“Let the angels mark your ballot papers, they said!” Sobhy Saleh shouted to the crowd below him, which was motionless, like leaves before a hurricane. “And the angels did!”
The crowd roared. There were hundreds in the square of the busy Alexandrian neighborhood, most of whom were from low-income areas where faith was as prevalent as high cholesterol. They believed that angels really had cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood in the winter days of 2011, putting Saleh in the new Parliament. “In the 2005 elections, the policemen laughed saying the Brothers would need divine intervention to win. If only they knew back then what they do today,” said Saleh.
He had been arrested before, but, during the 2011 revolution, he did not bother to pack. He knew it would be different this time. He was released, and former President Hosni Mubarak was sent to jail.
“We told them not to play with fire! He who plays with fire burns! So the earth shattered beneath them and now they are in jail!” Saleh was dauntless on the stage under florescent lights and camera flashes.
Holy wars throughout history were founded on moments like this, and, after 80 years underground, the Brotherhood had won theirs. In the winter of 2011, their Freedom and Justice Party emerged as the most organized grassroots group in the political playground, outside of the formerly ruling National Democratic Party, swiping 42 percent of seats in the lower house of Parliament.
The people around me sought salvation from hardships of their own. An elderly woman standing next to me fainted: she had just won a trip to Umra. She got up, grabbed her galabeya by the hem and crawled over supporters and banners like an octopus, reaching out to hug and kiss Saleh. A boy urged me to write his name on a piece of paper for a raffle giving away electric hoovers, juice makers and irons among other things. He did not win. A girl on the other side, who was trembling, asked me to submit her job application to Saleh. A mother was invited to climb on stage, holding a poster of her 16-year-old son. He had recently died in clashes between protesters and security forces, a frequent occurrence after the collapse of Mubarak’s state. A man started to shout into a loudspeaker: “God is great and praise be to Him, one of us is in Parliament!” From small to big, young to old, the crowd chanted back, “God is great and praise be to Him. One of us is in Parliament!”
I am no stranger to vocation. In 1990s Moscow, there were two choices for the offspring of Soviet-Arab comrades like myself whose fathers decided on an Arabic education over a Russian one: an Iraqi or a Saudi Arabian school. I went to both. At the Saudi school, the teachers of our five religious subjects (tawheed, jurisprudence, hadith [the record of the prophet’s sayings], the Quran and its exegesis) made sure that our soft teenage brains considered, even feared, the divine watching over our deeds. A Wahhabi education offered religious wealth and left no room for interpretation or questioning.
There was one year when I spent entire mornings in prayer. I abstained from music just as the famed single from Titanic left a whole generation of post-Soviet teenagers walking on clouds, wearing t-shirts with Jack and Rose on them. Listening to devilish instruments was fisq (obscene), punishable by pouring hot lead into listeners’ ears. From my Wahhabi schooling, I understood one thing — faith leaves an imprint. I can still remember how it felt, being blessed, inspired and singled-out by a sense of purpose. A piece of it never left me.
A choir of young, clean-shaven men climbed onto Sobhy’s stage and started to sing. The Freedom and Justice Party candidates waved and shook their hands. The crowd sang along: “Oh the white moon rose over us, from the valley of Wada, and we owe it to show gratefulness, where the call is to Allah.” This choir was condemned by the Brotherhood’s Shura Council when it started in 1989, citing the very same concerns about music I had.
“We were Brothers and we liked singing. What we could do about it?” says Mohamed Saeed, one of the first Brotherhood choristers. It took decades for them to negotiate and put together a Shura-approved halal repertoire (no love triumphs, no corporeal desire and never dancing) devoted to Islamic principles and Brotherhood conquests. Saeed attended a music school and joined the choir in the 1980s. “First, there were no musical instruments, but, later, we added drums, and then flutes and synthesizers,” he says. After the revolution, he became the manager of the fourth and most famous incarnation of the choir: Shat Eskanderia (The Shore of Alexandria).
Before the revolution, under Mubarak’s state of emergency, the choirs performed against politics. The young choristers were arrested at home in front of their parents, like criminals. They would usually perform in secrecy at the Brotherhood’s special occasions. Still, the roads to their events were patrolled, venues shut down, audiences searched and concerts filmed. The flat where the choir rehearsed was within spitting distance from a covert police building. “So they would not waste time looking for us,” Saeed says, laughing. The choristers traveled separately undercover, while their instruments made their own way on a train to the venues. It was raw belief that sustained them and the message they put across. They learned to survive. “If you are afraid, then you should not be a member of the Brotherhood,” he says wryly.
Islam Talaat was an alto soloist. He knew the Quran by heart by the age of eight, sang to the moon and kept online female fans at bay. He had “God’s gift,” a compliment frequently paid to the choristers, that occasionally made the Brothers shed a tear. He says that, if it were not for them, he would not be a singer. Talaat was planning to release a music video after winning a Brotherhood singing competition. To prove it, he trilled a song about the prophet, closing his eyes and releasing a long vocal stream in the coffee shop where we sat. “That is the tune of sadness,” he says. His favorite.
Diaa Eddin is not as sentimental as Talaat. He was born into a Salafi family, who would not come to see him sing. Unsatisfied by their division of sheikhs and followers, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood. He passed a four-year trial period, became a member and was tasked with monitoring newcomers. He spent nine years with the Brothers and enjoyed being part of a system. He regularly used “we” instead of the singular pronoun. He sat behind a large desk, and I sat on one of two visitor’s chairs, which were lower than the Eddin’s and faced each other, forcing you turn your neck sharply to address your host. The purpose of this common but official decor always eluded me, with the purpose seemingly being to make the guest slightly uncomfortable.
I ask him why he sings. He replies that Egypt suffers from liberalism, that the previous regime supported vulgar pop music and now they, the Brothers, had a chance to reform the culture. And Diaa Eddin was at the center of it.
“Come visit us. We are like your sisters,” a Brotherhood member tells me over the phone two years later. He tells me he is responsible for media at the organization. The Brotherhood’s reign was about to collapse. Fixated on political control rather than addressing the country’s economic and social problems, the Brotherhood was losing the public and, more importantly, the Armed Forces’ support. They desperately needed positive publicity, and I was one of their last resorts. “I am flattered,” I reply. This was the last I heard from them. Soon after the phone call, which took place in June 2013, people took to the streets urging Brotherhood-backed President Mohamed Morsi to step down. The military ordered Morsi’s arrest, along with the invincible Sobhy Saleh and over 100 other Brotherhood MPs. The organization and their followers revolted and violence escalated, and around 1,400 people were killed in the process. When Brotherhood members became hunted terrorists, I tried to reach the choir boys in vain. I am left wondering whether Talaat ever managed to release his music video.
One day, 10-year-old Essam Shaaban started a demonstration in Assiut. He was playing with his friends when a storm rumbled far away. Shaaban, like any young man in Upper Egypt during the 1990s, grew up surrounded by political Islamist factions. He usually hung out with people older than him: his uncles were Islamist leaders, so his friends thought he knew best. “Essam, where does thunder come from?” he was asked. In a theatrical manner, he declared, “Thunder comes from the wrath of God!”
They shouted after him, “Thunder comes from the wrath of God!” They picked Shaaban up on their shoulders and moved into the streets chanting, “Thunder comes from the wrath of God!”
Shaaban looked behind him and could not see the end of the crowd. A child’s game had turned into a demonstration that became the talk of the village. This event would affect his life. The “weird feeling” he had in the demonstration, “that you say to the world you exist and are able to explain and change it, that you have power and echo,” he says, never left him. In future demonstrations, he would always search for that feeling.
“Communist till death!” the men shouted, waving red flags, showing no mercy for their vocal chords. Sweat ran down their necks, and their veins throbbed at their temples. It was May Day, 2014, and the military had grown popular since the 2013 uprising against the Brotherhood. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, the military-backed candidate who played a key role in ousting his predecessor, was a leading figure in the upcoming presidential elections. Shaaban was among the demonstrators, but he was not shouting, not like he had in 2013 when they protested against the Muslim Brotherhood government just two months prior to Morsi’s arrest. Shaaban shouted with the rest that they would “never kiss the feet of the Morshed [the Brotherhood supreme guide]!” That was a bigger and louder demonstration. Traffic was paralyzed, passersby mesmerized and TV vans were begging for action.
That 2013 demonstration was my first with the communists. I waved a red flag like them. It reminded me of Soviet military parades from my childhood. We were superstars in the heart of Cairo back then. But by 2014, we were a fraction of that: just a few young Trotskyists from the Revolutionary Socialists and the Egyptian Communist Party. Three leftist parties from the newly formed Coalition of Socialist Forces were absent. Although, Salah Adly, the Communist Party secretary, had invited them. That upset him.
Shaaban met Adly when he left his Islamist enclave and moved to Cairo in the early 2000s. He never meant to be an Islamist. It was just a starting point in his crusade against corruption and injustice. He read Karl Marx and books about socialism, Nasserism and even alternative Islamic thought. And in them, he found there was a world completely different from his. He met leftist intellectuals who had spent their 20s in Nasser’s prisons and recruited his peers into the socialist struggle.
Today, however, Shaaban was troubled. Just a few weeks prior, he started a fight at the Communist Party’s headquarters when the comrades decided on the party’s stance at the elections. Shaaban supported the civilian politician Hamdeen Sabbahi, as many young members did, while the older comrades preferred the security promised by Sisi. That day, the old and young raged, pushing chairs over, swinging fists and grabbing each other’s shirts, spitting out accusations of Islamist treachery and military infiltration. Adly shouted at them to stop. Shaaban disappeared to the kitchen to smoke the tension away.
The chants switched to “down with the military regime!” Adly and his comrades frowned at that, and we all headed for a seedy bar to get drunk in. After all, it was the Egyptian Communist Party’s anniversary.
The party was officially established in 1975 by Adly’s mentors, who met in prison after former President Anwar Sadat rounded up 500 leftists for inciting a workers strike. At the time, prisons were the only place communists could easily congregate in large groups. They were hunted as state saboteurs until the collapse of the NDP in April 2011, when their communist party, among many others, was finally able to step into the light. They didn’t have to conceal their headquarters, use code names or keep secret hideouts. They had a website, and Adly’s number was posted on it. And there would no longer be any policemen outside the bar monitoring them.
“For Marx!” We downed our Stella bottles. “For Marx!” Adly and his cheerful drunk peers were born into Nasser’s nationalism. They wanted to fix the social inequality that let the rich exploit the poor. Marx and Lenin changed their lives. They joined underground leftists cells. Young Adly was sweating over a Roneo, keeping a low profile. This meant no protesting or meeting comrades or clashing with the Brotherhood at university. Those bulky mimeographs had a mission of their own, to maintain the network between elders, workers, farmers and young recruits like Adly. He was not arrested in 1975 and printed out the party’s declarations. It was in 1981 that Adly and his “partner in crime” arrested. After his release, following Sadat’s assassination, he decided he’d had enough of the secret life and worked his way up the politburo.
At the pub, the communists longed for old times: the thrill of sabotage, the trips to the USSR, the power to stir the streets. They know that now they are a pale version of the 80-year-old leftist movement, but giving up was not in their red-flag blood. Some say it is because Mubarak “scraped” the political scene of any opposition. Others spoke of “the communist curse,” which tormented Adly’s mentors through the 1950s and 1960s, whose ideological disputes were infamous. Their factions split like subatomic muons. What remained firm across generations of communists, with their splits and curses and fights, theoretical or actual fist-to-comrade’s-face, what outlived their leaders, the Soviet Union and one day may outlive them, is a belief in socialist deliverance. “For Marx!” I raised my Stella.
Now it was Adly’s job to keep the party intact, protect the comrades from ideological absolutism and the imperfection of day-to-day politics, and not to repeat his mentors’ mistakes.
Shaaban left the party, claiming he could not support its political direction any more, which conflicted with his Marxist beliefs. He says that the 1970s, Adly’s generation, abandoned the socialist dream their forefathers sacrificed everything for. It was not easy to leave the party that saw him grow. He shaved his mustache and is now working with steely feminists, some as old as the republic itself. I ask him if he still believed in communism. “Yes, I do believe in humanitarian Marxism, biased towards the people.”
Mohamed Abu Bakr’s vocation was to break the sound barrier and to serve his country. “Two kinds of men result from leading the life of a war pilot: those who become bitter or even aggressive and those who crack jokes all the time,” says the aviator. “I am the joker. Ha ha ha.”
Piloting his MiG-21 and chasing Israeli Phantoms across the sky was Abu Bakr’s second nature.
I can’t compare anything to the sharpness and mercilessness of the generals’ sense of humor, a defense mechanism crafted in war zones between 1969 to 1973 for a single purpose: to keep them sane. At the battlefields in Sinai, they met a frenzied entourage who called them “supreme generals” or “heroes of the nation” or the “diamond shield that protects Egypt.”
They were a state secret for 40 years, but, after 2013, their front expanded. They were celebrated by unofficial think-tanks that decoded “enemy” conspiracies, informal pro-army youth hubs preaching the “1973 spirit,” military-civilian events celebrating the achievements of military men. But generals brushed away the frenzy: “I am just a soldier. The real heroes died in the war.”
I watched Abu Bakr and his earth-bound comrades speak on stage of the patriotic fealty they swore, the Israelis they killed, the friends they watched die, the number of dismembered limbs and shrapnel scars, and every grain of Egyptian soil they defended with God on their side. The crowd was hungry for more dead enemies, more patriotic rhetoric and more evidence that those generals will defend the pride and dignity of Egypt just as they did in 1973. Their followers were born into Nasser’s nationalism, Sadat’s military triumphs and Mubarak’s three decades of peace, and for them, the security of a military bear-hug was better than a risky flirtation with democracy. For that very moment, those civilians trusted the fate of their homeland with the generals. They shouted “Long Live Egypt!” The generals remained composed.
“Egypt is in danger!” Abu Bakr’s voice thundered at the audience, who immediately whipped out their camera phones. His nose was scarred and his spine damaged after an unfortunate ejection during one of his dogfights. Abu Bakr said he got the “fear of 1,000 demons” upon hearing the word ejection. The pilots feared ejecting more than anything — they could be caught by Israelis or beaten up by locals. Abu Bakr’s comrade was captured by Israelis, put in a box with a hole above his forehead, water dripping on it mercilessly, a common and maddening method of torture. He was later released but has never recovered. Abu Bakr does not joke with him when they see each other.
Abu Bakr was lucky. He landed on Egyptian territory, breaking a leg. He managed to convince angry peasants that he was not an Israeli pilot. From then on, he has been a regular physiotherapy patient in military hospitals. Away from the generals’ front, everyone — ranging across United States nationals, anti-military democrats, terrorists, conspirators, paid agents, drug dealers, and the old Israeli foe — were plotting to destroy Egypt.
My Wahhabi education served me well with the Muslim Brotherhood, just as my communist background did when I toasted Karl Marx with Adly’s comrades. Yet, the generals were tricky. Like any spawn of post-colonial trauma, I studied patriotism at school (Iraqi, Saudi and Egyptian) where the military, glorious and selfless, was a centerpiece. I could 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 tried to remember the syllabus.
Once in their space, the generals could be prone to invade — an old habit. General Tolba Radwan interrogated many Israelis during the War of Attrition, and later, during his service with military intelligence, he stared down his own countrymen. Once I found myself thrown into a psychological minefield under the stare of his shrapnel damaged eye — Are you a KGB spy? Why do you want to know that? Beware, you are surrounded by generals. Ha ha ha — there were two options: submission or retaliation. I, personally, retaliated using my best defense: humor.
Abu Bakr’s generation of generals graduated into the shock of 1967, after Egypt’s defeat by the Israelis in just six days. The mass’s belief in the republic’s invincibility collapsed. As a 20-year-old, Abu Bakr watched airports torched as he drove to engage. He wondered if there would be anything left when he came back. Egypt lost most of its air force. People protested, blaming pilots. Young comrade Adly was one of them. Abu Bakr did not wear his uniform in public. Vengeance was what he wanted. Many officers like him did the same and were ready to give their lives to defend Egypt’s honor. Nasser pushed reluctant Soviet allies for more MiGs. After two years, Abu Bakr was breaking sonic barriers over occupied Sinai in one of the last aerial dogfights in history.
“Mostly, pilots just want to forget,” Abu Bakr tells me, in a rare instance of candor. When he was in the cockpit, his afterburners switched on, he thought nothing of fear. He locked himself away, focusing only on a target. He would return to base finding the unfinished lunch of a peer — who had left in his MiG attack an Israeli outpost — still warm. They laughed as if everything was fine.
Only in a moment of privacy with a cup of coffee, could one quietly collapse. General Abu Bakr liked to speak of the dogfights, the martyrs, that 1967 was not the pilots’ fault, and of his post-war occupation flying presidents on state visits. He was called the presidents’ pilot. But there was a dark side tucked away from armyphiliac followers. He was not alone.
In public, another supersonic general, Ahmed Mansoury, was dashing in his red leather jacket that flaunted his flying record — he crash-landed on a highway, almost colliding with a speeding truck, after a tough dogfight with eight Israeli Phantoms). But in the privacy of his chambers, under collages of press clippings and photos of him in his MiG, his medals and certificates from presidents, he was alone, sleeping in a coffin-sized bed. “I am preparing myself. When you die, this is all you need,” he says. Desperado Mansoury longed for war and breaking the sound barrier chasing those sons of dogs, but the closest thing he could get to that feeling was climbing into his old MiG 218040, rusting away at the October 6 Panorama. General Abu Bakr tells me that he was an example of a pilot who “lost his wings.”
Abu Bakr and his generals say they won the war in 1973 — it is celebrated every year in October, and he becomes busy attending lectures and TV panels. Like any of them, he knows they must pass on the mission before they are gone. And sometimes I think that what propelled the generals, the comrades and their curses and the underground Islamist singers was a belief in something greater than their frail existence.
If I learned anything from my quinquennial crusade with the faithful, it is that it requires sacrifice, tenacity and even vanity, and, if things go badly, hope.