From Nasser to Mubarak — Egypt's modern pharaohs and their phoney myths

Why does the country always prefer the army to politicians? Hazem Kandil's compelling Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen traces 60 years of power struggle

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

25 January 2014

9:00 AM

Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen: Egypt’s Road to Revolt Hazem Kandil

Verso, pp.263, £12.99, ISBN: 978178168142

Reporting Egypt’s revolution three years ago, I had a sense of history not so much repeating itself as discharging sparks which seemed eerily familiar. Smoke was billowing into my hotel bedroom from the building next door, the headquarters of the Mubarak dictatorship which protestors had set alight; yet also visible from my balcony in Cairo that night were the flickering lights of Zamalek, the island of privilege in the River Nile where my father grew up before fleeing the flames of the Nasser regime on a flying boat in 1956.

At last comes a book which links the coups and revolutions witnessed by father and son. The Cambridge sociologist Hazem Kandil has produced a compelling history of Egypt’s 60-year power struggle. It is a tale of ruinous incompetence and staggering venality which consumes the country to this day. Unlike the modern-era pharaohs responsible, this book takes no prisoners. Beginning with Nasser, this is a withering denunciation of Egypt’s myth-makers and their phoney myths.

Lt Colonel Gamal Abd Al-Nasser’s Free Officers’ coup against King Farouk in 1952 was Egypt’s opportunity to emulate Atatürk’s democratic reforms in Turkey decades earlier. Although seven million Egyptians were to turn out for Nasser’s funeral procession in 1970, Egypt’s failure to find its modernising Atatürk remains the single biggest cause of its current predicament.

Instead of abolishing the notorious secret police force he inherited from the British, Nasser expanded it. Egypt’s new pyramids were its layer upon layer of intelligence and security services. Political parties were dissolved, rivals purged and culled. Then as now, the CIA calculated that military strongmen in Egypt were more reliable than headstrong civilians, even if their tendency to defect to Moscow’s orbit proved a recurrent cause for concern.

Resistance, then as now, came from the Muslim Brotherhood. It had supported Nasser’s coup, only to find itself relocated to concentration camps in the desert. Islamists were to taste betrayal once again when President Mohamed Morsi was locked up and his supporters killed in their hundreds in 2013.

In 1954, truckloads of peasants were bused by Nasser into Cairo to chant ‘No to parliament! No to elections!’ The perhaps 20 million who protested in favour of military intervention in 2013 were not the army’s hired hands, but their scandalous disappearance from Tahrir Square once the shooting of Islamists started suggests that many still prefer possible military rule to its alternatives.

Yet what emerges most interestingly from this book is an Egyptian military elite cast as hesitant actor rather than history’s architect. The disastrous 1967 war with Israel is depicted as the army’s attempt to prove its manhood after Nasser deliberately emasculated it.

Potential military rivals to his successor, Anwar Sadat, either jumped or were pushed out of the way. One Republican Guard commander, Al-Lethy Nassef, ‘fell’ from a balcony in London. His apparent crime? Walking into Sadat’s office without his beret.

Though frequently represented as a victory, Egypt’s October 1973 war left almost 16,000 Arab soldiers dead as opposed to 3,000 Israeli. That the army remains Egypt’s most respected institution is the result of relentless PR and the public’s conviction that politicians and police are bound to be much worse.

Sadat’s assassination in 1981 is seen here as revenge for the one thing he was any good at: marginalising the army to the point of oblivion. It is no coincidence that the colonel who masterminded the plot was instantly released by the military following the 2011 revolt. This Kandil sees as the army’s chance not to preserve power but seize it back from the police state which had usurped it.

The author brilliantly sets the scene for this uprising, with most Egyptians deprived of clean drinking water while governed by a thieving ruling class of fewer than two dozen families and President Mubarak’s police so steeped in torture that they extract murder confessions from men who subsequently find out that their ‘victims’ are not even dead. With some two million security men under his command — more than in Stalin’s Russia — Mubarak preferred paralysing his nation with thugs to nurturing an army capable of fighting foreign wars. And then, when the people revolted, the army chimed in.

This fine book will disappoint conspiracy theorists who believe that the 2013 coup was a revolt as long in the planning as Nasser’s. Kandil argues that the dismal Morsi had to be replaced, and that only the army was capable of doing so. But having seen for myself more than 100 dead Islamists laid out in a Cairo mosque, I feel that he underplays the most serious and unlawful mass killings in modern Egyptian history.

What is surprising is that so few secular revolutionaries from 2011 seem to share any of the Islamists’ sense of betrayal. After all, Mubarak is no longer in prison, while three figureheads of the youth movement which helped force him out now are.

The preconditions for revolution certainly existed, but fear of religious fascism appears to have sent that revolution into a deep freeze. It is not unreasonable to predict that Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, general commander of the armed forces, will take off his army tunic, put on a suit and be elected president. If he does, history will have repeated itself; but too brutally for farce, and millions of Egyptians will approve.

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  • Terry Field

    Do they use mobile phoneys to propagate their myths???
    Just asking.
    Anyone for tea?