Dispatches from the Generals FrontOn January 17, 2018 by Mona Abouissa
The Generals know best – it has been the guiding principle in Egypt for 64 years. The rest of us know not to get on their bad side. A new dawn of patriotism.
Published in Orient XXI and AlAraby, 2016
I never asked General Samir Nouh how many people he killed. I did not have to. There are things he will not talk about from 1973, Egypt’s last fullscale war, mostly it is classified. However, his kill-list is his forte. “One mission, my comrade and I killed thirty in one go!” he whiplashes at a crowd of men and women. They grab their kids, who would rather play soldiers in rusting Israeli tanks, and order them to listen to the hero. There is a lot of clapping and shouting “Long Live Egypt!” (a presidential catch phrase) especially when “dead enemies” and “defending Egypt’s dignity” is mentioned. The generals approve of Al-Sisi’s presidency, a younger general turned president, but they are not shouting anybody’s mottos. For one thing, they won a damn war.
When General Samir was in his twenties, he was a fighter from an elite squad who infiltrated Sinai occupied by Israelis. The Egyptian army, traumatised by their 1967 defeat, regrouped and engaged in warfare from 1969 to 1973. The war ended with a ceasefire. Many young officers like Samir were killed, between 5000 to over 15000 depending on the source, Egyptian or Israeli. A peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed and Sinai returned. The 1973 ‘national victory’ was a revival of the army’s dominance, diplomatically and socially. Young officers like Samir were awarded medals, state jobs, stipends (depending on their rank and physical damage) and army club memberships.
Once again they have a mission to amass civilian battalions to defend Egypt in the aftermath of the 2013 revolt. Their front is growing; virtual lobbies that decode enemy agendas, informal pro-army youth hubs preaching the “1973 spirit”, army-civilian events celebrate the achievements of army men. The generals, some more than others, marked every conquest, from national to domestic. I watch men want to be them and women want to marry them. All this public display of nationalistic vigour mixed with pleasure, as impressive as it is uncomfortable, is the new dawn of Egypt’s patriotism. And I love it.
Egypt is at war – or so it seems from where I stand. General Samir is nervous at public oratory, but when he warms up, he can bust any enemy’s balls; conspirators, terrorists, paid anti-military democrats, and his old enemy the Israelis. The last time he unleashed his wrath was at the education ministry after his visit to a military school was canceled, “We want to go to schools and speak out before we die!” A fighter who executed 35 missions behind enemy lines was stopped by a civil servant. He thundered from the stage cursing, phone cameras filming, “faggots! Faggots!” I have been to a few fights in my life, but never was insulting someone’s honour so dangerous, and sometimes deadly. Another general, Tolba Radwan, ordered a sniper to shoot an Israeli soldier who shouted insults at him from behind the enemy line in front of his subordinates. Something the general reminisces on in his public speeches.
The generals were a state secret for forty years. Former president Hosni Mubarak’s monopoly included history books (what I remember from studying the 1973 war the most is Mubarak’s air raid that decided the outcome). The generals met the former president and hold nothing but respect for their superior. They explain their historical marginalisation as a part of building a grand image of the president. After 2011, just like liberals, leftists and Islamists, the generals also emerged. However, the revolution’s aftermath brought strong anti-army sentiment. The frontline was dominated by the new revolutionary forces. Later Islamists came to power in Egypt’s first democratic elections. The country twisted in sectarian ferity. Meanwhile, in the sanctuary of army clubs, the generals waited. Plotted. Then in 2013, the army-backed uprising turned Islamists into hunted terrorists and Abdel Fatah Al-Sisi was elected Egypt’s fifth general-president. Not that Al-Sisi with his anti-terrorism campaign that resurrected army triumphs faced strong opposition, scarred by 60 years of oppression. But that was not the only reason.
A group of giggling girls surrounds an officer in charge of one of the former Israeli outposts in Sinai turned a tourist attraction for Egyptian ID holders. They were the last to leave the site, savouring the last possible favour of the officer. Not long ago, women in their fifties planted kisses on Al-Sisi posters across the country, hailing his manhood and lion’s heart. Mubarak until now has his female followers armed with their own memorabilia. But General Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s second president, is the centre piece of today’s political nationalism. The tall leader with shoulders that could shade a Soviet delegation and an eagle-like profile is stamped in the memory of Egyptians and in those he expelled alike. In a mainly patriarchal society with a long infatuation with army men, the ‘genderless’ manifesto of activists for a civilian state does not speak to the hearts of womenfolk around me. I had the privilege to break bread (down a beer) with leftist, liberal, intellectual and Islamist fronts, but none could compare in attraction to my generals.
General Samir’s role model, his squad commander, was blown to pieces during an Israeli raid. Many of his comrades are dead too, claimed by the war or age. He is toothless proof of the army’s invincibility. For the followers, who were born into Nasser’s nationalism, Sadat’s military triumph and Mubarak’s three-decades of peace, the security in an army bear-hug is better than flirtation with risky democracy. Moreover, they are warriors in something bigger than their lives, staggered by economic hardships, they hold the fate of their homeland. It is as much devotion as impersonation of a national hero. This bond, poetic with a sprinkle of xenophobia, is impressive. I caught my heart skipping a beat.
“Are you a KGB spy?” General Tolba is no stranger to interrogation. He interrogated many Israelis, holding their fate in his hands. Now he stares me down with his blurry eye, damaged by shrapnel, to detect what an Egyptian (or so I say) with Russian looks is doing amongst them. The generals are invasive once in their domain. In most cases my interest is welcomed, plus my Russian background reminds them of Kalashnikovs and ‘arrogant’ Soviet experts dispatched after Soviet-Egyptian arms deals (1954-1973). Yet, sometimes to have clearance I have to walk a psychological minefield. It is not only what you say (‘human rights’, ‘civil society’, ‘dictator’ and any other ‘imported’ keywords rings alarms) but also how you say it. Compliance matters. The followers gravitating around them address the generals as “supreme generals” or “heroes of the nation” or “diamond shield that protects Egypt”. And the generals are mutually respectful. Sometimes the situation gets out of their control – civilians run wild or late or cancel their visits – and they get upset. Once a bus broke down on one trip, the organiser general Tolba was furious saying if the driver was his subordinate he would court marshal him.
In my psychological warfare with General Tolba I do not comply. In that case, it was about territory, and just like the generals’ fight with the Israelis for Sinai, I am standing my ground. My tactic is the same they used to safeguard their sanity during the war – humour. We joke about me being a KGB spy at his talks. The generals have a sharp sense of humour. Maybe, the generals and I have more in common that we admit.
I am no stranger to the specter of patriotism. Like any other spawn of post-colonial Arab states, I was taught Patriotism all my school years. Several versions of it. First at an Iraqi school back in Moscow. In between the USSR’s collapse, I studied Iraqi Wataneya (Patriotism) which, as far as I can remember, preached the honourable Iraqi army facing its cruel enemies Iran and Kuwait. Every year there was a piece about an elementary school bombed by Iran, the literary image of a dead girl smiling stayed with me to this day. Then in the turbulent mid-nineties, when the capital was rocked by a buildings’ explosion or assassination or robbery, I studied a slightly edgy patriotism at Saudi school. Holy wars against unbelievers. One thing my patriotic upbringings had in common – territorial pride. When we moved to Egypt, I was taught an Egyptian version of patriotism; loyalty to the victorious army. I did not fathom its purpose until 2013 when allies were separated from foes on the merit of this school subject. Now, among the generals and true patriots, I find myself guilty of teenage negligence and try to remember the syllabus.
We chew chicken at a military club. Beyond our victorious camp, the opposition has mixed reactions towards the generals, at worst cynicism, at best fear. The country, caught between the two revolutions of 2011 and 2013, is divided into raging fronts with their own leaders, ideals and martyrs. In a cascade of political courtship occasionally falling under the fire of public debate, the first casualty of war is not the truth but understanding. Egypt with its fronts bears the legacy of these few living generals devouring chickens. Yet, I catch myself with the thought, underestimating the legacy of 2011 could be the generals’ strategic error. But I do not spoil their meals with this.
As for me, I was called a true patriot after all. I have been invited to their homes. I was trusted with a far less heroic side of their lives (one they do not parade to their disciples) like MiG aviators sleeping in a coffin-measured bed or accidentally killing their cook in a landing gone wrong. Even unfaltering General Tolba personally called inviting me on his trip and asked if I would feast on chicken or fish. And now that I am away, the generals send Facebook messages to make sure of my wellbeing. But I am not a proper patriot nor a revolutionary, I am just a cautious spectator who enjoys a nice roasted chicken and a good war story in no-man’s-land.