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Egypt’s Contemporary Pharaohs: The ongoing urge for a ‘citadel massacre’

There are increasingly loud demands that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi carry out a “citadel massacre” to get rid of the “power players” behind the failure of his government’s plan. But what is the plan they’re allegedly ruining? And who appointed all these people who are now a burden on government and caused this conspicuous failure?

Such claims have existed throughout the ages to give new regimes the kiss of life, whenever conflict between recently formed wings of power became obvious, the public became agitated by obvious failure, and the dreams promoted by national songs and media mouthpieces proved barren. Dreams of democracy at the early stages of the 1952 revolution, dreams of victory at the start of Anwar Sadat’s rule, and dreams of regaining the freedoms and rights of those crushed by free-market policies when Hosni Mubarak took power.

How did Gamal Abdel Nasser change after inaugurating his rule with promises of democracy, prosperity, a break from the painful past and his predecessor’s heritage of oppression and general failure? How did a young officer who dreamt of freedom and salvation transform into a schemer arresting colleagues and eliminating yesterday’s friends and today’s enemies?

The TV trilogy Egypt’s Contemporary Pharaohs sets out on a quest for the answers to these questions. Shown on BBC World in February, it took five years of work to make, according to director Jihan al-Tahri.

As it addresses an audience that probably doesn’t know much about the circumstances of the three rulers’ succession, it may seem like a narration of historical facts Egyptians already know. But there are many reasons why we should see it with different eyes.

Egypt’s Contemporary Pharaohs shows how Nasser planted military personnel in all governmental offices, as described by Abdel Maguid Shadid, secretary of the post-1952 Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council, and how each field was filled by “persons of trust” — a tradition followed later by all his successors. We see how Nasser looks at older officer Mohamed Naguib as he walks behind him during the early days of the revolution, while the narrator explains how their brewing conflict started, and how Nasser as vice president felt marginalized. In another scene where Sadat walks toward Nasser’s photo to pay his respects, the narrator tells us how Sadat — in his early days as president —persistently implied that he would follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

In the beginning, the Free Officers allied themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was eager to collaborate, looking forward to sharing rule and settling for the limited presence the deal dictated. Both parties soon tired of each other, however, and returned to their positions: the military in power, and the Brotherhood in prison.

One of the most important elements in the series’ structure is how the director changes the interviewees’ titles throughout the three parts as they assume different positions: Fouad Allam, a guerrilla fighter in Nasser’s era, becomes head of the tourism police and later head of National Security under Mubarak; Rifaat al-Said, who used to be a member of the Egyptian Communist Party’s political office, becomes founder of the Tagammu Party; the intelligence officer who warned Sadat that the “power players” planned to arrest him soon becomes Sadat’s private secretary; and Nasser’s minister of information, Mohamed Faaeq, becomes a prisoner on trial under Sadat before being appointed president of the National Council for Human Rights, giving statements about Khaled Said’s death in 2010 and the events that followed.

The interviews don’t just fill the gaps between the images. We actually get to see politician Hossam Badrawi, for instance, talking for the first time about the military’s economy, his irritation at the entourage of businessmen that appeared with Gamal Mubarak, and the insider story of founding a party after Gamal Mubarak’s return from abroad, before diplomat Osama al-Baz advised them to join Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. We also see dancer Carol Shannon relating how she was hired to close a deal to transfer Soviet weapons to Afghanistan, and how she talked the Egyptian officials into it.

In the chapter on Nasser, one of the Free Officers supporting him talks about “anti-democracy” protests sweeping the country. Prompted by the director, he smiles and says: “We were the ones behind those protests … that was the policy back then … we used to print the leaflets in the intelligence office.” A former assistant to the minister of interior, Zaki Badr, recalls explicit orders to immediately eliminate Islamists. “Why take the trouble of charging him, and then have him complain about torture?” he asked.

One obvious reason why Arabic documentaries can be a turn-off is that they usually turn into traditional extended reports, containing several interviews that lack any connection, and in which familiar faces from TV show up again to repeat well-known facts over and over, accompanied by an overkill soundtrack.

Egypt’s Contemporary Pharaohs manages to avoid this, not only by introducing fresh archive footage and photos of the places where events took place and how they have transformed over time, but also by incorporating newspaper headlines and scenes from films dealing with these crucial moments, like Hossam Eddin Mostafa’s Autumn Quails (1967) and The Bullet is Still in My Pocket (1974), Hassan Youssef’s The Fat Cats (1981), Aly Badrakhan’s Al-Karnak (1975), Mohamed Fadel’s Nasser 56 (1996), Henri Barakat’s The Sin (1956), Nader Galal’s Bekheit and Adila (1997), and Marwan Hamed’s The Yacoubian Building (1996).

Talking about how the Islamists allied themselves with university security forces to eliminate leftists and Nasserites, former Brotherhood member Khaled al-Zaafarany’s face lights up as he recalls how they stormed into the hall to beat those protesting against the delay in attempting to liberate the land from the Israelis. “Some of us arrived in cars provided by security staff — we didn’t care if Sadat took advantage of that,” he added. “They were mocking Islam.”

The whole picture becomes clear in the film: each president starts with pledges as he launches his own version of authority. Nasser claimed to be secularist but was worried about the backlash, so he’s filmed in the middle of prayer after a meeting with Nikita Khrushchev. Sadat said he wanted to avoid the mistakes of socialism and abide by religion. But at the first bump in the road, the religious president sent hundreds to prison, starting with his allies against the Nasserites and leftists: the Muslim Brotherhood. After announcing the age of freedom and starting out his first term by meeting released prisoners detained by his predecessor, Mubarak ended his rule with thousands of prisoners and people killed on the streets for protesting against plans to hand over rule to his son and his newly formed network of interests involving businessmen.

At the beginning of Egypt’s Contemporary Pharaohs, the director asks whether those who came to power as Egypt’s liberators have become Egypt’s persecutors. Summing up the answer, the secretary of the Free Officers’ Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council, Abdel Maguid Shadid, says: “I thought it was only about [ousting] the king.”

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Ahmed Khair al-Deen