-Taken from the Guardian's 'Comment is Free'
As fires go, this one was as farcical as it was spectacular. Egypt's Shura council building, a magnificent 19th century palace now home to the upper house of parliament, stood engulfed in flames, belching thick black smoke over downtown Cairo as helicopters ferried buckets from the Nile. Firefighters at the site were paralysed by a lack of water, only to be drenched from above as the choppers missed their target. The thousands of Egyptians who had thronged into sidestreets to witness one of the country's most venerable political institutions descend into a raging inferno were highly amused. "I'm just sorry parliament wasn't in session," remarked one bystander.
A week on and the embers have finally died down, but Cairo remains ablaze with conspiracy theories about the fire and an explosive cynicism about the government's role in the events. The majority of Egypt's citizens have long been scornful of their pseudo-democratic institutions, which are generally viewed as toothless rubber-stamps for the autocratic presidency of Hosni Mubarak, an American-backed "ally" of the west who has become one of the Arab world's longest-serving rulers. But the destruction of the Shura council building, which played host to the famous trial of nationalist hero Ahmed Orabi in 1881 and the signing of Egypt's first constitution in 1923, has galvanised the country's growing opposition movement and left Mubarak's regime on the defensive.
Question marks over the official version of events – the government initially claimed that an electrical short circuit sparked the blaze – began to emerge even while the council still smouldered. By the next morning, controversial claims were flowing thick and fast into independent media outlets and the blogosphere: no proper fire-protection system was installed in the building; fire trucks permanently stationed within five minutes of the site allegedly took two-and-a-half hours to begin tackling the blaze; a group of engineering workers in the council ran upstairs with fire extinguishers when the fire first broke out only to find their way mysteriously blocked by state security officials. The most incendiary allegations were splashed on the front page of the left-leaning daily newspaper al-Badeel, which linked these strange occurrences with the destruction of the building's parliamentary archive. Among the papers reduced to ashes by the fire were documents relating to high-profile and ongoing corruption cases against business figures with close links to the president. The state-owned printing presses were ordered not to print al-Badeel and the newspaper never made it on to the street, although pdfs of the banned edition soon spilled on to the web.
One of the highest-ranking former members of the state security apparatus – General Fouad Alam, who now works as a counter-terrorism expert – soon fanned the flames by observing that the cause must have been arson, contradicting the establishment line. Every possible other motive has spread around the city's network of loquacious taxi-drivers, with some claiming the government wanted to sell off the council's land to developers (impossible before the fire as the building was listed as an historic monument by the Supreme Council of Antiquities) and others insisting the fire was meant to distract from the resignation of another unpopular dictator, the Pakistani president, Pervez Musharraf. "Hosni asked his aides, 'Which authority in Pakistan endorsed Musharraf's resignation?'" runs a joke currently doing the rounds. "They replied, 'The parliament.' Mubarak shouted, 'Burn ours down.'"
Claims that the parliament was destroyed as part of a valuable land-grab are believed because the government has spent the last decade selling off so many national assets in scandal-ridden privatisation deals. Using the fire as a distraction from Musharraf also seems a plausible strategy for a leader who continues to keep his one-time presidential opponent Ayman Nour locked up in jail on trumped up forgery charges.
But it is the tale of the incinerated corruption files that has gained the most traction, largely because corruption has been a particularly hot topic in Egypt ever since the courts' decision earlier this month to acquit Mamduh Ismail, a ferry operator with strong ties to the Mubarak regime, of any responsibility for the sinking of one of his boats six years ago, in which more than a thousand Egyptians drowned. The decision produced a wave of popular outrage at a time when the government is facing a huge increase in strikes and protests over the rising cost of living and the failure of political reform. "There is a different, more radical mood in the country today," observed Hamdi Qenawi, an activist speaking at a recent meeting of tax collectors who are trying to form an independent trade union. "Fear from the regime is much less than it used to be."
For Yaser al-Zayat, managing editor of al-Badeel, the importance of the fire lies not in the truth or falsehood of the conspiracies, but in the insight they offer into the nature of the Egyptian government's relationship with its people: "The regime is getting weaker. That's why the government is resorting to indirect censorship."
If nothing else, last week's blaze should be a wake-up call to the west of just how volatile this nation has become under Mubarak's stifling rule.