Monday, April 2, 2012

The Colonel Begs America for Help

It’s pouring rain outside in Port Said. The colonel wears civilian clothes, a slightly shiny black leather jacket and loose jeans, like a young impatient businessman as he clutches his keys, lighter, and sunglasses in one hand and scratches his cheek with the other. His office is big, but not ostentatious, with a wide desk, two couches, two coffee tables, and several chairs for entertaining guests. There’s a Pharaonic mural made of tile on the wall. Next to the desk is a live video feed from the main hall of the museum he oversees, which feels a little creepy until you stop paying attention to it. A dog sleeps on the floor. His name is Rommel, for Erwin Rommel, the German Field Marshal of World War II who was popularly known as the ‘Desert Fox.’ This dog comes from a German wolf breed, but is very lazy, perhaps because of the rain.

Colonel Ahmed Amr sends a young soldier to bring lunch, which comes on a big tray: bread, halvah, cheese, French fries, and hard-boiled eggs. He insists that I eat (“Together we share bread and salt, an old Egyptian saying”), which makes it hard to write down notes. This feels slightly intentional, though he knows I will write about him. I scribble when he turns away.

Amr was born in 1965. He does not remember the 1967 war, and his memories of Egypt’s last major war, 1973, are those of an eight year-old. He grew up in Port Said, and remembers how the first Israeli bombs dropped during a vacation from school. He was sitting down to eat a ful sandwich. He points to his teeth as he mimicks chomping down, and then makes the sound of an explosion. “Booooom.” “I heard the bombs just as my teeth hit the sandwich, as if I was creating the sound.”

The son of teachers, Amr grew up to serve in the Gulf War. He then lived in Cairo for twenty years, but wanted to raise his kids in his native Port Said. The military honored his request and sent him to direct the museum, “to return to my roots.”

From here, we enter a swirling, unfocused two and a half hours of history, politics, and personal history. If I had any expectations or assumptions about the political commitments and historical judgments of an Egyptian military man, especially in a year where a lot of things are said about military men, the colonel confounds nearly all of them.  Of course, he talks the talk. “The people of Egypt, we love our army,” he says. “The army here have never attacked the people in Egypt. Mubarak and all the kings of Egypt have known this. We’re not like Libya or Syria, because we’ve had civilization for so long, for 7000 years.”

But the colonel also thinks that military rule has hurt the country in the long term. “The sixty-two years of military rule were not good for Egypt,” he explains. “After WWII, we were like Japan or Europe. Anything could have happened. But then we had four wars. We used all of our money on the military and the people became poor. America has improved while we have declined.” Nasser, he thinks, was a “good man,” but who was blinded by his singular dream of “Arab strength.” Sadat, on the other hand, “changed the picture of Egypt all over the world,” and helped the country by opening it up economically to the West.

He is particularly keen to talk about the Islamist victories in parliament, about which he is not pleased. “The Salafis take Wahhabi ideas,” he says, “but Abdel Wahab [the founder of the religious school that influences Saudi law] was from Saudi Arabia. It doesn’t apply here. These people have become so popular that they can affect foreign relations, and this is bad and not the true way for Egypt. Egypt was always moderate in the past. All these groups are new. Most of Egyptians are poor and ignorant. The Salafis tell them ‘Vote for us and go to heaven, or vote for liberals and go to Hell. They don’t vote for Islamists because they agree with them, but because they are ignorant and afraid.”

“I am afraid for my son,” he concludes, looking towards the constitution the Islamist-led assembly is about to write. “The wrong kind of constitution will make a very bad world for him.”

Amr grounds his distaste for the Islamists, for the Brotherhood and the Salafis, in his own understanding of Islamic history. “Do you know the first word Gabriel said to Mohamed?” he aske me. “Iqra,” I respond, which means ‘read,’ and preceded the angel Gabriel’s dictation of the Qur’an to Mohamed. “Exactly,” the colonel says, smiling. “God’s first command was to learn, to read, to understand, not to look backwards, but to look forward. God doesn’t say ‘limit’ He gave all creatures freedom.”

Although a distaste for Islamists is often a signal for an embrace of the U.S., Amr does not exonerate us. He thinks the U.S. is only powerful because of luck, because of the Soviet Union’s decline, and that they make a lot of mistakes. ““America made Yemen the center of Al Qaeda,” he tells me, shifting into the second person to address me as America: “Your problems are your own fault.”

But, he explains, “if the USA would only invest in factories here, they would make Egypt their best friend in the Middle East. When we achieve social justice, the Islamists will lose their support.” He puts me in charge of handing over his warning and plea to the U.S, which I quote in full:

“The Islamist rise is America’s fault, because they supported Mubarak. Why don’t Americans understand this? You can ask this question in the article you write about me. America made Al Qaeda, and now Al Qaeda is an enemy of the U.S.

“But if the US gets us food, employment, and opportunities, there will be no terrorism. The number one cause of terrorism is povery, and the number two cause is ignorance. Mubarak made Egypt an open buffet for anyone to push their ideologies.

“We need American help to create a strong civil state, without fear, without Islamists, without military rule. If we have Islamist rule, there will be ten Al Qaeda’s here. We’ve got to kill this possibility now. You’ve lived in Egypt. You should give a complete picture to the US, about how they should support us liberals against the Islamists.”

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