History reconstructed: Rival realities in Egypt

Writer Maria Golia once described Cairo as a city held together by rubber bands in its teetering chaos. It is an analogy that applies to the whole country and which, beyond capturing the papier-mâché fragility of its physicality, extends to its psyche, too.

On Sunday, October 6, Egyptians were invited to take to the streets to celebrate Egypt’s victory against Israel in 1973. While people are intensely proud of this day (one in the eye for Israel), in ordinary times citizens usually celebrate it on the beach.

But these are not ordinary times, and on Sunday the army mobilized the people to celebrate the army mobilizing its troops and defeating Israel 40 years ago as a way of saluting the military on winning a war on terrorism that is still ongoing and correcting the path of Egypt’s toddling infant democracy by rescuing it from the clutches of the Muslim Brotherhood.

The celebrations were a jouissance of passionate nationalism and adulation for army chief Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who on July 3 unseated former President Mohamed Morsi and since then has promised that the military wants no say in political affairs. Egyptian citizens in Tahrir Square thought differently on Sunday, and were gathering signatures insisting that Sisi nominate himself for president. There was very little mention of the October War anywhere.

Sisi himself looked out from posters plastered on tanks, in between people’s hands and on their t-shirts. Near a row of tanks with flowers in their canons behind barbed wire, civilians lined up to look, and next to them hundreds of Sisis were for sale on the ground where in years past vendors sold revolution merchandise, overlooked by walls where layers upon faded layers of graffiti fight for space, each seeping into and obscuring the other, the blood of dead enemy soldiers mixed on a battlefield.

These were celebrations that made no sense if history is examined in a linear and logical fashion, because what has Egypt’s 1973 victory got to do either with current events or with star of the show, Sisi, who was a teenager at the time of the war? And what has defeat of the Zionist entity got to do with a war on domestic terrorism? The explanation goes beyond any excuse for barrel thumping jingoism and a large street party. This was about anchoring events since June 30 to something solid and in the process giving them a legitimacy and indisputability that they otherwise might not have been afforded.

The wheeling out of Sisi’s repeated image is attributable not only to his genuine popularity: it creates an indelible association with the war and all that that implies, at the top of which is an almost deity-like status.

That the Brotherhood chose to march on this day of all days against Morsi’s unseating demonstrates a spectacular lack of judgment. But march they did, most accounts suggest peacefully. The inevitable clashes broke out.

In the suburb of Dokki, as a protest rounded a corner those at the head of it returned with eyes streaming. Behind them the dull thud of teargas canisters had begun. I asked a woman whether marching to Tahrir Square in protest at the overthrow while chanting against military rule was not perhaps provocative and ill-advised. “Tahrir Square is the symbol of the revolution,” she replied without further comment.

In Dokki Square, anti-coup protesters were arrested by police and as they were bundled through the acrid smoke of teargas and burning tires, groups of weapon-wielding civilians attacked them, watched by a man with a homemade “no to terrorism” t-shirt. And 500 meters down the road, a woman and her teenage daughter, both stunningly made up, paraded up and down carrying a long Sisi poster.

The Muslim Brotherhood were themselves doing intellectual gymnastics to justify their decision to march. In an email, the Anti-Coup Alliance “saluted the courage and sacrifice of the 1973 and 2013 Egyptian martyrs.”

“The whole nation mobilized Sunday in response to the call by the alliance … to celebrate the anniversary of the great October victory and inspired afresh by its spirit in resisting coup repression, injustice and tyranny,” the email declared.

History always has a certain malleability but Egypt’s competing forces have stretched it out of all recognition, pulled and torn at it, grabbed onto it for dear life, declared victory even before the blood on the ground is dry.

Tomorrow is the second anniversary of the Maspero massacre, when 30 mostly Christian protesters taking part in a march against sectarianism were shot to death or mown down by military armed personnel carriers outside the state television building.

The re-molding then began the very same night. Thugs, or protesters themselves, stole and drove the APCs, we were told. Later, the Muslim Brotherhood were blamed. State media said that Christians were killing soldiers. The Brotherhood failed to condemn the military and requested that excitable Christians stop spreading disorder and go home. 

Two years later a crowd at Maspero held up a list of reasons why the head of the military must nominate himself for the presidency in exactly the same spot where human souls were squeezed out of bodies under army wheels.

And as October 6, 2013 drew to a close, history was on stage: it was an operetta sung by singers wearing army camouflage, it was Sisi’s reassuring smile, it was his promise that Egypt will now be “ad el donia” (as big as the world), it was the collective sigh of relief emitted in response.

And elsewhere history was roaring that millions took to the streets against Sisi and that October 6 would be his last day on the job while it was locked up in a police cell or being cut open by morgue knife. It was all of these things, and none of them.

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