Dispatches from the Egyptian Generals' Front

Dispatches from the Egyptian Generals' Front
Comment: The literary reportage journalist Mona Hassan looks back at her conversations with generals of the Egyptian army, and their place in contemporary Egyptian society.
8 min read
05 Sep, 2016
The generals and their followers revisit their old battlefield near Bar Lev Line [Mona Hassan]

I never asked General Samir Nouh how many people he killed. I did not have to. There are things from 1973, from Egypt's last full-scale war, he will not talk about. Mostly it is classified information.

His kill-list, however, is his forte.

"One mission, my comrade and I killed thirty in one go!" he cries out to a crowd of men and women.

They grab their children, 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 catchphrase) especially at the mention of "dead enemies" and "defending Egypt's dignity".

The generals approve of Sisi's presidency, a younger general-turned-president, but they themselves 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 a Sinai occupied by Israeli troops. 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, estimates vary from between 5,000 to more than 15,000 depending on the source; Egyptian or Israeli.

A peace treaty between Egypt and Israel was signed and Sinai was returned. The 1973 "national victory" was a revival of the army's dominance, diplomatically and socially. Young officers such as Samir were awarded medals, state jobs, stipends - depending on their rank and physical injuries - and army club memberships.

Once again, in the aftermath of the 2013 revolt, they had a mission to amass civilian battalions to defend Egypt. Their front is growing; virtual lobbies that decode enemy agendas, informal pro-army youth hubs preaching the "1973 spirit", army-civilian events celebrating the achievements of army men.

The generals, some more than others, mark 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.

The power of the generals in civil society was a state secret for 40 years

Egypt is at war - or so it seems from where I stand. General Samir is a nervous public orator, but when he gets warmed up, he can break any enemy's back; conspirators, terrorists, paid anti-military democrats and his old enemy - the Israelis. The education ministry was the most recent focus of his wrath - after his visit to a military school was cancelled: "We want to go to schools and speak out before we die," he raged. 

Another general, Tolba Radwan, reportedly 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 frequently reminisces over in his public speeches.

The power of the generals in civil society was a state secret for 40 years. Former president Hosni Mubarak's monopoly included history books - the most I remember from studying the 1973 war is that it was Mubarak's air raid that decided the outcome. The generals met with then-president president and held 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 with it a strong anti-army sentiment. The front-line 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.

It is not only what you say ('human rights', 'civil society', 'dictator' and any other 'imported' keywords ring alarms), but also how you say it

In 2013, the army-backed uprising turned Islamists into hunted terrorists and Sisi was elected Egypt's fifth General-President. The anti-terrorist campaign resuscitated the triumphs of the army - not that it faced much opposition, coming on the heels of 60 years of oppression. 

General Gamal Abdel Nasser - Egypt's second president - is the centrepiece of today's political nationalism. The tall leader, with an eagle-like profile and shoulders that could shade a Soviet delegation, is stamped in the memory of Egyptians and in those he expelled alike. In a largely 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 (and 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, security in the embrace of 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.

"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 among the crowd.

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 ring 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'

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 when a bus broke down on one trip, General Tolba was furious, saying he would have had the driver court-martialed, had he been his employee.

In my psychological warfare with General Tolba I do not comply. In this case it was about territory, and just like the generals' fight with 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 than we admit. I am no stranger to the spectre of patriotism.

Like 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. Amid 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 explosions, assassinations or robbery, I studied a slightly edgy patriotism at Saudi school. Holy wars against unbelievers.

One thing my patriotic upbringings had in common was 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 all its fronts, bears the legacy of these few living generals as they devour their chicken. Yet, I catch myself with the thought that underestimating the legacy of 2011 could be the generals' strategic error. But I do not spoil their meals with this thought. 

As for me, I was called a true patriot after all. 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.

Mona Hassan is a journalist specialising in literary reportage with two awards and a decade of experience. Based between Egypt and London, she is currently working on a nonfiction book about Soviet ghosts in Egypt.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

A version of this article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI