In fractured nations, anniversaries and national days become dreaded occasions that ignite deep concerns, rather than joyful celebrations. The 40th anniversary of the 1973-Yum Kippur War is just one example. This year’s celebration is associated with the most divisive and challenging crisis in Egypt’s contemporary history; a war that was originally between two nations, Egypt and Israel, has transformed into a domestic fight between two insecure sects (pro and anti-coup).
The two sides are indulging in a bitter fight, where each is using every opportunity to garner some political gain. Both consider the war anniversary as a great opportunity. The military wants to cement its growing support among a wide section of the Egyptian public by reminding the populous of their sacrifices, and how it is the only reliable existing establishment that still functions properly in Egypt (and in the wider region). In comparison, the Muslim Brotherhood and their anti-coup alliance have staged more protests headed to Tahrir Square to reassert their existence despite the crackdown. The results were predictable: scores of death and injuries.
Growing up with yearly 1973 war anniversaries, I have had the chance to taste the annual update of government mottos, from “Sadat the hero,” to “Mubarak the hero,” and so on. The Islamists have also used the anniversary to vindicate their ideology. To them, the war was won by divine and popular backing. Nasser was seen as a non-Islamist that did not raise the word of God while fighting the “Jews,” and as such was punished by the crushing defeat in 1967. I first heard these interpretations as a student from the Islamist head of the student union at my university. The same logic is still used by the pro-Muslim Brotherhood, particularly Sheik Qaradawi, who delivered a fiery sermon this past Friday in Qatar, further accusing the current leadership of “betraying” Egypt and calling on the Egyptian public to “resist” the military.
Vulnerabilities and insecurities
A leaked video was “mysteriously” leaked showing a senior Egyptian Army officer debating with General Sisi about how to influence the news media. This sparked ample coverage in social media and mainstream outlets, including the New York Times. “A Parliament is still coming,” General Sisi says in the clip. “This Parliament may request hearings. What are we going to do about that, I wonder?” He adds, “We have to be prepared to face these changes without being too negatively affected by them, but they will affect us.”
Prior to 2011, the Egyptian army has never faced ferocious civilian rebellion. Undoubtedly, this was more unsettling than their defeat in the six-day war. The loss of respect from the public has probably made the army leadership wary of decent inside their ranks. Younger officers may not like to see or obey a senior leadership perceived as weak. This year the war celebration is probably part of a broader strategy to maintain unity and resist divisions among the army ranks.
Racing over hurdles
For the wider public, Sisi has decided to mix orthodox approaches such as reigniting nationalism and ruthless crackdown, with other non-orthodox moves, such as his public speeches, which are in sharp contrast to his predecessors. He has even apologized to the people of Sinai for the disruption of their lives by the ongoing military operations in the lawless peninsula. Thus far, General Sisi has succeeded in leaping over many hurdles in his quest to restore the army’s supremacy in Egypt’s political life; however, he still faces international pressure, on-going militancy, and possible student and worker revolts. These will all challenge his image as a wise leader who can save Egypt from plunging into anarchy and civil war. The failure of Sisi to restrain the use of force against the pro-Morsi protests can have far-reaching implications on Egyptian society. Those who are pro-Morsi will not vanish, their anger will not ease, and their convoluted emotions will not dissipate.
In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood was an underground movement that had never been challenged by the public until it was severely scrutinized during and after Morsi’s tenure. These challenges bred vulnerabilities and insecurities, and have been met by an old-school leadership inside the group that fails to appreciate the novelty of the new era post-July 3. They have opted to deal with things in a very old-fashioned way, simply by defiance.
Initially, the defiance was a plausible strategy, at least to enhance the group’s negotiating position, but later after the brutal ending of the sit-ins, protesting has just become a goal in itself, only utilized to prove that the group is still viable and functioning.
The problem with defiance is three fold: First, it missed the boat, as the longer the interim government survives, the harder it will be to reverse the coup. Increasingly, any such moves will be viewed by many sections of the public as a hindrance to stability. Second, the longer the protest, the less its effectiveness as a tool. Instead, they need to pause, reflect and regroup. Third, the anti-coup alliance wants to change the current status quo, but they have no plan for the day after. The fallacy of this attitude of “act first, and then deal with the consequences later” is off-putting to many Egyptians.
Egypt was divided before July 3___ the tragedy of the Muslim brotherhood is their own inability to understand that reversing the coup will not heal the divisions in Egypt or bring back democracy. Even their naïve presumption, that elections can be easily conducted without police and army involvement (both mostly are pro-coup), is simply a fallacy.
In both political and military arenas, there is one common theme that is shared about the original war in 1973, and the current bitter fight between the belligerent enemies on this 40th anniversary; all the battles were exercises in narrowing the gap between aspirations and abilities. In 1973, the use of high-pressure water cannons was an innovative technique thought up by a junior Coptic officer to clear the tricky defensive sand walls along the Suez Canal set up by Israel. Today, the Muslim Brotherhood needs to bridge the gap between its shrinking abilities and its aspiration to defeat the military; the trick is to do it without plunging Egypt into anarchy and civil war.
The 1973 war was a legacy of competing narratives. Its bloody 40th anniversary indicates that this legacy is still alive and being used for domestic gains. Both sides manufacture their own version of the truth for political points, but if the war should teach us anything, it is that that political settlement is the only viable outcome. Both-sides are after victory, however, the true victory is one that saves Egypt; otherwise it will only be a pyrrhic victory that can ruin the country for years to come.