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Where would you expect conspiracy theories about 9/11 to be disseminated in Cairo? A coffee house in Sayeda Zeinab, Al-Azhar or any of the multitude of so-called "popular" quarters of the city–filled with Shisha smoke, and permeated by the smell of molasses-soaked tobacco (otherwise known as me’assel) mixed, perhaps, with the subtle whiff of some other rather more expensive substance?
Where does the "Arab mind’s" supposed propensity for conspiracy theory come to its own and propagate? Could it be in the scruffy offices of local newspapers, regularly slammed by a certain Mossad-led, U.S.-based media monitoring organization as dens of anti-American, anti-Semitic incitement, and which the U.S. government, the EU and nearly everybody with some aid money to disburse is doing their utmost to help reform? (God knows the need is great, even if the path, in this as in every other area of our contemporary life, is shrouded in mystery?)
Possibly, but the most lucid, indeed the most erudite and comprehensive argument to the effect that all was not what it seemed in 9/11 was to be had in none of these.
Certainly, I’ve come across several versions of what "really" happened on that fateful day in September 2001, over the past five years. There’s been my friend and colleague, the expert on political Islam, who throughout continued to insist that Al-Qaeda didn’t do it, almost totally unfazed by my taunting him with each growingly more blunt admission to having indeed ‘done it’ by Messrs Bin Laden and Zawahry. We’ve all heard the one about 3,000 Jews that failed to show up at the World Trade Center on the day of the atrocity. And though many have written to expose this story for the myth it has always been, much of the Egyptian public continued to believe it–just, one may add, as their more prosperous and literate American counterparts went on believing in that other 9/11 urban legend, curtsey of Mr. Cheney; the one about Saddam’s links to Al-Qaeda.
My absolute favorite 9/11 conspiracy theory, however, was told to me by that most ubiquitous source of information vis-à-vis the mood on the "Egyptian street"–a taxi driver. (In the absence of any sort of political life in the country outside a narrow and isolated political elite, both local and foreign journalists have come to rely on the taxi driver as the ultimate authority on what the "ordinary Egyptian" thinks or believes.)
According to my source, both Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein (who was yet to be captured) are CIA agents; and were in fact tucked away by their handlers somewhere in the United States. This particular theory had the ingenious merit of fusing all the conspiracy theories in one: Bin Laden did it, so did Saddam and so did the Americans. How far that particular theory was reflective of the word on the Egyptian street is anybody’s guess. I had a lot of fun with it, nevertheless, imagining Saddam and Bin Laden, clean-shaven, sharing a little house in some Midwestern American city–posing, perhaps, as a gay couple?
I had to wait five years to listen to a 9/11 conspiracy theory I could not easily laugh, or shrug off. The setting was as incongruous as were the parties to the discussion–largely one sided, my interlocutors talking and I, skeptically, listening. Sipping cold Stella beer, munching on antipasti and enclosed in the courtyard of the Italian Club, a surprisingly idyllic spot discretely hidden from the hustle and bustle of one of the busiest streets in town, my friends and I could not have been more securely insulated from "the Egyptian street."
Nor could my friends be accused, by any stretch of the imagination, of suffering from that most dangerous disease, endemic to the region, and differentially diagnosed as "the Arab min." My friend had lived a large chunk of his adult life in the West; his recipe for solving Egypt’s multifarious political, economic and social problems is to entice Egypt’s erstwhile foreign communities (the Greeks, Armenians, Italians, Jews) back into the country. (I am, I might add, particularly enamored of the idea of enticing the Jews back, since it would have the additional potential benefit of emptying Israel of nearly half its Jewish population).
The third party to our little group on that particular summer evening was my friend’s American wife, a lovely, tall Texan, with long auburn hair. They had been recently married at the foot of the Pyramids in what my American pop-culture-savvy wife informed me at the time was a New Age ceremony. Extremely vague about what "New Age" anything actually denotes, I was nevertheless quite impressed by the insouciance shown by my friend’s large Egyptian Muslim family toward the flower-bordered Ankh within which the bride and groom exchanged their conjugal vows.
Having gone to considerable detail to absolve my companions at the Italian Club of any suspicion of being blighted by, God forbid, an Arab mind, I might now reveal that they were the source of the most persuasive 9/11 conspiracy theory I had yet to come across. It was all about steel structures and impossible cell-phone calls and an unlikely hole in the Pentagon and a disappeared fourth, or was it fifth, plane. I was referred to Web sites and to American scholars who have organized to question the whole edifice of reasoning and evidence presented by the official investigation.
I remain highly skeptical–for a number of reasons. The first may be discounted as sheer pigheadedness. As soon as I learned of the attack on the World Trade Center twin towers, my first guess, accompanied by intense dread (I could already see the war of civilizations being launched), was that it was Bin Laden and Co. who’d done it. Something of the sort seemed to be coming ever since the Jihadists had reached the conclusion (eloquently expressed by our good doctor Al-Zawahry in a famous auto-critique) that battling "the far enemy" (Crusaders and Jews) was a far better strategy in terms of winning Arab and Muslim hearts and minds than focusing on "the near enemy" (apostate Arab and Muslim regimes), which they had been doing to no avail for nearly two decades. Later developments, needless to say, seemed to amply confirm my initial guess.
The second reason for my skepticism is rather more compelling. I find it very difficult to believe that a secret on such a heinous and grandiose scale could be kept secret. Whatever the loopholes in the findings of the official investigation (and obviously there are loopholes) it is nearly impossible to assume a cover-up that must have involved the complicity of at least several hundred people in a whole array of branches of the government bureaucracy at a great many levels–and this, of the deliberate murder of more than 3,000 American citizens by an American intelligence body. Such an assumption makes the Kennedy assassination (presumably at the hands of Lyndon B. Johnson, J. Edgar Hoover, the CIA, the Mafia and Cuban émigrés) seem pretty tame. And while I have few illusions about the greatness of American democracy, there is little doubt in my mind that the U.S.–despite the best efforts of the American Right–is in fact a democracy, however imperfect.
My third, and indeed, most compelling reason is that grand conspiracy theories present us with something in the nature of divine and/or other forms of supernatural intervention. Simply, they place major historical events and processes at the mercy of whim, beyond prediction or reasoned analysis. A corollary of such an assumption is that human beings are ultimately no more than puppets on a string, and that the choices we make are exercises in futility.
It so happens, however, that we need no conspiracy theory, grand or small, to learn that both President Bush and his neo-con cabal no less than the Prince of the Faithful of Tora Bora and his band of global marauders had been, on the eve of 9/11, chomping at the bit to instigate a great, bloody and perpetual "war of civilizations." It has served them tremendously well over the past five years. It’s the rest of us that have to suffer the devastating fallout.
HANI SHUKRALLAH is a consultant for Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and is the former Editor of Al Ahram Weekly. He writes a weekly commentary for The Daily Star Egypt.