A return to long-term military management of politics has a certain charm for Egypt's generals. Here's why.
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters
On the main road from Cairo's international airport to downtown, there's a strange circular building with decommissioned fighter jets, tanks, and artillery pieces out front that provides a glimpse into the mind of the military-backed order that ran Egypt for 50 years. If the events of the past few days are anything to go by, it still does.
The site is the 6th of October War Panorama, celebrating what generations of Egyptians have been taught was a great victory over Israel in 1973 (that conflict is generally referred to in the West and in Israel as the Yom Kippur War) – even though it was not even close to one.
But it is less a museum or a monument than a conscious attempt at mythmaking by a military establishment that has viewed itself as the sole true protector of Egypt and its values since the Free Officers coup of 1952. It's similar to propaganda halls built by military-backed dictatorships from Syria to Indonesia to Pakistan.
The panorama was suggested in 1983 to former President Hosni Mubarak, commander of the Egyptian Air Force during the 1973 war with Israel, by North Korea's self-styled "Great Leader" Kim Il-Sung, a man who knew a little something about mythmaking. Mr. Mubarak had been named president two years prior, following the assassination of Anwar Sadat by Islamist militants, and he was looking to bolster his position and public persona.
Mr. Kim's suggestion was just the ticket for Mubarak, a former vice president chosen as Mr. Sadat's vice president precisely because he was deemed not to have presidential qualities, and thus not to be a threat to his boss. A team of North Koreans completed the panorama in 1989.
Ever since, schoolchildren have paraded through the place, with its revisionist history, busts of Mubarak and other military leaders, and three bombastic short films about the glories of 1973. While the Egyptian and Syrian surprise attack on Israel on Oct. 6 that year badly rattled their Zionist enemy, particularly after Egyptian troops poured across the Suez Canal into the Sinai Peninsula that Israel had occupied since 1967, it didn't end in a clear victory for anyone – and could have seen Egypt's military smashed.
Despite early tactical gains, within nine days Israeli troops had crossed the Suez Canal and prepared to threaten Cairo, mostly due to bad leadership decisions. The war ended later that month with the status quo restored, but with Egypt having proved that Israel's supposedly impregnable defenses on the Sinai front could be breached. Sadat was dubbed the "hero of the crossing" and his power – and that of his generals – rose.
The October War has been milked for legitimacy ever since. It helped entrench the mind-set among Egypt's senior officers that they and only they understand what Egypt needs and how to protect it – never mind that the offensive capability of their military has been steadily eroded, particularly relative to Israel's, ever since.
But the belief, and the myth, remain. They can be seen in the actions of the Egyptian military since the July 3 coup, particularly the bloody crackdown currently under way, which have the support of millions of Egyptians. Posters of Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, the Army chief who announced that the ouster of President Mohamed Morsi, abound.
The Free Officer's coup in 1952 was prompted by anger that Israel's victory in 1948 was down to the corruption and incompetence of Egypt's old monarchy and its civilian advisers. Ever since, Egypt's military, much as those in other countries, has looked askance at the notion that civilians should reign supreme. Civilians, to their thinking, are feckless, either uneducated peasants, or Muslim fanatics, or lacking the will to do what is required.
The failures of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mr. Morsi in his year in office surely reinforced that view. Morsi was Egypt's first civilian leader for 60 years, and his time in office marked a sharp decline in Egypt's economic fortunes, rising public protests, and inept and arrogant handling of internal affairs. The mass protests that erupted against him on June 30 of this year – probably larger than the protests that saw Mubarak ousted in 2011 – were surely seen as evidence for the military's longstanding view.
And what of Morsi and the Brotherhood's civilian opponents? They have shown themselves good at protest politics, but have squabbled among themselves and failed to build mass political movements that could stop Islamist victories at the ballot box in both the parliamentary election and the presidential election, which Morsi narrowly won. Though Sisi has promised democratic elections in the future, he and his advisers won't want to see the Brothers win again.
So where does that leave them? Perhaps, to push Egypt down the path of greater chaos by goading the Brothers and their supporters to lash out, setting the stage for crushing this force within their midst and bolstering the narrative that it is the security state alone that can deliver stability and a modicum of prosperity.
Issandr El Amrani, a writer and keen analyst of Egyptian politics, worries this may be the case. He writes how secular politicians who backed the coup in the hopes that it would lead the Brothers to realize they'd lost a round, and adapt to new political realities, were only small in number.
Unfortunately, among the broad liberal camp in Egypt, those who entertained such hopes are in a minority. Even among the National Salvation Front, as its obscene statement praising the police today showed, most appear to have relished the opportunity to crush the Muslim Brothers and to believe that other Islamists could simply choose to be crushed alongside it, kowtow to the new order, or be pushed back into quietism. It appears that much of the business and traditional elite – represented politically by the Free Egyptians and the Wafd Party among others – falls into that category. They are joined by the security establishment, or deep state if you prefer.
The camp that eventually won does not just believe that the Brothers are not worth negotiating with. They want to encourage it in its provocative sectarian discourse, its supporters' desire for violence – and then push as much of the Islamist camp as possible into being outlaws. Those who nurture such eradicateur sentiment do not so much actually want to physically eradicate all Islamists as to provoke them into a situation where their political existence will be eradicated because they will have opted for violence. They are willing to endure that violence, even a return to the counterinsurgency of the 1990s, and sporadic sectarian and terrorist attacks, because they believe it will strengthen their camp and enable them to permanently block most Islamists from politics. This is why I believe I think that analyses such as this one, that argue that such an insurgency is not possible anymore, are wrong.
Could Egypt return to a long period of military-backed dictatorship? There's been a strain of thinking over the past two years that after the mass protests against Mubarak a sort of break with the past had been made that would require more open and pluralistic politics, and that the military would understand its interests would best be served by withdrawing a little further into the political background.
But Sisi may be drawing different lessons from both recent events – and the wide praise he and the security state are receiving from large numbers of Egyptians, hungry for stability. Keep an eye out for more spit and polish being put on the October War Panorama.