When Jon Stewart visited Egypt in the summer, he made an appearance on “Al Bernameg,” a (suspended) satirical show sometimes compared to Stewart’s own “The Daily Show.” He dropped a joke early in the gig when Bassem Yousseff, the host of the show, asked him what he was doing with his time (Stewart was on sabbatical): “As you know, my people like to wander in the desert. It’s been two weeks, I’ve got 50 weeks and 38 years left.”
Nothing alarming, right? Well, earlier this month, Egyptian writer Amr Ammar, in a remarkable leap into the realm of tinfoil hatted hate thought, took the joke as an effort by American leaders like Zbigniew Brzezinski and Stewart to conquer Egypt. The Middle East Media Research Institute translated Ammar’s comments on Tahrir TV:
If you recall, when Jon Stewart visited here in Egypt, he was a guest on Bassem Youssef’s show. Note what Jon Stewart said as a joke. He said: ‘I am sorry I am late. I wandered in the desert, but now I’ve found my homeland.’ That’s what he said word for word — a Jew who wandered in the desert, but, thank God, found his homeland. This man says, in the heart of Egypt and on an Egyptian media outlet, that Egypt belongs to them, that it is his homeland.
First of all, that’s not what Stewart said, not even close. Second of all, it’s worth underlining the point, as Jeff Goldberg hints at over at Bloomberg, that the most important thing to understand about the heated, over the top (or under the bottom) conspiracy rhetoric so prevalent in Egypt and elsewhere in the region isn’t the evil and hatred behind it, sad as that is. Rather, what the prevalence of this kind of crazy thinking tells us is that Egypt isn’t going to get better soon. Anti-Semitism, attributing global events to the machinations of an all-conquering Jewish conspiracy, is the sign of profound mental and social failure—and a harbinger of more failures and errors to come.
The prevalence of delusional conspiracy thinking at all levels of Egyptian intellectual and political life is a “tell” that points to important limits on Egypt’s potential for political, social and economic progress. Societies in thrall to this kind of darkness are unlikely to develop the vigorous, forward looking and competent civil societies that can promote true democracy. Societies whose intellectual leaders cannot understand how power works in the modern world are unlikely to adopt policies that bring rapid economic progress. Given the power of these ideas among prominent Muslim Brotherhood officials and leaders, it should have been clear to the Obama administration that whatever it was observing in Egypt, it was unlikely to be a “transition to democracy.” At best, the Egyptian revolution was always likely to be an interregnum between despotisms; at worst there is still a chance (hopefully small) that the country could fall into the kind of chaos and violence that has become much too common across the Middle East.
Rabid anti-Semitism coupled with an addiction to implausible conspiracy theories is a very strong predictor of national doom; Nazi Germany isn’t the only country to have followed these dark stars to the graveyard of history. Many liberal minded Americans (though loathing both anti-Semitism and chowderheaded conspiracy thinking themselves) don’t like to look this truth in the eye. It leads to some very uncomfortable reflections about the potential for democracy in many countries beyond Egypt, and casts a dark shadow over the prospects for the development of a stable and prosperous Palestinian state. It suggests that there are narrow limits on what we can expect from diplomacy with Iran.
Two American administrations in a row have seen their Middle East policies come crashing down because they ignored the unpleasant implications of the unhealthy thought climate so prevalent in so much of the region. President Bush and President Obama, dissimilar as they are in so many of their regional policies, shared a naive optimism about the prospects for quick transitions to democracy in the Middle East. In both cases that optimism led to unwise policy choices that made both US interests and values harder to protect. In the Bush years, those who raised questions about Iraq’s and the Arab world’s readiness for democracy were denounced as racists; in the age of Obama they are called Occidentalists or sometimes Islamophobes.
Not everybody in the region is caught up in the kind of thinking behind Mr. Ammar’s clownish pronouncements, and it is certainly true that Israeli actions sometimes contribute to an emotional climate that makes crazy talk appealing to minds that otherwise might be ready to take a more sensible view. But the grim reality remains: as long as feverish conspiracy thinking dominates the world views of so many regional social, cultural and political actors, civil society will be weak and both democracy and prosperity will prove elusive.
The whiggish optimism of American culture rebels at such thoughts, but the Middle East at the moment is not a particularly fertile mission field for liberal ideals. At the same time, the region’s role in world oil markets and its place on world trade routes makes it a region from which we cannot walk away. Managing our national portfolio under these difficult circumstances will take more maturity and patience than either the Bush or the Obama administration (so far) has displayed. We can hope that the unraveling of its once bright hopes in the region will lead the White House to a process of reflection and analysis that will bring it to a more sober understanding of the region and our choices in it. Beyond that, we must hope that the winning candidate in 2016 will bring a more sensible and grounded approach to what for some time to come will be an inescapable but difficult theater for American foreign policy.