And the winner of the annual “Most Convoluted Conspiracy Theory to Emerge from the Egyptian Fever Swamp” prize is the writer Amr Ammar, who alleged earlier this month on Tahrir TV that talk-show host Jon Stewart, working in tandem with former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, is asserting dominion over Egypt on behalf of the Jews. Or something like that -- the nature of Egyptian conspiracy theories (a subject that has interested me for a long time) is such that they are often not explicable, even on their own terms.
This particularly ripe theory has its roots in a visit earlier this year to Cairo by Stewart, who made an appearance on the satirist Bassem Youssef’s show. (Stewart has been famously supportive of Youssef, who is loathed in Cairo by the type of people whose loathing a satirist would seek.) On Youssef’s show, Stewart jokedthat, while on a temporary hiatus from his own show, he had become somewhat aimless. “As you know, my people like to wander the desert,” he said. “It’s been two weeks. I’ve got 50 weeks and 38 years left.” This was an historic moment -- an inside Jewish joke (of the non-anti-Semitic variety) made before a live Egyptian studio audience, which laughed, at least a little.
Cut now to a Tahrir TV interview with Ammar, who, in the course of arguing that Youssef is undermining Egypt (a common charge among revanchists), alleged that Youssef has learned theories of mass social control from Brzezinski, who is the source of Jon Stewart’s “ideology.”
According to a translation done by the Middle East Media Research Institute, Ammar described Stewart as Youssef’s “spiritual father.” Brzezinski “said that millions of people can be mobilized by what he called a fad, using the new media, technology, conventional media, and so on, thus giving rise to an attractive and charismatic personality. All those millions of people will be influenced by that personality.”
Ammar went on, “Thirty-three years later, this fad has emerged here in Egypt, in the form of Bassem Youssef…. His spiritual father is Jon Stewart, who is a Jewish-American author, journalist, producer, and media personality. Jon Stewart’s ideology is based on Brzezinski’s ideas. He is implementing Brzezinski’s theory on the American people and media.”
Never much on the rails to begin with, Ammar then goes decisively off: “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.”
You can see why this year's prize committee unanimously chose Ammar. Convolution? Check. Wild misquoting to make an absurd point? Check. Total lack of a grip on American political reality? Check. Gratuitous anti-Semitism? Check.
Anti-Semitism is not only the socialism of fools. It is, as Walter Russell Mead has said, the "sociology of the befuddled." The proclivity of so many Egyptians to embrace conspiracy theories -- anti-Semitic or otherwise -- suggests an inability to grapple with the world as it actually is. An inability to grapple with the world as it actually is an obvious impediment to economic growth and political development. But it does make for entertaining television.
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Jeffrey Goldberg at email@example.com