Sarah Carr: The army and the people - On becoming one hand

Sarah Carr: The army and the people - On becoming one hand

On the first, still jubilant, day of the 2014 presidential elections a group of women had gathered outside a polling station in the leafy, affluent district of Heliopolis.

They sang and danced to Boshret Kheyr (good news), the song that has become the theme tune of this ballot and which is a spirited pop song that name drops Egypt's governorates and encourages their residents to go to the polls. Next to the women a man sold badges bearing the image of presidential candidate and former field marshal, the middle aged heart throb Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

I bought a badge, for my Egyptian political tumult memorabilia collection. The vendor asked me if I wanted another one, at a special discount. I declined, because one Sisi is more than enough.

A woman voter coming out of the polling station had a similar sort of view. A journalist colleague asked her who she had voted for. She looked at me in genuine bafflement, as if to say, who is this idiot?

"I voted for Sisi, of course. Who else is there?" she said.

And what did the dancing women think of a military candidate yet again heading Egypt?

Fe haga ahla men el geish el masry?  (Is there anything nicer than the Egyptian army?),  a woman retorted.

The day after polling stations closed preliminary results put Sisi's victory at 93 percent, or some 23 million votes cast for him. These are the numbers that dictators dream of, and engineer through ballot manipulation. But observers of this election have not suggested any outright foul play other than a political environment unconducive to free and fair elections and a media skewed in favour of Sisi. The result is as much as an indictment of Sisi, and the institution that he represents, as it is a victory.

It is also a tragedy for those who believed in the January 25 revolution and the possibilities of self-determination it for a brief moment offered its citizens. Boshret Kheyr tells Egyptians they will "write tomorrow on their own terms". The terms they have chosen are almost identical to those that existed before the revolution; an ex-army officer with strong links to the previous regime in charge, elected by an overwhelming majority without even offering voters a political program. The electorate was manipulated, but that manipulation began 60 years ago.

Fringe-element television presenter Tawfiq Okasha, a vocal fan of the Egyptian army, is fond of repeating the claim that Egypt’s military is the oldest in the world; that it was created 7,000 years ago. In fact the process of creating a modern, professional army of Egyptian soldiers began in the 19th century under Mohamed Ali, who first conscripted 4,000 Egyptian farmers in 1822.

In his book All the Pacha’s Men, historian Khaled Fahmy writes that conscription, and the need to keep a track of troops (and in particular army absconders) profoundly changed the nature of the relationship between the state and its citizens, ushering in “a system of organisation, manipulation and control”.

This control would only be intensified and expanded following the 1952 coup by the Free Officers out of which emerged the charismatic figure of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who would go on to rule Egypt from 1956 until his death in 1970, and whose complicated legacy continues to exert an influence today.

Nasser rode into power on a wave of public adoration which he then exploited to consolidate his position, using every possible means to control information and shape the regime’s image in every sector of the public domain. The Free Officers’ coup was against a profligate king who pandered to the British occupation, in the years that followed Egypt fought three wars against Israel.

Nationalism is a uniquely psychological concept (Benedict Anderson describes nations as “imagined communities”) and one closely linked with militarism. The Egyptian nationalism of the 1950s and 1960s was forged on the sense of unity that only shared animosity towards an “other” can inspire, and which was symbolised by the Egyptian army and its handsome, charming leader. The Armed Forces thus became a conduit for the expression of nationalism; to express criticism of the army, whose brave men had liberated the country from its colonial overlords and then took on the Zionist aggressor, was to betray Egypt itself.

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Tucked away behind the scenes for 30 years, a red line in the media, the Armed Forces quietly went about its business of amassing an economic fortune until the late afternoon of January 28 2011, when it found itself on the streets of Egypt face to face with the people. An awkward slogan was created, el gaysh wel shaab ‘eed wahda “the army and the people are one hand”, a plea rather than a celebration, chanted as an attempt to diffuse tension between protesters and soldiers during skirmishes. The chant was perhaps a tacit admission that the army does not belong to the people, that it is in fact a separate and remote entity, the famous state within a state.

Until 2011, conscripted men had a brief glimpse of the uncensored inner workings but otherwise its public image had been carefully controlled and access to information about it limited. In the theatre of the street both the Armed Forces and the public found themselves in an uncomfortable situation. After the initial honeymoon period had ended the army, now in charge, was faced with public dissent while members of the public had to reconcile their image of the army as heroes and saviors with military trials of civilians, virginity tests conducted on female protesters, demonstrators killed by army bullets. If one’s adoration of the Armed Forces was a measure of one’s patriotism, what could this mean?

Kazeboon (“liars”), an alternative media campaign, attempted to take on this cognitive dissonance at the end of 2011, after clashes which had witnessed two female protesters be brutally kicked and beaten by army soldiers live on television in Tahrir Square.

The torso of one of these women was uncovered during the attack, and the image of the army boot stomping on her blue bra became instantly iconic. Independent daily Al-Tahrir ran the image on its front page under the headline, “Liar”, in response to attempts by Armed Forces officials and supporters to whitewash the incident. But this headline was exceptional; as it had done before up until then the media continued to self-censor, refusing to challenge the military narrative. The founders of Kazeboon attempted to circumvent mainstream media by setting up screenings of short films exposing contradictions in the army narrative in Egyptian streets.

“We wanted to create doubt,” Sally Toma, one of Kazeboon’s founders told me. They did this by airing the soundtrack of Armed Forces statements against images of soldiers beating and killing civilians. The effect was explosive; Kazeboon members were insulted, attacked, called traitors and enemies of the state - particularly by members of the older generation raised on an intense diet of Nasser propaganda - but Toma says, the screenings provoked discussions amongst the audience confronted with the contradictions in front of them.

The Maspero incident provides an example of the scale of the challenge Kazeboon took on. On October 9, 2011 nearly 30 protesters, mostly Coptic Christians were killed when a march was attacked at the Maspero television building. Television footage shows army armed personnel carriers speeding through the panicked crowd, crushing protesters. Other protesters were shot dead. The state media machine went into action immediately, alleging that Christian protesters had attacked the army and stolen army vehicles. In a press conference, the Armed Forces presented the same narrative in an attempt to exculpate itself. It was successful. A counter press conference organized by Toma and others during which eyewitnesses presented their version of events was ignored by the media.

The army narrative stuck. History now remembers that it was variously a mysterious third party/members of the Muslim Brotherhood who killed the Maspero protesters in an attempt to drive a wedge between the people and their beloved Armed Forces and derail the transition roadmap.

But it is not just the Armed Forces’ powerful hold over the media that explains this. People themselves want - seemingly need - to believe it. The brief rule of Mohamed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013 demonstrates this.

In protests on the 2012 anniversary of the January 25 revolution crowds had chanted for an end to military rule. Just over a year later and the dissent against Morsi’s rule was translating into calls on the armed forces to intervene. In the face of a president who had attempted to pass a constitutional declaration making his decisions unquestionable, increasingly bloody street clashes between pro and anti Brotherhood supporters and a general sense that things were spiraling out of control, the general public sought out the familiar. The private media, terrorized by Morsi sympathizers camped out outside their studios and who attacked media figures on their way in and out soon closed ranks against the Muslim Brotherhood who by June were being described as terrorists. The Brotherhood were traitors and matters changed from being a political struggle into a question of defense of the nation, of war. And as in war, feelings of nationhood are most pronounced when a community is unified against a common enemy. It made sense that the armed forces, Egypt’s pride, its most perfect expression of Egyptian patriotism should step into the breach and confront the enemy. And if they didn’t, who else would?

The general public was euphoric when Morsi was removed on July 3, 2013 and this euphoria found expression via Defense Minister Sisi, the hero who had brought Egypt back from the brink and whispered platitudes at the great Egyptian people, the light of his eyes. Egypt’s entertainment industry mobilized itself in his support, and instant pop hit Teslam Al Ayyady (“bless your hands”) was the soundtrack of summer 2013, the summer when combined army and interior ministry forces killed hundreds of people in one day during the clearing of two Cairo sit-ins in support of Morsi, when 38 men arrested because they were suspected of being Brotherhood supporters suffocated to death in a prison van and when a huge publicly supported crackdown on Morsi supporters - and which would eventually spread to other opposition groups - began.

Sisi’s popularity continued to grow as antipathy for the Brotherhood increased. Toma describes him as “Abdel-Halim Hafez with a gun”, a reference to the doe-eyed singing sensation of the 1950s and 60s, and it is this description, which captures the confluence of factors at play in the Egyptian general public’s love affair with the army. Hafez is desirable, remote, perfect, strongly associated with the halcyon days of Nasser. With a gun he becomes the masculine ideal in this strongly masochistic society.

Sisi, and the army, have had unwavering public support since June 30, as is demonstrated by their declaration that they had found a device that detects Hepatitis C, in addition to discovering a cure for AIDS. Their claims have been dismissed by the international scientific community and have been scoffed at by some Egyptians. But a sector of the general public hailed the announcement as a great leap forward for Egypt and for science, another installment in the Egyptian Armed Forces’ glorious history. This sector is drawn from across social classes, and is not just the product of a lack of education or a controlled media. Rather, it is a need to believe that something, anything, is still standing in Egypt’s fractured and fractious society.

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