In Egypt, national history is army history. The country’s leaders have always been military heroes. Before 1952, the history of Egypt was the history of foreign conquerors. Since then, it’s been the history of military men who take on (sort of) civilian roles. This is the case for most postcolonial nations who achieved independence in the twentieth century, but here, it’s a particularly fraught issue right now, as Egypt tries to transition to fully civil rule.
The National Military Museum takes up the former palace of Muhammad Ali, widely seen as the founder of modern Egypt, whose dynasty lasted from 1805 until 1952. The museum was born from a cooperation of kitsch between Egypt and North Korea, who supplied the artists for the epic battle scenes in the style of socialist realism.
A statue of a soldier with his mouth agape guards the entrance. One hand forms a peace sign, and the other holds a rifle. The sign reads, “The Best Soldier on Earth.” Nearby, he is challenged by another statue, in the Islamic garb of a thousand years ago. His sign reads, “The Best Soldier in the World.”
We met a group of Egyptian students practicing their English outside, and they came in with us, so as I admired the large paintings of Nasser and old photographs of Yemen and Sinai, I listened to them debate the presidential candidates. All but one of the five students support Abdul Moneim Abu El Fotouh, a Muslim Brotherhood breakaway who has managed to get a lot of support from young liberals and revolutionaries.
The one hold-out student likes Hazem Saleh Abu Ismail, of the far right. “He will ruin the country!” one said incredulously. The hold-out just smiled back, and there seemed to be no hard feelings. “But really,” another one said, “the best ruler Egypt ever had wasn’t any of these guys, and wasn’t Nasser, Sadat, or Mubarak. It was Muhammad Ali.” He stretched out a hand and pointed to the grand room surrounding us, as if to say, He built this! How could he not be the greatest?
As we were descending the stairs to leave, I eavesdropped on a conversation between a young Egyptian man and American girl. “Did you know that the 1973 war was bullshit?” he asked her.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean Egypt won, but only because we surprised the Israelis. We weren’t that heroic.”
The girl looked confused. “Wait, no, I thought Israeli won that war,” she told him. “Are you kidding?” he snapped, his cynicism totally gone. “We definitely won the 1973 war.” They argued for a bit and agreed to look it up on Wikipedia later. Later, when I typed in “1973 war” on Google, one of the first recommended search terms was “1973 war who won?”
The military museum concludes with a picture of Sadat sitting with the Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and American President Jimmy Carter. I wondered if this painting was also made by the North Korean delegation, and there were no clues to suggest otherwise.
And then, Mubarak. Celebratory paintings, photos, and busts of him are everywhere towards the end of the exhibits. The museum’s inept campiness is perhaps not the most important remnant of the Mubarak regime, which still fills out many of the ministries, and the rich who made their money due to the corruption he fostered are still rich. But here, you can still see one of the shiniest, remnants of the former age, like a museum not only to a former period, but to a former idea. In the museum, Mubarak is still the President of Egypt. When you leave, a picture of Mubarak waving is accompanied by a sign reading, “The everlasting truth in Egypt and the sovereignty over the land is the solemn oath before which the head of state and the average citizen are e ua llu committed.”
After we left the museum, one of the students asked me what kinds of movies I like. The answer didn’t matter, because it set up an opportunity for him to ask, “Have you seen Avatar?” I nodded. “You know the real story behind the movie?” I shook my head. “Well,” he told me, “Avatar did not win the Oscar for best picture because really it’s a metaphor for the Palestinians. Except in the movie, the Palestinians win, so Hollywood did not want to give it an award.”