A Military Complex
The conflicting attitudes of Egypt’s generations toward the army
On February 11, 2011, moments after the resignation of Hosni Mubarak was announced, a friend and I climbed on top of a tank stationed to the east of Tahrir Square. We were euphoric after hearing the news we thought impossible during those tumultuous eighteen days that started on January 25. I grabbed the wrist of one young-looking soldier who was standing on the tank (also with a beaming smile) as the crowd chanted “the army and people are one hand,” and I raised his hand with mine. I thought victory was ours—the army had sided with the people.
I was born in the 1980s, and so prior to that fateful night in February, I had never lived through an experience with the Egyptian army. I was not alive when Egypt’s army fought their Arab-Israeli wars, or when the patriotic war songs that celebrated Egypt’s victory in 1973 were written. My only interaction with the army was through my father and uncles who have all served in the military, either in battle or through military service, and who had always made clear the admiration and pride they felt towards Egypt’s military. With their influence firmly imprinted in my psyche, I believed the army would always protect the people because it was the people—men who were just like those in my family, and from families across the country.
Eighteen months of rule by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces very quickly wiped out what older generations of Egyptians had told me. While they viewed the army through the prism of 1973 and victory, I saw the army put my friends in coffins or try them in military courts. I never met the Egyptian army of the 1960s and 1970s, but I met the 2011 version, and as I stood in Tahrir Square throughout the course of 2011 and 2012 chanting “down with military rule” I promised myself I would never trust the institution again.
Events this week have seen the army once again emerge to the forefront of Egyptian politics. As June 30 approached, I saw no resolution to the ongoing crisis that would not involve the army stepping in. Even so, I certainly did not predict the army would intervene after only one day of mass protests, when they previously waited eighteen days before turning against Mubarak. The timing of the army statement, and the forty-eight hour ultimatum—designed to be rejected by Mursi and his government to facilitate the army stepping in as it did on Wednesday—were all perfectly calculated, strategic maneuvers. Mursi is gone, an interim president has been sworn in, and a roadmap has been laid out to lead Egypt down a different path of democracy.
Like many Egyptians of my generation who saw the military take a more prominent role in politics in 2011 and 2012, we distrust the army just as much, if not more, than the remnants of Mubarak’s regime. Moreover, we do not share in the same 1973-inspired deference shown towards the army by our parents. You only have to ask male Egyptian undergraduates if they wish to carry out their one year military service after they graduate to discover the youth’s attitudes towards the army. The answer would be a resounding “no,” whereas once upon a time military service was seen as a badge of honor for Egyptian men.
When commander-in-chief of the army, Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi, made the announcement that Mursi was no longer the president and the army had laid out a plan for the coming year, I feared the worst. I feared a repeat of that night on February 11, when I thought victory had been achieved only to realize we were about to lose a lot more. The army has become bolder and more aggressive. Most of all, I was troubled by what I saw as short-term memory loss among some family members and friends who praised the army for purging Egypt of its authoritarian president, engaging in ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ rhetoric.
Yet, as I listened to the constitution that I had voted against being suspended in a sentence, and a president who had ridiculed the democratic process being removed from power, I felt conflicted. I was happy to see both of them go. But on February 11, 2011 I did not know that Egypt’s armed forces could ever be my enemy. I know more today. That is not to say that the army is planning anything different from what El-Sissi has laid out, but just in case they are, I will be prepared. Today is February 12, 2011.