The senile state: A close reading (Part 1)

Q: Why did more than a thousand Egyptians die in the ferry disaster? — A: Because no one wanted to wake Mubarak.

Tantawy, telling the committee responsible for investigating the ferry incident that the Armed Forces are above being questioned or investigated.

To put it simply, it’s not alchemy. Good intentions will not do you any good, nor angry curses, or theories of the power of positive thinking, or even a flood of accusations, punishments, curses and trials. The affairs of this country will not be rectified, except by distance between it and whatever caused its corruption in the first place. This is why your belief that anyone who criticizes Sisi’s administration is a traitor will not do you any good either. Nor will this country be changed by your belief that Sisi is the legendary phoenix, who will enable Egypt to rise from the ashes. This will not change the basis of progress for any state: that “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This is a reality that is palpable in everything around us — the backwardness, poverty, ignorance and disease. And, all this will not be changed until you, as a citizen, are capable of holding your ruler to account, of questioning him and even punishing him. Unfortunately, this is made more complicated when one’s rulers come from an institution that educates them to believe that they are above accountability or punishment.

I will let the facts speak to you. Perhaps you will consider them, and come to realize the peril of your endeavour when you give up your right to monitor, criticize and hold your leaders to account. But this time, I will not call your attention to some incident from the 50s or 60s, even if we are still to this moment held hostage by the legacy of our history. Instead, I will direct you to events that occurred very recently, which you saw with your own eyes, but which you have willfully forgotten in bad faith. Or maybe try to forget in good faith, hoping that by doing so, you will return to brighter, more peaceful days.

The actual narrator of these events is Abd al-Azim Hammad, the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram, the official newspaper of the state, speaker on its behalf and its most important journalistic tool. Abd al-Azim took this position in the period just prior to the January 2011 Revolution that overthrew Mubarak and his family. He did not narrate the story of these events in a secret journal, but in a published work two years ago, entitled “The Lost Revolution: The Battle of Military Helmets, Beards and the Square.” It is amusing how, mostly in gestures of professional courtesy, some writers and journalists have made polite references to this work in their own writing or on television, while the vast majority of them have refused to discuss events from this perspective; not even brief excerpts, or by including the usual watertight disclaimers about this being solely the opinion of the author. You will find this strange when you read what follows. But, of course, it has become taboo to narrate events in this way, even more so now, since it clearly shows the danger of having Egypt ruled by soldiers who are above accountability or punishment.

The book contains accounts of many incidents that are related to our present situation. The most important of these is perhaps the military’s handling of the drowning of 1100 Egyptians in February, 2006, when a ferry, which was the property of Mamduh Ismail — businessman and friend of Hosni Mubarak and Zakariyya Azmy — sunk in the Red Sea. In the end, Ismail was acquitted of a ridiculously light sentence, which is completely inadequate when compared to the horror of the crimes for which he was responsible. Perhaps you do not need me to remind you of how completely the facts of these events were erased from Egyptian memory, through a shameful collaboration with the media. Nor do you need me to point out how, if this had happened during the era of Morsy, reminding the public of the incident would have been the daily duty of every newspaper, television and radio program in the country.

It shows how successful this cover up was if you are now asking what the relationship is between the military and the sinking of the ferry. Especially as the horror of this disaster prompted several writers at the time to question, for the first time, the naval forces and their handling of such incidents. A committee was formed to try and contain public anger and investigate the incident. The head of the committee was Hamdy al-Tahhan, head of the Transportation Ministry at the time and a member of the National Democratic Party (NDP). Perhaps this is why the government and those responsible did not expect the “treachery” that happened next, assuming the investigation would be farcical, as usually happens in these situations. That businessman Mohamed Abu al-Enein was the speaker of the committee probably gave them a degree of false hope that the NDP would be in total control of every statement the committee made. They were surprised, therefore, when Tahhan actually investigated the incident as he had been commissioned to do.

In his book, Abd al-Azim Hammad recounts a story Tahhan told about the meetings of the committee with representatives of the Armed Forces, while in the process of preparing a public report. The first meeting occurred on February 16, 2006, and included Tahhan, Abu al-Enein and Amin Rady as representatives of the committee. Representing the military were: Mustafa al-Sayid, head of the Department of Operations for the Armed Forces at the time, the Governor of Aswan after the revolution, and Major-General Mamduh Shaheen, head of the constitutional institutions and politics in the Ministry of Interior at the time, as well as an unnamed individual in civilian clothing.”

It was quite a heated discussion, contrary to everyone’s expectations. Tahhan tells us that Said asserted that the incident occurred outside of the designated search and rescue area for which the Armed Forces were responsible. Tahhan, in response, pointed to two international treaties Egypt signed, asserting that searches of this kind are not to be restricted to regional waters. Said tried another approach when this failed, stating that the Armed Forces received hundreds of SOS signals and could not reasonably be expected to respond to all of them. He said, in a colloquial register, and with a clearly sarcastic tone, “I suppose you expect us to deploy every time a request for aid is received!” At this point, Tahhan replied, “My dear Major-General, you are an officer of the Armed Forces. Do you think what you have just said is reasonable?” Said answered in a hostile tone, “What do you mean ‘You are an officer,’” Tahhan says, “At which point I said, ‘Ok, forget I said officer. You are the army.’ So he said with even more aggression, ‘Why don’t you tell me what it means to be in the army.’ So I said, remaining calm, ‘This country spends on the army for one purpose only: the purpose of the security of its borders and the lives of its children, and if the army does not fulfil this purpose, then there is no point in its existence.’” At this point, Said suggested a short coffee break.

After the break, the committee members were called in to Field Marshal Tantawi’s office, and he joined them fifteen minutes later. He was obviously tense and aggressive, which indicated that he had followed the previous exchange. He surprised everyone by addressing Tahhan directly, saying: “The Armed Forces is not to be questioned and should never be investigated. They are above questioning or investigation; they defend legitimacy, and are not even so much as mentioned in the People’s Assembly.” He was referring here to Tahhan’s previous accusation that the Armed Forces were not present following the incident. The Field Marshal expected Tahhan to remain silent, but was surprised when he responded that he had not accused anyone, but was rather enquiring about the response of the Armed Forces to the emergency call. Tantawi answered that no one had informed the military of these signals. It was a weak reply. Tahhan told Hammad that it was at this point that he realized that the Field Marshal was not the authoritative figure he projected. 

This realization may have prompted Tahhan to raise another point with Tantawi. The disaster occurred on a Friday, and yet, even by the following Wednesday, no one had sent air-conditioned units to transport the bodies of the victims. This caused Tahhan to call Zakariya Azmy, Mubarak’s chief of staff, “To urge the relevant authorities to send ten vehicles to transport the bodies of the victims to their families to be buried, instead of leaving them out in public view. The failure to do this was not only unbearable, but increased the torment of the families and loved ones of the deceased. He also contacted the governor of the Red Sea area, making the same request. The governor excused himself, saying that his governorate did not possess this sort of equipment.” At this point, Tahhan said to him: “Rent some, for God’s sake.” But neither Azmy nor the governor did anything of the sort. Tahhan asked the Field Marshal, “Where then were the Armed Forces, which certainly did have a large number of these vehicles at hand?” Again, Tantawi repeated, “ Nobody told us anything, nor did anyone ask us for anything.” 

What is worthy of notice is that, rather than searching for ways to avoid the recurrence of such a tragedy, the Field Marshal, according to Hammad, chose the path of least resistance, and instead searched for hidden agendas motivating Tahhan’s questions. “He changed the subject and asked Tahhan, ‘Why are you taking a hostile position towards the Armed Forces?’ Of course it was easy for Tahhan to repel this accusation, as he had served as a reserve officer and was a graduate of the Military Reserve College in 1968.” He took the initiative again and said that all he wanted was a formal report from the Armed Forces documenting the facts, in order to hold those “who didn’t inform you to account.”

The military did send the report in the end, even if it was as Hammad describes it:

“It was full of both mistakes and contradictions. But, it was nevertheless very important and very useful. It claimed that the search and rescue office of the Armed Forces did not receive any signals regarding the accident. Nor did any other section of the Armed Forces. All of this was proven false. That unit alone received five signals, because the signaling system is automatic. What’s worse is that the receiver was switched off by an unknown figure after the fifth signal was received. But what is truly tragic, is that the Armed Forces were in possession of another center, costing US$100 million, from the United States Centre for Monitoring Coastlines and Ships, and which was designed to provide a service for international naval traffic between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean (around 17,000 ships). This center had been granted, just before the accident, including seven speedboats designed for rescue operations, high tech enough to self-correct if they were to upturn after setting off. But the boats, just like the rest of the naval and aerial rescue equipment, stayed on land as these poor Egyptians wrestled with the waves for two whole days until they met their Lord and complained to him of the injustices committed against them by their rulers and leaders, the soldiers.

As soon as they left the Ministry of Defense, Abu al-Enein publicly made a statement that was not approved by Tahhan as head of the committee. He said that the international rescue station, affiliated with Lloyds and located in Algeria, did not send an SOS signal to Egypt, and that Egypt would take Algeria to task for this failure. Immediately, the Algerian ambassador to Egypt sent an official letter to all the relevant parties documenting that the embassy had received 16 SOS signals from Algeria and that these calls for aid were forwarded to all the relevant Egyptian departments. Following the message, there were 17 requests for communication on the subject from the Algerian embassy in Cairo.”

So, what explains the total lack of attention paid to these requests for aid from the leaders of the Armed Forces? — Requests which, had they been heeded, could have saved the lives of all of those who wrestled with the waves for a number of hours?

Hammad asked all those concerned this question, including many specialists, and he found no convincing reason, except the following. “The accepted story maintains that the rules which Mubarak established to safe-guard against military coups, rules inspired by Qadhafi, were the reason that the Armed Forces did not play their role in saving those aboard the ferry. These rules were hinted at by Dr. Mostafa al-Fiqiin in his television program, “The Years of Lost Opportunities,” in which he pointed out that the weapons of the Egyptian army are in one location, its ammunition is stored in another, and fuel in a third. To bring these three together in order to carry out any mission, a direct order from the Commander-General is necessary. And of course, the accident happened after midnight, and no one dared to wake either the Commander-General, nor his Commander-in-Chief.”

As for me, I will not ask you now why this critical statement, which was published two years ago, was not made the basis of an investigation, a trial, or even a public shaming of those who were the cause of this criminal negligence that played a deadly game with all those Egyptian souls. Instead, I will concern myself with the future. I will ask you this: Who guarantees for you, as a citizen who fears for his loved ones, that this will not happen again in some part of your life or other, and in a way much more dangerous and on a larger scale? Who will guarantee this, when the country is ruled by a man whose entire education inculcated in him the idea that he is above being taken to account, or even being questioned? A man who spends all his time seeking more and more ways to secure himself, not just from being held to account, but from criticism and mere objections?

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