, the full transcripts of these committees were of limited availability.
Despite an atmosphere of leaks and recording and broadcasting personal phone calls since the January revolution, no official recordings about the 25 January revolution were aired. Nor were signal recordings at police stations (which the committee requested but did not receive) or video footage of the Egyptian Museum, or any phone call between Mubarak, members of his regime, or prominent businessmen during his tenure.
More importantly, no fact-finding missions were formed – similar to many other international ones – that relied on truth and honesty as their gateway to transitional justice and national conciliation after revolutions or great transformational events.
Second: The sponsors of conspiracy theories
1- Official sponsorship. Although all consecutive regimes recognised the January revolution and honoured it in the constitution, there is a form of official sponsorship of the conspiracy theory or failure to counter it. This includes pages on social media in the name of security agencies – although unofficial and therefore security bodies are not responsible for their content. The pages manipulate conspiracy rhetoric, such as “Egyptian Intelligence” which has more than one million followers and “Egyptian Police” which has around 500,000 followers.
Another example, closer to the official realm, is “Admin of the Official Page of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces” which was the first attempt of focused manipulation of conspiracy rhetoric during the events at Maspero. There were consecutive interpretations of events as a conspiracy to trigger sectarian strife in the country.
There were also some direct statements by President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi that referred several times to what is known as "fourth and fifth generation warfare" using media and advertisement to sabotage societies at the hands of their own people. This gave momentum to rhetoric adopted by many political analysts and strategic experts, especially those with security backgrounds, who use the same interpretation of "new generation warfare" in conspiratorial explanations of trends that have nothing to do with conspiracy.
2- The role of the media in fuelling fear and embedding conspiracy outlooks. The media played a fundamental role in promoting and highlighting the conspiracy theory. Since the January revolution, the media, especially private satellite channels, have aired a heavy dose of politics through images, sounds, analyses and public opinion which is mostly new to politics. And thus, it was one of the main sources of influence on opinions. These direct and indirect media messages enhanced the sense of fear, gloom and conspiracy on one hand, and attributed it to the revolution on the other.
For example, one programme hosted people making confessions of an alleged conspiracy and training and incitement by foreign parties. Other content contributes to a sense of suspicion and fear in general, such as broadcasting an infomercial warning against speaking freely in public places and cafes because they are teeming with spies. There is also an entire programme dedicated to airing recorded conversations and communications between figures from the January revolution in order to sabotage them.
Those watching Egyptian talk shows will find a keen focus on conspiracy, and after so much repetition there is an assumption that it is a given truth. A most extreme form of conspiracy theorising was on a programme where a “strategic expert” said there is a Supreme World Council that manages conspiracies and controls natural disasters and comets, aiming them at specific countries, as well as masterminding universal conspiracies that move nature and people.
Since 30 June 2013, the media has promoted the conspiracy theory and abridged the revolution into single snapshots of opening prisons and foreign funding, while blurring or ignoring millions taking to the streets chanting the three demands of the revolution. Specific programmes specialised in airing telephone conversations by key figures in the revolution aim to slander them. The term fifth column also emerged to taint anyone who dissents and becomes brandished a traitor or tool in the hands of a foreign conspiracy.
Several factors played a role in promoting conspiracy rhetoric, combining context and the choices of actors to promote and disseminate the conspiracy theory in general, and linking it to the 25 January revolution especially. Domestic and foreign security crises and threats added more layers to interpretations of the conspiracy complex that already exists, as an easily convincing recipe and abridged vision of domestic and foreign polices to a public that is not accustomed to politics. Therefore, it was natural that it gained popularity, especially in an environment fraught with rapid change and much ambiguity, as well as real danger.