News of today’s ouster of democratically-elected President Mohamed Morsi by the Egyptian army is positively stunning–a military takeover is hardly good news for democracy–but I cannot help but feel a measure of optimism. Perhaps progressive change in Egypt toward democracy looks different than what we outsiders might think it should.
July 23rd is Egypt’s Revolution Day, and this year marks the 61st year of Egyptian independence from foreign rule. As the military takes over this week, I find it especially important to reflect on Egypt’s revolution in 1952, how it came about, and the meaning those events hold for Egyptians. And as I reflect on this history, I also think back fondly to my time working with the Egyptian army in Afghanistan–and all that I learned from them about Egyptian history, politics, and culture. It is, more than anything, my friendship with Egyptian troops that gives me hope.
On my first deployment to Afghanistan, I found myself working with soldiers from the Egyptian army’s humanitarian hospital at Bagram Airfield. Egyptian troops provided vital medical care for Afghan civilians, and they interfaced regularly with Americans, NATO, and Afghan forces to coordinate security and other support for their camp. My job involved helping with logistical support, and I paid regular visits to their compound to participate in events organized by the Egyptians to distribute clothing and shoes to Afghan women and children, or sometimes just to say hello or have a cup of coffee. I became fast friends with a captain who served as the hospital’s liaison, who (for the sake of his anonymity) I will call Aziz.
I remember in July of that year Aziz sending me an email to wish me a happy “Independent Day.” I told him the story of American independence, and how important the Declaration of Independence was to our national identity. Americans may not be able to name the dates that our Revolutionary war began or ended, but we can all name July 4, 1776, as the day we declared our independence from Britain. We often seem to forget how vital the role of the U.S. military–and military leaders–was in forming and stabilizing our own early democracy.
Aziz asked for my help in putting together a history presentation for a Revolution Day celebration he wanted to organize at Bagram to bring Egyptians, Americans, and Coalition troops together. He brought me a file of digital images of photos from the 1950s, of Anwar Sadat, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Mohammed Naguib–and he told me the story of the Free Officers Movement that formed within the Egyptian army following Egypt’s loss of the Arab-Israeli War in 1948. Egypt had been ruled by foreign kings and emperors for centuries, and at that time King Farouk, who was of foreign descent and influence, was blamed by an increasing number of Egyptians for the loss of 1948. Farouk was also broadly considered incompetent, and an embarrassment both because of his un-Islamic playboy lifestyle and his tolerance of ongoing British occupation of the Suez Canal Zone.
By 1952, an attack on Egyptian police by British troops–resulting in 50 police killed and more than 100 wounded–brought Egyptians out into the streets in protest, and the protests grew into angry mobs that rioted for weeks against a king and a government that seemed wholly disinterested in the will of the Egyptian people. This was the moment for this group of young army officers to plan the ouster of a corrupt, foreign government on behalf of the Egyptian people. Gamal Abdel Nasser was the passionate young colonel who masterminded the Free Officers Movement, Anwar Sadat was the group’s spokesman, and Mohammed Naguib, a respected commander from the Arab-Israeli War, was named the figurehead.
At 7:30 on the morning of July 23, 1952, the voice of Anwar Sadat came over the radio to announce that, for the first time in two thousand years, Egypt would be ruled by Egyptians. The Egyptian army and police were positioned throughout Cairo and Alexandria, and King Farouk’s palaces were surrounded. Having no other option, Farouk abdicated, and departed the country with full military honors, never to return. Naguib served as Egypt’s first president, Nasser the second–and Nasser oversaw the establishment of a new Constitution for Egypt. He also brought an end to foreign occupation of the Suez Canal Zone.
Maybe Americans who were alive in the 1950s remember this, but I found that this history isn’t a familiar one for most Americans. Certainly not the majority of young U.S. soldiers who joined us at Aziz’s Revolution Day barbecue, where our history slideshow ran on a projector in a giant tent while Egyptian pop music blared and soldiers danced, grilled hamburgers, and enjoyed a respite from their daily routines.
Over the time I knew Aziz, he told me with pride that he chose to attend Egypt’s military academy as a young man, where he endured rigorous training that included long foot marches in the Sinai desert. His father had been a successful businessman, yet he chose a life of military service, and he was immensely proud of his country’s rich, enduring history. We talked politics, we exchanged stories about our military training and family lives, and he shared with me so much of his sincerely and deeply held Islamic faith. He was troubled that the Islamic Brotherhood had been outlawed at that time by President Mubarak, yet he insisted that Egyptian society must respect all faiths, to include his many Coptic Christian friends. Respect for other faiths is a tenet of Islam, he insisted.
Military service is compulsory for men in Egypt, as is the case in many countries across the world. The Egyptian army unit I worked with was professional, and made up of a cast of characters not unlike a U.S. unit–spanning the spectrum of a doctor who carefully researched and documented the pathogens he was seeing in his patients, to young nurses who were dedicated, cheerful, and wanted to learn English, to the joking NCOs who always welcomed me warmly with a smile. The Egyptian camp was dilapidated because it ran on a shoestring budget, but it always seemed to work like clockwork, managing a patient load of about 200 per day with a small staff working at least six days a week. I grew to respect these Egyptian soldiers tremendously.
I cheered on the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square along with much of the world, and I was unsurprised when the Egyptian army rolled in and ended up taking on a mediator role for the masses rather than acting as a tool of repression and violence against a popular uprising. A military acting either as tool of a dictator or as a force independent of a government no doubt can produce horrifying results. But there is also something genuinely inspiring about a military that chooses to side with a nation’s populace rather than its government.
I am seeing calls for an end to funding for Egypt–a vital military partner for the U.S., and a nation that, despite profound civil unrest and changes in government, yet upholds its treaty with Israel–as well as condemnations of today’s ouster of President Morsi as dooming Egypt to endless political unrest. I simply cannot agree with these ideas. I can’t predict the future, but I see the yearning of crowds in Tahrir Square for democratic leadership that truly represents the best ideals of Egyptian society, and the move of the Egyptian army to intervene on the people’s behalf, as potentially positive forces.
As the U.S. celebrates our own proud independence and democratic ideals, my hope is that Egypt will be able to look back on this week as a pivotal shift toward true representative government for all Egyptians. Although my Egyptian brother Aziz and I frequently disagreed, we always agreed on one thing–we want to see peace and stability in the world, and in our own countries. I am wishing Aziz and my friends in Egypt all the best. May peace and stability soon be the result.