On Saturday evening, I was sitting in a car stalled five abreast with delivery trucks and battered minibuses on the highway beside Cairo’s 6th October War Panorama. The traffic was unusual for a public holiday: Egypt’s annual celebration of the 1973 war with Israel. Like every vehicle around us, our radio was tuned to the evening’s unmissable broadcast: Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi’s celebratory speech from the stadium whose floodlights glowed behind the panorama building.
The “glorious October victory” is a touchstone of Egyptian national pride, a counterweight to years of oppression and humiliation—in particular the shock of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s defeat by Israel in 1967. 6th October is usually an occasion for unbridled military nostalgia, with parades and reminiscing about heroes and martyrs. But Morsi, his hoarse voice booming out-of-sync from 100 different speakers in the traffic jam, was borrowing its lustre to burnish his own record since taking office in June.
It was a tough brief. First, Morsi had to defend the patchy results of his “100-day plan” to tackle the country’s intractable problems with security, traffic, sanitation, fuel and subsidised food. A few drivers laughed as he said that “around 60 per cent” of traffic issues had been solved—apart from the gridlock that continues to plague daily life in Cairo, the jam that we were sitting in was caused by the hundreds of coaches and minibuses that had transported 60,000 Morsi supporters to the stadium. In addition, the president had to deflect criticism from the Salafi right. He assured voters that a potential IMF loan of almost $5bn would be negotiated strictly in accordance with sharia law. “We would rather starve than eat from riba [usury]!” he proclaimed.
Like Morsi’s account of his achievements, the official narrative of 6th October—as enshrined in the kitsch murals and mosaics of the panorama—is selective. On Yom Kippur 1973, Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israeli troops guarding the Suez canal. The fortified Bar Lev line was breached, and Egyptian forces made a triumphant re-entry into the Sinai peninsula, which Israel had occupied in 1967. They were subsequently beaten back to within less than 70 miles of Cairo before a UN-brokered ceasefire put an end to the Israeli advance, but the Camp David accords that followed in 1978 returned the peninsula to Egyptian hands.
Despite the war’s ambiguous outcome, 6th October immediately became the state’s favourite symbol of renewed national confidence. It gave its name to innumerable public works, including one of Cairo’s satellite desert settlements and a monstrous flyover that spans the centre of the capital. It did much to legitimise the military’s continued dominance of public life, and after Sadat’s assassination in 1981 it also cemented public trust in Hosni Mubarak, the wartime air force commander. (His role was remembered on Saturday by a handful of supporters who demonstrated for the “commander of the air strike” outside Tora prison, where the former president is serving a life sentence.)
In addition to its official role, 6th October is surprisingly meaningful to a new generation of Egyptians. As I sat in the Morsi-generated traffic, my Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of people born 15 or 20 years after the conflict exchanging holiday greetings, posting inspiring stories of war exploits and praising the “glorious youth of 1973.” Their comparisons between the heroic figures of history and Egypt’s current leaders were less than flattering: how many of the stadium crowd currently applauding Morsi were fully paid-up members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the president’s own organisation, they asked? “50 per cent,” guessed one friend. “75 per cent,” said another. “Plus 20 per cent army and 5 per cent people who have no idea why they’re there.” “125 per cent,” was the final consensus.
Eventually, Morsi’s speech concluded and the traffic thinned. I continued on to a cinema in Cairo’s largest mall to see Fetih 1453 (The Conquest 1453). This Turkish-made epic recounts the capture of Constantinople—and the resulting establishment of the Ottoman caliphate—by Sultan Mehmet II. A self-conscious riposte to the Hollywood caricature of Muslims as terrorists or oil sheikhs, it smashed box-office records in Turkey and is now attracting crowds following its recent release in the Arab world.
The film opens not in the Byzantine capital but in seventh-century Medina, with the Prophet (who is not pictured—the camera adopts his point of view) predicting that Constantinople will eventually fall to a conqueror who shares Muhammad’s own name. It’s hardly unbiased—the (historically ascetic) emperor Constantine XI and his court are depicted as sybarites surrounded by pneumatic blonde serving girls, while the Ottomans have a near-monopoly on faith, duty and sacrifice. Twice, tunnelling crews attempting to undermine Constantinople’s walls blow themselves up with shouts of “Allahu Akbar.” But it’s a rousing evocation of a military triumph in which a Muslim-led army could claim the most advanced technology, the most sophisticated strategy and the most humane leaders—the film closes with Mehmet II in Hagia Sophia, holding aloft a blue-eyed child and reassuring survivors they will remain free to follow their own faith.
Like the 6th October holiday itself, the screening inspired mixed emotions in the audience of young people crunching imported sweets. They felt nostalgia, sadness over the middle east’s current predicaments, disillusionment with Egyptian political manoeuvring and a deep longing for lost significance and respect on the world stage. Along with its comforting portrayal of a strong, wise Muslim leader of the kind glaringly lacking in 2012, Fetih 1453 offered another frustrating spectacle: that of an old regional rival on the rise. “Egypt used to be the place where this kind of film was made,” said one viewer despondently as we left the cinema. “Now they’re all Turkish.”