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New history lessons in Egypt

By Tom Rollins The history of the Egyptian revolution is still being written. At one time that might have been an optimistic slogan scrawled somewhere on Mohamed Mahmoud or a cutesy ending to a book destined for the bestseller shelves. The Generals and The Pharoahs: Egypt in Counter-revolution by Professor A. Whoever. It could still do quite …

Tom Rollins
Tom Rollins

By Tom Rollins

The history of the Egyptian revolution is still being written.

At one time that might have been an optimistic slogan scrawled somewhere on Mohamed Mahmoud or a cutesy ending to a book destined for the bestseller shelves. The Generals and The Pharoahs: Egypt in Counter-revolution by Professor A. Whoever. It could still do quite well.

But instead, history is now being scribbled in the margins. Dead bodies in morgues and unknown millions in the streets tally up some meaningless war of numbers while everyone argues over just exactly what has happened; daily additions to something still in the process of happening. So little of it makes sense. While events continue to spiral in and out of control, nobody really knows what is going to happen. As a result, although there is one lesson from Egypt’s history we should be taking notes from, commentators have been turning to increasingly inventive re-tellings of the past for illumination.

Before the coup, some liberals were defending Tamarod, 30 June and eventually General Abdul Fatah Al-Sisi’s ultimatum because the Muslim Brotherhood had ruled “like Nazis.” They were trying to trying to turn Egypt into one big Brotherhood, so the claim went: outlaw its critics, establish an Islamist theocracy and kill those with the tenacity to demonstrate against its forays into constitutional, judicial and governmental reform. Ikhwanisation became tantamount to the Reichstag Fire.

Hitler’s was the ultimate fascism and so calling someone a Nazi is meant to be the ultimate insult in a democratic context. You use it when “fascist” simply won’t do. The fact the Brotherhood wasn’t all that interested in democracy, until it realised it was a tool for gaining power, admittedly gives some credence to the comparison. Hitler too realised dictatorship was best reached through the ballot box when he wrote Mein Kampf in a castle prison after the 1923 Munich Putsch. Whereas the one thing you can’t knock Hitler for was his conviction, once Morsi and the Brotherhood came into power, they displayed the same opportunism as they did at election-time, more Egypt’s answer to the Blairites than the brownshirts.

Another problem has always been that Morsi and the Ikhwan were never efficient enough to fit the comparison. It’s a tired adage you still hear in classrooms in Britain, with its endearing and self-satisfied obsession with Nazi history: “Say what you want about the Nazis, they made the trains run on time,” etc. But confronted by 30 June, Morsi’s final spasmodic acts as president, the governor appointments, rule-or-die rhetoric and long, late-night speeches, undermined whatever positives he’d accrued over that first year in power. He looked like an emperor wearing clothes too big for him, his jacket sleeves slipping over his pathetic little hands while he gesticulated something about legitimacy. It’s a far cry from Al-Sisi’s banana republic chic, the sunglasses and medals that evoke the arrogance and repression of the Middle East’s modern-day Pinochet.

Now, some liberals begin to express shock at what the army is capable of, as if thousands cheering on an arrogant, disingenuous and parasitic military establishment wasn’t sign of things to come, the Nazi comparison has been turned on its head.

When the anti-Brotherhood crackdown began, lawyer Stanley Cohen told me this was a repeat of the Nazis’ Kristallnacht against the Jews. An article in Egypt Monocle this weekend, written by Rania Al Malky, made echoes:

“As Hitler wrote in Mein Kampf, ‘Propaganda tries to force a doctrine on the whole people…Propaganda works on the general public from the standpoint of an idea and makes them ripe for the victory of this idea’: a strategy that ultimately led to the gas chambers and concentration camps of Nazi Germany.”

When historian Norman Finkelstein shared this on Facebook, he thought if fitting to add his own subtitle, Tamarod Hitlerjugend [Hitler youth] declare victory: ‘Egypt has been cleansed!’”

In a way, the ultimate success, if you can call it that, of Nazi Germany’s propaganda machine was the Holocaust. But while this might be true, the process of indoctrinating a whole population is not singularly Hitlerian. Capitalism, nationalism and totalitarian communism all do the same. These systems all eat away at nuance, justifying injustice at somebody else’s expense.

Speaking to Morsi supporters at Rabaa Al-Adaweya this week, nuance was not always apparent. Brotherhood officials refused to accept in plain terms that their supporters might be using violence on the streets. (If they did, it was “always the police and feloul that created it,” Brotherhood spokesman Ahmed Aref told me after some nudging, as if the Manial, Maspero and Garden City marches were some PR cock-up being quietly airbrushed from the brochure.) An article written by a Western journalist in Palestine right after 3 July absurdly claimed Morsi was overthrown because “he was principled and a Muslim.” And sitting back in the media centre at Rabaa, an Islamist Shura Council candidate painted for me a glowing image of Morsi as a peerless defender of women’s rights, the Palestinian resistance and working-class Egyptians. This was a simple question of Islamist and secular, black and white, right and wrong.

Tahrir Square and its military patriarchs secured that dichotomy on Friday when they enthusiastically responded to Al-Sisi’s call for a mandate to allow him to confront “violence and potential terrorism.” For a de facto leader clearly not lacking in shrewd political judgement, Al- Sisi knew precisely what he was saying. And the people have happily taken him up. Interviews broadcasted in loops around the world this weekend showed exactly what “pro-military protesters” thought of Morsi and the Brotherhood. “We came today to support our country and support our freedom against the terrorist people of the Muslim Brotherhood,” one man in Tahrir told an Al-Jazeera crew on Friday night.

This is Egypt’s latest manipulation of history, although I’m not sure it will be the last. It’s strange that protesters in Tahrir Square are so keen on employing the post-9/11 counter-terror semantics penned by the U.S. officials they love to condemn. It looks like Egypt’s security state has learnt a thing or two from the CIA operatives with whom it has collaborated closely over the years. While posters in Tahrir tell ambassador Anne Patterson to do one, the U.S.-funded Egyptian army defends its apologists as “Egyptians,” its critics as “terrorists.” For now, it’s working.

We have gone from tens of thousands of people cheering Apache helicopters in Tahrir Square, to a depressing mundanity in post-coup Cairo, to tens of thousands of people cheering an army that commits massacres on the streets. Will this become routine too?

In a sense, it already has. Since 30 June there have been two major nights of violence in Cairo (the Republican Guard massacre and Nasr Road,) and both have been followed by the same debates, defences and denials. Has anything changed? Organisers at the Rabaa Al-Adaweya sit-in have vowed to stay, while Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim has ominously promised to bust them “soon.” Egypt is still following its own macabre post-coup agenda, set by the army and the Brotherhood alone, which makes more violence inevitable.

Egypt’s new regime is displaying sure signs of fascism; political arrests, massacres and hate speech are all classics pulled from the military coup handbook. The Brotherhood was guilty of some of these when in power. Regardless of what people say about Morsi, now seated with a beatified halo around his head in Tora prison, he was never a shining example of a democrat.

But Egypt has seen all this before. In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser crushed the Brotherhood. Political arrests, repression and turning a whole nation against the Islamists drove them underground so hard, they only remerged rubbing their eyes after Mubarak’s fall in 2011. Then too, a popular and populist army general was flanked by men in uniform and “progressives” (Hazem al-Beblawi’s cabinet boasts two trade unionists along with the secular feloul and technocrats.)

“Not unlike his Nazi counterpart and military dictators closer to home like Nasser,” Al-Malky wrote in her Egypt Monocle article. “Al-Sisi’s propaganda campaigns are creating an atmosphere tolerant of violence against Islamists, encouraging passivity and acceptance of the impending measures against them.”

Is it because it’s more difficult to question Nasser’s legacy, due to the fact the army helped cripple civil society, create a cultish emphasis on personality and wrote the how-to guide on destroying political enemies that we’re not seeing more discussion of this today? Over 60 years after the Free Officers Movement and the 1952 revolution, it’s important to remember that Nasser allowed this to happen.

The victors of history are meant to be the ones who end up writing it. If that’s the case in Egypt now, we should be brushing up on our Nasser, not Nazi Germany. It’s those facts that will come most in handy if Egyptians turn to take on the army once again.


Tom Rollins is a Cairo-based journalist, published by The Independent, New Statesman and Middle East Monitor. Follow him at @TomWRollins.

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