Detained as a “security threat”: student Patrick George Zaki

Patrick George Zaki, a 27-year-old Egyptian, was studying for a postgraduate degree at Bologna University in Italy. In February 2020 he returned to Egypt for a family visit — only to be arrested on arrival at Cairo airport.

Zaki has been in custody ever since, awaiting a trial which finally began last week. The case was brought by Egypt’s Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) — a special branch of the public prosecutor’s department — and is being heard in an “emergency” court set up to deal with crimes that threaten national security.

Zaki faces charges under articles 80 (D), and…

Introduction and index to chapters

1. Making Excuses
2. The Propaganda Professors
3. A Battle of Narratives
4. Reprisals Averted
5. Russia’s Role
6. The Queen of Disinformation
7. An Online Echo System
8. The Old Spies Network
9. Mainstream Media
10. To Blame, or Not to Blame?
11. Political Wrangling
12. A Leaked Document
13. ‘Alex the Whistleblower’
14. Questions of Confidentiality
15. Fakes and Fantasies
16. Epilogue

In 2011 mass demonstrations broke out in Syria calling for an end to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. The regime responded brutally and within months what had begun as political unrest turned into a…

Chapter 1: Making excuses

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Hundreds of people died — many of them in their sleep — when rockets hit Ghouta, a rebel-held area on the outskirts of Damascus, in the early hours of 21 August 2013. Thousands more were injured and the symptoms of survivors suggested exposure to a nerve agent. A UN investigation later confirmed that the nerve agent had come from rockets laden with sarin. It was the deadliest chemical attack anywhere in the world since the 1980s.

Considering that Ghouta was under fire from Assad’s forces at the time, that the casualties were on the…

Chapter 2: The ‘propaganda’ professors

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Syria’s vague talk of rebels getting sarin from foreign governments or cooking it up in their kitchens didn’t amount to a credible defence against the accusations of using chemical weapons. Meanwhile Russia’s efforts to counter the UN investigators’ report with spurious claims suggested it was less than convinced by the Syrian regime’s protestations of innocence. However, some highly educated people in the west were more readily persuaded — not because of any specific evidence but because the idea that Assad was being unfairly blamed fitted their conspiratorial view of the world.

They were people…

Chapter 3: A battle of narratives

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Claiming that Syrian rebels had faked the chemical attacks wasn’t simply a case of making excuses for the regime: it also served a political narrative constructed by the regime and its “anti-imperialist” defenders. They sought to portray the conflict not as the result of internal discontent in Syria but as part of a long-standing western plan for reshaping the Middle East — a continuation of the policy that had toppled Saddam Hussein through the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. …

Chapter 4: Reprisals Averted

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Evidence that sarin had been used in Syria presented the United States with a dilemma over how to respond. A year before the Ghouta attack President Obama had warned that chemical weapons were a red line as far as the US was concerned. At the time he didn’t elaborate on what would happen if the line was crossed, and when the Ghouta attack came it put him on the spot. …

Chapter 5: Russia’s role

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Russia was a founding member of the Chemical Weapons Convention but when conflict broke out in Syria its relations with the Assad regime took priority. The two countries had pre-existing ties, some of which were economic. In 2010, the last year before the conflict, Russia’s exports to Syria totalled $1.1 billion and its investments in the country were said to be worth $19.4 billion — a modest amount by global standards but still significant. Russia was also Syria’s main arms supplier and had been operating a naval facility in the port of Tartus since…

Chapter 6: The Queen of Disinformation

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In rebel-held areas of Syria a civil defence organisation known as the White Helmets took on a variety of non-military tasks such as searching wreckage for the dead and injured, guiding civilians from danger areas and making damaged buildings safe. The heroism of its volunteers was much celebrated in the west and they became the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary.

Though the White Helmets undoubtedly saved many lives they soon became a target in the information war. One reason was that they had a secondary role documenting the conflict. Their members were equipped with…

Chapter 7: An Online Echo System

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The information war over Syria was fought mainly on the internet. The explosion of social media during the previous few years meant almost anyone with the inclination could become a citizen journalist. Setting up a website was cheap and easy, and home-made videos could be posted on YouTube to compete for viewers alongside well-known TV stations. Amid the resulting cacophony of information, misinformation, disinformation and outlandish opinions a loose network of “alternative” websites — all seemingly independent but all broadly supportive of the Assad regime — promoted contrarian views of the chemical attacks in…

Chapter 8: The Old Spies’ Network

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Among the deniers of chemical attacks there were more than few retired spies who had seen the seamy side of intelligence work at first hand and been shocked by it. Most had good cause to be disillusioned about their former profession and some had taken a courageous stand by exposing malpractices (or worse). These personal experiences seem to have made them generally distrustful of western governments and intelligence agencies, with the result that they tended accept new claims of intrigue and skulduggery far too readily. …

Brian Whitaker

Former Middle East editor of the Guardian. Website: Author of 'Arabs Without God'.

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