When Rep. Louie Gohmert floats conspiracy theories, Americans across the political spectrum tend to roll their eyes and ignore him. But one of his more feverish conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama’s ostensible ties to the Muslim Brotherhood could be fueling dangerous anti-American sentiments in Egypt and potentially complicating U.S. foreign policy in the region, experts say.
For months, the five-term Republican congressman from Texas has been claiming that the Obama administration has been infiltrated by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who are steering U.S. foreign policy and emboldening terrorists.
“This administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America,” Gohmert told the conspiracy-friendly World Net Daily radio back in April, in just one example of such claims.
Gohmert’s remarks echo conspiracy theories put forth by conservative writer and advocate Frank Gaffney, who published a book last year titled The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration. Gohmert appeared on Gaffney’s radio show earlier this year touting the Brotherhood’s influence on Obama.
At home, where the political class takes Gohmert with a grain of salt, the claim has been confined to the fever swamps. Gaffney’s theories were so fringe as to get him banned from the high-profile conservative conference CPAC last year.
But in Egypt, where the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government was recently ousted by the country’s military after the people turned against it, it’s a different story. Anti-American conspiracy theories are rampant there, for a variety of reasons related and unrelated to U.S. foreign policy, and hearing it from a United States congressman lends credibility to the theory that the U.S. is teaming up with the Muslim Brotherhood — and even Al-Qaeda — to destroy Egypt.
“I guarantee you nobody in Egypt really knows who Louie Gohmert is or what he’s about. So they could very well point to this and say ‘Look! He’s a member of Congress. This must be serious. There must be something to it,'” said Steven A. Cook, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “It doesn’t help in a political environment where everyone is already angry at us to be fueling conspiracy theories against us. In that way it enables an overall level of hostility toward the U.S.”
Shadi Hamid, a Middle East expert at the Brookings Institution, conceded that he hadn’t even heard of Gohmert until TPM reached out to him. “As for the role it plays,” Hamid said, “look, this does provide real ammunition to the conspiracy theorists when you have American sources seemingly verifying what they are saying.”
“It lends these bizarre theories a new code of legitimacy and amplifies them,” he said. “When Egyptians see this, they don’t realize that just because a U.S. congressman is saying this that it can be wrong or that he can be lying publicly.”
The New York Times reported Monday that the U.S.-Brotherhood conspiracy theory has become “widespread” in Egypt, even to the point of being seen by some as common knowledge. Billboards and posters in Egypt tie President Obama to the Brotherhood and accuse him of supporting terrorism against Egypt. And segments of the pro-military Egyptian media have been playing a YouTube clip of Gohmert speaking on the House floor, spliced with ominous background music, likening the Obama administration’s aid to Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi’s government with assisting terrorists.
Gohmert defended his remarks in a statement to TPM, saying was merely opposing President Obama’s policies and that Egyptians “are able to” make that distinction.
“My July 19 speech supporting the people of Egypt, parts of which were aired on Egyptian television, was commentary after the fact on the reported 20 million and then 33 million people taking to the streets to oust the Muslim Brotherhood dictator,” Gohmert told TPM on Tuesday. “I talked about the protests, showed pictures of their signage supporting the United States while they opposed President Obama’s policies. They are able to distinguish between the two.”
“Trying to blame my comments aired in Egypt AFTER the historically massive uprisings for anti-Obama sentiment on full display during those uprisings is delusional,” he said.
American foreign policy in the region is at a crossroads. After the ouster of strongman Hosni Mubarak, the U.S. backed the elected government led by Morsi and, more recently, faced with all bad options, did not cut off aid to the Brotherhood regime while it slaughtered protesters. That has exacerbated anti-U.S. sentiments in the region, and is testing American policy in the region since the military overthrew the Morsi government.
Cook said it’s unclear if Gohmert’s remarks will necessarily harm Americans interests in the region, but “to the extent that it fuels a level of anti-American sentiment which was already there and already high, it certainly complicates things. And in Egypt, public opinion matters in different ways, but if Egypt is going to be a democracy then Egyptian leaders need to be responsive to their people.”
Hamid also warned not to “overstate the influence” of tea party congressmen in Egypt.
“Egyptians would believe these things anyway,” he said. “Conspiracy theories are a product of feeling powerless and Egyptians felt that way when they saw the Islamists trying to usurp Egyptian identity. When the conspiracy theories are so self-evidently crazy, evidence is nice when you can find it somewhere but it’s not essential.”