Egypt's Latest Conspiracy Theories Target the Country's Syrian Refugees

After fleeing a warzone, Syrians find that Egyptians want to hunt them down. 

Syrian protesters living in Egypt take part in a demonstration in support of President Bashar al-Assad in front of the Arab League headquarters. (Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters)

It's been almost a month since Egyptian security forces brutally dispersed the Muslim Brotherhood protest camps, and Cairo's physical scars have mostly healed.

At Nahda Square, the site of the smaller of the two pro-Morsi "sit-in" protests, only the blackened palm trees and scorched lawns tell the tale of the ferocity of the police assault, which killed at least 90 people.

Life for many of Cairo's almost 20 million inhabitants is very slowly returning to normal, but for those caught in the crossfire of Egypt's domestic tumult, President Morsi's overthrow has left an indelible stain.

The past few months have seen Cairo morph into a hub for conspiracy theories, with both warring Islamist and Nationalist factions taking turns to identify and vilify various foreigners as the source of Egypt's woes.

Egypt has a weakness for conspiracy theories -- 75 percent of Egyptians polled by Pew in 2011 said they didn't believe Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

But what makes Egypt's most recent flirtation with conspiracy hysteria particularly troubling is the consequences it's having for the affected parties and communities.

In a cruel twist of fate, Syrians in Egypt, most of whom are recently arrived refugees, have been hit hardest by burgeoning xenophobic sentiment.

"People shout and scream at us on the street. They ask why we're trying to bring our war to Egypt," a young Syrian said as he waited with his family outside a UN refugee processing center in central Cairo. He -- like most other Syrians I spoke to -- insisted on remaining anonymous.

Syrian-Egyptian relations are historically close -- the two countries even merged briefly in the 1950s under the short-lived United Arab Republic -- but Syrians have suffered from many pro-military supporters' suspicions that they backed the Muslim Brotherhood's rule.

Certainly some Syrians rooted for the Islamist president, a Syrian restaurant owner admitted, "but some went to Tahrir too (the bastion of anti-Morsi demonstrations). Why are they grouping all of us Syrians together?"

Syrian refugees were a common sight on the streets prior to this year's June 30 "corrective revolution." Their food carts spiced up Cairo's street-side fare, they panhandled outside hotels, and an entire family even set up camp outside the Russian Cultural Center.

The food carts and panhandlers are all gone now. "They're too scared to go outside," an Egyptian taxi driver told me, but they're not necessarily any safer in their apartments.

Police have gone door-to-door in a number of neighborhoods, grilling landlords and detaining at least 143 Syrians, according to the UN. Fearful of attack or arrest and unable to get jobs, thousands more are streaming for the exits. Last week alone, 378 registered Syrians closed their files at the UN's refugee office and left the country.

"If it's going to be like this, we're better off back in Syria," said one lawyer from Aleppo who is now working as a waiter. Most of his friends have left, and he's considering following their lead.

It isn't hard to see why or how this happened.

The interim Egyptian government needed a scapegoat to help boost national unity, and the beleaguered, sizeable, and fractured mass of Syrian refugees provided the perfect foil for Egypt's myriad divisions. State and private media did the rest.

Tawfiq Okasha, a popular talk show host, recently delivered an on-air ultimatum in which he gave Syrians 48 hours to leave the country or their homes would be targeted. Days later, he told his viewers: "if you see a Syrian, Palestinian or Iraqi hand them over to the police."

His instructions are keenly followed by many of his fans. As Marwan Mohammed, a student, said: "The Brotherhood hired foreigners -- Syrians and Palestinians -- to do its dirty work. Now we need to find them all."

Nationalists and Islamists disagree on almost everything these days, but both also accuse the United States of playing a nefarious, underhand role in the past few months' proceedings.

The U.S.' tepid encouragement of the Tamarod campaign to topple Morsi infuriated many anti-Morsi protesters, some of whom soon carried more anti-Obama banners than anti-Morsi placards. "F**k America," a presenter on the private CBC channel said, as she castigated Obama for what she believed to be his support for the Muslim Brotherhood back in July.

Many protesters pointed out that it wasn't the American people with whom Egypt had a problem, it was their government and its diplomatic representatives.

Sadly, this wasn't a universally accepted nuance.

"You're not American are you?" seemingly every other taxi driver asked me in the aftermath of Morsi's downfall.

Anti-American sentiment has since subsided somewhat, but with most Egyptians adamantly opposed to U.S. intervention in Syria -- and some convinced that American military action against Assad is merely a prelude to a U.S. invasion of Egypt, it will be a while yet before distrust of America's role disappears entirely.

"America and Israel came to Egypt and now we no longer have democracy," Samir Ali said as he manned a checkpoint at the entrance to the Nahda Brotherhood sit-in camp in early August.

No sooner had the Muslim Brotherhood ensconced itself in the square than the walls of nearby Cairo University were covered with Stars of David inscribed with the letters CC (shorthand for army chief General al-Sisi). Sensing my confusion, Ali said: "The army is a pawn of Zionist America. They've been manipulated, and now they're against Egypt."

The Saudis and Emiratis are, too, according to the graffiti spray-painted on their Cairo embassies. "The Embassy of the Jews," pro-Morsi marchers scrawled on the gates of the Emirati mission during a recent Friday protest, soon after most of the Gulf States had pledged their support for Egypt's new leadership.

In fact no one is safe in Egypt's suspicious climate -- not even animals.

Three years after a regional governor floated the possibility that Israeli-trained sharks were menacing Egyptian tourist resorts, Menes the "spy duck," which was actually a stork, was handed over to police by villagers distrustful of its tracking device (a tag to record its migratory pattern).

One ultra-conservative Salafi group even advised against eating tomatoes, insisting that the cross shape created when a tomato is cut in half makes it a Christian fruit.

To be fair, the truth in Egypt is often as strange as fiction. One of Morsi's last acts as president was to appoint as governor of the tourist-reliant Luxor region a member of the group responsible for killing 58 tourists there in 1997.

But the Syrian restaurateur I spoke with has trouble seeing the humor. "If this wasn't happening to me, I might even find it darkly funny. We went from a pile of elephant shit in Syria to a pile of dinosaur shit here, and all because people think we did something we didn't."