The rumor spread like wildfire. In response to the bloody clashes of Coptic Christians with militant Muslims and Egyptian security forces in Cairo on Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had told CNN that Washington was considering sending American troops to Egypt to protect Coptic churches, schools and hospitals if Egypt's army and police proved unable, or unwilling, to do so.
The American Embassy in Cairo adamantly denied the report, but only after it went viral on Egypt's social media networks and on Al-Arabiya and other state-owned television stations and newspapers, as well as independent websites. Clinton had given no such statement to CNN, the State Department insisted. Washington was not considering sending troops of any kind to Egypt. But the rumor added fuel to the sectarian fire that had erupted with such force in the heart of Egypt's capital, killing 26 and injuring over 500 Egyptians, most of them Christians.
The putative American invasion was but one of the numerous conspiracy theories that have gripped the country in the wake of Sunday's riots. Most have focused on who is to blame for the worst sectarian violence in Egypt since mass protests toppled former President Hosni Mubarak in February. Not surprisingly, the culprits are invariably those whom Egyptians call "foreign elements" — code in Egypt for Israelis and other Jews, Americans and yes, sometimes even Coptic Christians.
Most eyewitnesses have said the riot began when some 1,000 Copts, trying to stage a peaceful march and sit-in outside of Maspero on the Nile, where Egypt's state television headquarters is located, were attacked by unknown assailants with sticks. As the violence got out of control, the army was called in, and a speeding armed personnel carrier rammed protesters on the roads and sidewalks as security forces clubbed mostly unarmed civilians.
But in an official statement, Egypt's Prime Minister Essam Sharaf nonetheless blamed "foreign meddling" for the violence, claiming that the riots were part of a "dirty conspiracy." The security forces were already searching for the "hidden hand" responsible for the violence, he said.
Rasha Magdy, an anchor on state-run Channel One, blamed "private media channels," saying that "unlike state media," which is owned "by the people," private channels have "their own agendas" and are "working against Egypt's democratic transition for the sake of a scoop." Other reporters on state-owned networks accused the Coptic protesters of killing at least two Egyptian soldiers by attacking them with stones, Molotov cocktails and live ammunition. Inciting further violence, they called the supposedly dead soldiers "martyrs." Magdy ended her broadcast by calling on Egyptians to "protect the military."
Only on Monday did the government acknowledge that no soldiers had been killed in the riots — just civilians trying to protest the burning and looting of their churches, attacks on their clergy, and other forms of systematic harassment directed against Egypt's Coptic minority, an estimated 10 percent of Egypt's more than 80 million people.
YouTube videos showed these soldier "martyrs" very much alive and boasting of having shot Coptic protesters. One of them, speaking from the safety of a military bus, is loudly cheered and applauded by Egyptians.
"This is the worst sectarian violence we've ever had," said Mona Makram Ebeid, a professor and former member of Parliament. She was "very angry and very saddened" by the attacks, she added. "The revolution itself is in jeopardy, and so is co-existence between Muslims and the Coptic minority."
Amr Bargisi, an Egyptian activist and program director of the Egyptian Union of Liberal Youth, said that what had happened at Maspero was worse than any conspiracy. "The truth is that nobody planned this, and nobody has the power to stop such violence in Egypt today. It can flare up again at any time."
More violence may be inevitable given the state of Egypt's collapsing economy. All but lost in the mayhem and conspiracy theories was the crash of the already depressed Egyptian stock market, which rebounded weakly yesterday following losses Monday, in the immediate wake of the riots, estimated at $1.7 billion. Bargisi says Egypt's Central Bank has not only spent one-third of its foreign reserves, but — according to official numbers, which are optimistic — has recorded an average of 2.2 percent negative growth in the last two quarters since the revolution. Tourism, the lifeblood of the economy, is at a standstill.
Parliamentary elections are scheduled for the end of November, but whether they will be held is an open question. "We are now on the verge of collapse," said Bargisi.
It's hard to see a happy end to this political transition. Egypt's Copts are leaving in droves, and Egyptian Muslims are gaining neither the freedom nor prosperity that fueled the Arab Spring only eight months ago.