Celebrating history leaves Egypt's youth nostalgicby Rachel Aspden / October 10, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…