The senile state (Part 2)

To forget is human. This is why you will still find those who think the rule of generals is the only way to achieve stability and security, the only way to escape the fate of Syria, Iraq and Libya.

Such people forget that generals also ruled these countries, and destroyed their rich political culture, reducing them to barracks, forcing entire peoples into military obedience. They monopolized the media, silenced anyone who questioned the direction in which the country was headed or objected to the distribution of resources, or the manner in which the country as a whole was managed. Despite all these measures, Syria, Iraq and Libya are all in a state of ruin. So how then can we ask for these measures in Egypt and still think we are guiding the nation to salvation?

It’s nothing personal. The problems of governance are not going to be resolved by the abdication of one military dictator and his replacement by another. The root of the problem is the mindset of the military itself and its approach to solving problems. It is simply incompatible with administering the everyday life of civilians. This is the reason mankind invented politics in the first place. Not in order to solve the extremely complicated issues plaguing any polity once and for all, but in order that the contradictions of civilian life be managed adroitly, with minimal losses and maximum gain.

This is something that can only be done by politicians, despite their many flaws and dubious characters. Politicians in turn can only do this by trial and error, and by trusting that results are only the consequences of correct political principles, encouraging: healthy competition, freedom of expression, opening up space for dialogue, spreading correct awareness, education, bolstering civil society and all its institutions and restructuring the security apparatus with a particular focus on redirecting its efforts at ending criminal, not political, behavior.

Instead, our rulers focus on destroying political life, imagining that the solution is giving military men unrestrained power, men whose vocabulary is limited to “command and conquer,” and “top secret.” Is it any surprise, then, when problems become even more convoluted and crises more intense, and total collapse seems, God forbid, to rush towards us at increasing speed?

This is not a popular opinion. It sounds like treason to many, and they insist it must be suppressed. But Abd al-Azim Hammad, the Editor-in-Chief of state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, in his book The Lost Revolution, confirms this view. He asserts that all of the confusion, disturbances, and, ultimately, violence that accompanied the revolution, was due above all to the disastrously bad management of the generals of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.

Hammad narrates an incident concerning Ismail Etman that serves as a particularly clear example of this problem. Etman, the head of the Armed Forces Morale Affairs Department, and member of SCAF, told him, “The solution to this whole problem … (meaning the demonstrations carried out by the youth) … is in your hands, you and the other journalists.” Hammad replied, “Please, tell me what you think this solution is exactly.” Etman said, “All you need to do is write some articles telling people to get a grip on their damn kids.” Notice that the individual proposing this laughable solution, so indicative of a total and absolute ignorance about the nature of political life in this country over the last twenty or so years, is the very same individual tasked with maintaining a close relationship with the media. This is the same individual whose job is to relay the demands of the people to the military before they boil over.

Given this, is it any surprise that Tantawi’s position was even more threatening to the stability of the country? Let us take a look at this by examining a story narrated by Hammad. The event in question occurred on July 22, 2011, during a banquet in honour of the graduating class at the military academy, and in the context of an extremely tense political crisis on the streets of Cairo and the provinces.

During the banquet, Tantawi spoke to Hammad, within earshot of Lieutenant General Sami Anan and Dr. Essam Sharaf. He said to him, “Remember that Al-Ahram and the regime are one. Don’t publish anything written by those who want to destroy Egypt.”

Hammad writes, “So I asked him, ‘Who are these people exactly who you want us to stop doing our jobs in order to ostracize?’ And he answered, ‘I am speaking of those people who don’t want the country to settle down, to resolve its economic crisis, and who are funded and guided by foreigners.’ I answered him back, saying, ‘Perhaps, sir, you would tell us their names, and give us the relevant documents, so that we may be the first to fight them.’ His reply to this was simply, ‘The time is not right.’ I told him, ‘Then neither Al-Ahram nor any other paper, nor even state television can ignore what is being said in the public squares. As long as the information you have is not made available to us, we cannot simply go back again to ostracizing a segment of the population simply because they disagree with the government or the SCAF. Otherwise, we will once more lose credibility with our readers’.”

By this point, Labib-al Sibai, may God have mercy on his soul, had joined in the conversation, and the field marshal said, “Take whatever amount of money you want, and don’t worry about your sales.” To this, Hammad responded, “My dear Mushir, Al-Ahram, thank God, has never taken a penny from the government, and nor will it ever do so.” Labib added, “What is important, my dear Mushir, is that Al-Ahram never again lose its credibility with the people.” Hammad tells us himself, “ I said, ‘Not being concerned with sales, or taking money from the military in lieu of sales, means quite simply that we lose our influence on the street. I think you know very well that you cannot afford this any more than us. And that was the end of that conversation.” He adds, “ I remember clearly how the field marshal knocked over a glass at that point, which spilled its contents all over the table.”

Let us not forget that Hammad was talking in this confident manner because of the revolutionary wave on the streets of Egypt, and that if this conversation had occurred with Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, that glass would have been dashed in Hammad’s face. Let us also remember that, until this very day, the state has not presented its accusations of foreign funding for treasonous ends in the form of any actual documents. It has simply been satisfied with endless yapping, rumour, supposition, slander and libel in the media, backed by no documentation or other evidence. In this way it hopes to sustain a mob that acts much the same as a marching band: drumming and keeping time for the military, as it leads the country down the path of catastrophe.

In any case, what is interesting is that Tantawi was not convinced by what Hammad said that night, and acted as such. As Hammad himself recounts, “The money arrived anyway. But it came to me personally, the following October. A soldier with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel came to the office unexpectedly, carrying a fat envelope holding LE25,000 and a card from the military, congratulating us on Armed Forces Day, signed by Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi. I asked what this money was for, and was told that it was a gift from the Morale Affairs Department since it was October 6. The soldier then gave me a receipt for a brand new television set. I realized suddenly that there was no point in discussing this with a mere soldier who was simply carrying out his orders.”

I suppose you are not surprised that no one was held to account for this, even though it has been published openly, and even though it involves the expenditure of public money in an entirely inappropriate manner and at a time when the military and all state officials are talking about austerity, tightening our belts, giving due consideration to the economic difficulties of the country, and the imperative for each segment of society to rise above its own interests. You are not stupid, either, and you know very well the amount of money and gifts given to Editors-in-Chief and television anchors over the course of Tantawi’s career. Certainly, you fear enough for your own safety to avoid asking whether this is happening right now as we speak, especially since Sisi has been just as avid about securing the cooperation of the media. It is simply inappropriate, as you well know, to ask about how the country is run.

You would be even less surprised about the silence if I told you about an even more dangerous story told by Hammad. It is a fact that nevertheless could probably have settled once and for all the question of who killed the demonstrators, though we all know very well, of course, that it was Mubarak and his men from the Ministry of Interior. Hammad tells us a story that he heard from Judge Omar Marwan, then head of the investigative committee, formed after the first days of the revolution to look into events. Marwan said to Hammad on Sham al-Nesim day in 2011, and in the house of his friend Dr. Muhammad Saad of Ain Shams Medical School, that there was more than enough evidence to try Mubarak concerning the killing of protesters.

He said that, “although the CD containing the recording of Mubarak giving the order to fire on protesters was damaged, there was still a file containing the records of live ammunition being distributed to the officers and soldiers of the Central Security Forces. This file was in perfect condition.” This information was never shared with anyone through the many media outlets in the country. The same media outlets that do nothing but endlessly accuse anyone walking on two legs, especially if they are foreigners, of the crime of killing protesters.

All this, despite the fact that the people telling the story were hired by Tantawi himself, and the Editor-in-Chief of Al-Ahram, the most prominent pro-state newspaper. The same senile state that accuses the revolution of trying to destroy it. You can guess of course how many fat envelopes, and how many television sets, how many niceties and favours came to pass so that this piece of information could be hidden away in one lone book, rather than becoming a truth which each and every citizen knows. You can also guess, of course, how much this has cost Egypt. 

To have a better understanding of Tantawi’s character, the military commander for many long years, whose impact apparently remains to date, Hammad relates in another part of his book an interesting incident that happened years before the revolution. This incident almost threw Hammad into military prison, due to Tantawi’s great fear of his superior, Mubarak.

On a Sunday morning in March 1996, when Hammad was the managing editor of the first edition of Al-Ahram, Tantawi was on a visit to Greece. During the morning meeting of the central desk, a report sent by Al-Ahram reporter in Athens, Abd al-Azim Darwish, about the results of the deliberations between the Egyptian defense minister and his Greek counterpart, was presented and laid out on the front page.

After one week, Ahmed Fouad, the head of the military section, approached the central desk, asking with ostensible ingenuousness — as described by Hammad —about the person who allowed the publishing of the report, and the one who signed the publishing order. “I did,” replied Hammad. Fouad surprised him by saying that he had been subpoenaed by the military prosecutor, and that he was accused of publishing a military report without the approval of the Military Security Agency. “But this isn’t a military secret, and the news reported is Tantawi’s statement on Greek television, which means it has already been published,” said Hammad. Fouad smiled sarcastically, pitying his colleague and saying, “You can say that in the interrogation.”

Hammad informed Samy Metwally, the Chief Editor of Al-Ahram back then, who in turn informed Ibrahim Nafie. The latter told Hammad not to go to the interrogation, and asked Metwally to visit the military prosecutor to settle the matter. On his visit to the military prosecutor, Metwally discovered that he was not there to settle the matter, but to be interrogated about the person who signed the publishing order. Metwally insisted that Nafie took all responsibility, which made the military prosecutor close the case, “because he wouldn’t dare subpoena Nafie for interrogation without Mubarak’s approval. This was not possible because Mubarak gave Nafie exceptional stature, and because of the political risks of a military interrogation of the Chief Editor of Al-Ahram.”

“The interrogator, a brigadier, interrupted the interrogation with Metwally several times to go to the next room and talk on the phone. Each time he came back requesting the name of the person who had signed the publishing order to have him arrested. Samy Metwally refused to name anyone except Nafie, even though Fouad had already reported my name. His testimony alone wasn’t enough fortunately, and they needed the Chief Editor’s confession as evidence,” Hammad recalls.

Eventually, the interrogator went back to Metwally and said, “If you want the case closed, Nafie has to speak in person with the field marshal to ask him to discontinue the inquiries, as he is the one who gave the order to start them.” And this is what actually happened. After three days, the head of the military section sent a report about the results of Tantawi’s visit to Greece, containing the exact same content except for the introduction, which read: “President Hosni Mubarak received Field Marshal Tantawi, yesterday, to brief his excellency on his recent visit to Greece.”

The explanation came one year later, by coincidence, when Monier Shash, the late major-general, met with Hammad. While talking about Field Marshal Mohamed Abdel-Halim Abu Ghazaleh — to whom Shash was a close friend and aide — Shash told Hammad about what happened after an interview on Egyptian TV, which hosted Abu Ghazaleh, Makram Mohamed Ahmed, Salah Muntasir, and Mahfuz al-Ansary. The last three were chief-editors at the time, and there was a two-hour debate that sparked a vast public reaction, comparing Abu Ghazaleh’s culture, humor and charisma to Mubarak’s personality.

Mubarak called the field marshal’s office and ordered him not to make any television appearances, and not to speak to anyone without his permission. This is why Abu Ghazaleh avoided all connections with the media, and even used to leave through the back door of any place in which journalists were present, to prevent conflict with Mubarak. The latter kept Abu Ghazaleh’s example in mind, and he even mastered the art of breaking his ministers of defense, so that this example did not recur.

Next week we will read further into this matter, to find out how Egypt has reached its current state with the blessing of the generals.

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