On July 26, a cable news host leaned across his desk, stared into the camera and let his audience in on what he believed was the Obama administration’s deepest, darkest secret. “The issue is not whether Obama is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood or not,” he declared. “The issue is that it is a fact that Obama used the help of the Muslim Brotherhood in his administration.”
Reading from notes in a tone of total omniscience, the host began to name names. He cited six figures, all Muslim American activists or intellectuals, accusing them of operating a Muslim Brotherhood sleeper cell inside the White House. They were Mazen Asbahi, Arif Ali Khan, Eboo Patel, Salam Marayati, and Mohamed Elibiary.
“Write these names down,” the host told his audience, “look them up during the break and when I come back let me know if what I say is right or wrong.”
Though he sounded like Glenn Beck or any other Tea Party-style Islamophobe, the host was not American and did not even speak English. He was Yousef El-Hosseini, a popular and famously reactionary personality on the private Egyptian cable network, ONTV. Founded by Egypt’s wealthiest man, Naguib Sawiris, a key financial backer of the forces behind the overthrow of the country’s first elected president, Mohamed Morsi, ONTV has emerged as one of the country’s central instruments for spreading pro-military propaganda.
Since Egyptian security forces commanded by strongman Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi began massacring supporters of Morsi, arresting and disappearing activists in droves, and shutting down unsympathetic news outlets, the Obama administration has ratcheted up its criticism, canceling a joint military maneuver with Egypt while stopping just short of suspending aid. Fearing that external pressure could lead to a crisis in internal morale, Egypt’s military regime has cranked up its Mighty Wurlitzer.
During the past two weeks, pro-military networks like OnTV have begun blending footage of Egypt’s glorious security forces waging a “war on terror” with the kind of conspiratorial screeds familiar to far-right members of Congress like Michele Bachmann and Islamophobia hustlers like Pamela Geller. The propaganda blitz has successfully reinforced the view of many average Egyptians that if Obama cannot respect the heroic Sisi’s war on “terror,” it is because he is caught in the invisible tentacles of the Brotherhood – or perhaps he is an undercover Brother himself.
Targeted by Gohmert and Bachmann
As the lone Muslim member of the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory council, the Egyptian-born Mohamed Elibiary has been routinely named by American Islamophobes as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s US “sleeper cell.” Elibiary operates a private security firm in Texas and has consulted extensively for the FBI. In order to enter the administration, he had to first clear a thorough background check. Soon after his 2010 swearing in, Elibiary was bombarded with smears, with the anti-Muslim researcher Stephen Emersonaccusing him of “support[ing] terror-related individuals and organizations,” a charge echoed in a letter to the DHS by a cadre of far-right Republican members of Congress.
Both the DHS and Republican congressional leaders swiftly rebuked Elibiary’s assailants, depriving them of any hope of mainstream legitimacy. And once the 2012 campaign concluded, the conspiracy appeared likely to fade into oblivion.
But in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood had swept to power in the country’s first free elections, setting off months of ferocious protests by a coalition of secular liberals, leftist groups and Mubarak-era dead enders. Desperate to concoct explanations for the Obama administration’s recognition of Morsi’s legitimacy, the opposition recycled a convenient conspiracy theory.
Selling Egypt on the sleeper cell
In November 2012, the formerly pro-Mubarak Egyptian tabloid Rose El-Yousef introduced millions of Egyptians to Elibiary, naming him and five other influential Muslim-American political activists as secret Brotherhood operatives. “I asked my mom what this paper was and she said she used to read it back in the 60’s,” Elibiary told me. “It was for stay at home wives, kind of a National Enquirer type magazine. And all of the sudden I noticed this [conspiracy] stuff about me was playing in opposition circles.”
The article exasperated US Ambassador to Egypt Ann Patterson, prompting her to issue a strongly worded condemnation. Rose El-Yousef’s editor refused to retract the story, however, demanding that Patterson meet him in his office for a private discussion.
Back in the US, Islamophobes were overjoyed by the development. An authentically Arab newspaper had seemingly validated what they always believed but could never prove, and had forced the Obama administration on the defensive. Stephen Emerson ran a translated version of the Rose El-Yousef article on his Investigative Project on Terrorism website while neocon agitator David Horowitz’s FrontPageMag published a lengthy postcelebrating the article’s publication, claiming it merely “let the facts about the six men speak for themselves.”
In January, as Egypt’s political crisis deepened, Elibiary said the sleeper cell conspiracy began gaining traction within revolutionary youth groups like the April 6 movement. I had been in Cairo for several weeks by this time, and though I never encountered the sleeper cell theory, I was constantly asked whether Obama had secretly given billions to the Muslim Brotherhood to settle Palestinian refugees from Gaza in the Sinai Peninsula. When I investigated the story, I could find no trace of it in any credible news outlet. Indeed, it was a fabrication introduced by anti-Morsi private media to cast Obama as a crypto-Islamist.
“These stories had spread like wildfire in order to explain why Obama wasn't with them,” Elibiary explained. “The opposition claimed they were the true representatives of ‘the people’ and since they're anti-Morsi, Obama should be with them in overthrowing Morsi. And when they went searching for reasons why Obama wasn't doing that, it had to be because he was either Muslim Brotherhood himself or because he was misled by MB operatives.”
Legitimizing the coup
When the Egyptian military ousted Morsi on July 3, many Egyptians who had opposed the President believed they had regained control over their destiny and could right the ship of the revolution. But they had underestimated their opponents, who mobilized their massive base for a constant series of anti-coup demonstrations and pitched gigantic protest encampments around Cairo.
The military had attempted to shut down unfriendly media like Al Jazeera, but it could not suppress coup opponents from disseminating their message. Then the killings began, culminating with an August 14 assault on a pro-Morsi sit-in in Cairo’s Rabaa neighborhood that left over 600 dead, with many perishing after police torched a field hospital where the wounded sought shelter.
The Obama administration’s condemnation of the massacre heightened anti-American resentment among the pro-military masses. They have been kept on a steady diet of propaganda by channels like OnTV, which now run banners on screen that read, “Egypt Fighting Terrorism,” and set footage of the attack on the Rabaa sit-in to the soundtrack of “Rocky.” OnTV recently rebroadcast a lengthy Fox News segment featuring the right-wing columnist Ralph Peters railing against the Muslim Brotherhood. On these channels, casualty counts are never cited and massacred civilians are never shown. Either you’re with the “terrorists,” or you’re against them.
Why was Obama souring on the coup? For many Egyptian who denied that a coup had taken place at all, there was an easy answer.
Sexting for the Brotherhood
On August 22, several hundred pro-military Egyptians set out in charter buses for a day of protests in Washington DC. First, they surrounded the offices of the Washington Post, demanding that the paper devote more coverage to the spate of arson attacks targeting Coptic churches across Egypt, and which had been pinned on the Muslim Brotherhood. The protests were organized by Magdi Khalil, a Coptic activist and writer who appeared in 2011 on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to warn that Muslim Brotherhood governance would result in catastrophe “for the whole west, for the human civilization, for Western civilization.”
When I intercepted the demonstrators at the Egyptian Embassy later in the day, I was introduced to the sleeper cell conspiracy in a variety of forms, each more elaborate and bizarre than the other. Waving placards pronouncing General Sisi their hero and accusing Obama of coddling Al Qaeda, the protesters insisted to me that the President’s brain had been hijacked by the Brotherhood.
“There is 6 Brotherhoods in the White House, six members of the Brotherhood in the White House,” a thirty something man explained. “So that’s where Obama’s getting his ideas. That’s like the filter of the ideas that come to Obama. When he gets the memos, they come through these people.”
A woman standing beside him whipped out her cellphone and began reading Stephen Emerson’s translation of the Rose El-Yousef sleeper cell article, rattling off names of the undercover Brothers. Next, the woman cited a discreditedIslamophobic screed accusing Hillary Clinton’s assistant, Huma Abedin, of being a secret Brotherhood asset. She claimed that Abedin had carefully manipulated the sexting scandal of her husband, Anthony Weiner, to bring down the Clintons on behalf of her Islamofascist bosses back in Cairo. I left the rally stunned, but not terribly surprised.
Though private Egyptian media has been largely responsible for churning out the conspiracy theories linking Obama to the Brotherhood, it is the military that controls the narrative. As Elibiary told me, “Right now the military is trying to restack the deck politically of how the system is going to go for the next few years. Once they change course the media will take care of itself.”
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