Inside Egypt's Military Mind

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Retired Army General Hosam Sowilam explains the anti-revolutionary attitudes of the Army

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An Egyptian army soldier sits beside an Egyptian flag near Cairo / Reuters


CAIRO, Egypt -- Retired Egyptian Army General Hosam Sowilam knows how to control a conversation. With a jocular smile and a booming voice, he'll hold and repeat a phrase -- "Chaos! Chaos! Chaos!" -- until he's drowned out the question he doesn't care to answer, dispelling even the shadow of doubt as he regains the floor.

"What happened on January 25?" Sowilam bellowed by way of introducing his history of the uprising in Tahrir Square. "Many of our youths went to Serbia and the United States of America, where they received training in how to overthrow the regime. They received training from Freedom House, and funding from the Jewish millionaire Soros."

He goes on to weave a detailed story of a foreign plot against Egypt, in which unscrupulous agents from America, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, backed by a web of corporate interests, took advantage of Egyptians legitimately dissatisfied about Hosni Mubarak's plan to transfer power to his son.

The Democracy Report"Look!" he says, pointing in a bond dossier at a page of logos from companies like Edelman and CBS. "All these corporations were behind the Arab spring. This is very dangerous." There are headlines about Soros from websites like truthistreason.net and AnarchitexT.org ("I don't know any thing about them," Sowilam says. "I found them on the internet.") Other data comes from better-known sources like The Washington Post and Wikileaks. He has carefully translated key points into Arabic to share with Egyptian reporters.

Although Sowilam holds no official role in the army that governs Egypt today, he considers that army his life, and relishes any chance to speak for its values and mindset, if not its official policies. He remains close to senior officers, and had a second career after the military at a defense think tank and now as an unofficial spokesman for the military. (I first met him a year ago while reporting a story about the military's view on then-President Mubarak's succession plans; Sowilam adamantly criticized the notion of hereditary power, but also warned that the military never would permit Islamists to rule Egypt.)

Bald and squat, with a body shaped like a calzone, Sowilam has the typical build of an artilleryman. An early career surrounded by the thud of big guns marred his hearing, which is why he often shouts in casual conversation. Born in 1937, Sowilam came of age and attended the military academy in the 1950s, in the halcyon era of Gamal Abdel Nasser's Free Officers revolt. He took his commission when the army was at the zenith of its power, boldly refashioning Egypt's political and economic order. He fought in the humiliating defeat of 1967, which he directly attributed to the Free Officers' "disastrous experiment" with running the country. He later served abroad, including a stint as military attaché in India.

He is methodical, and in his own way diplomatic, always grinning and pausing to inquire of his interlocutor, like a solicitous coach explaining a complex play, "You understand? Okay?"

A quick tour through Sowilam's view of Egypt today should alarm any fan of the Egyptian revolution - and goes a long way toward explaining some of the more malignant anti-revolutionary attitudes here.

His view of the revolution mirrors that of his peers on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, whose members are supposed to chart Egypt's course to civilian rule. In Sowilam's telling - and it's one that he has studiously disseminated to every media outlet he can reach - a renegade Egyptian cop directed the January 25 uprising in Egypt from a control room in Washington, at the behest of the CIA. Groups like Hamas and Hezbollah took advantage of Egypt's revolutionary disarray and Sowilam is convinced they were in on the plot from the beginning. (No explanation for why the CIA would collaborate with Hamas and Hezbollah.) Now, he says, Egypt suffers from a security vacuum and an economic crisis.

"America wants constructive chaos, in order to dismantle Egypt into small states," Sowilam said. "Everyone now knows there are foreign hands all over the revolution, especially American hands."

Ultimately, he says, America wants to replicate Iraq's dissolution in Egypt, dividing the country along sectarian lines: one state for Muslims, one for Christians, and a Nubian state in Upper Egypt. "They would give Sinai as a gift to Israel," he said.

Lest American readers dismiss Sowilam as a conspiracy theorist or a crank, remember that he represents a driving force in Egyptian public opinion - the army - and his analysis of the revolution and its foreign sponsors is echoed throughout society. It's impossible to know if it's a majority view, but it's certainly popular and loudly held.

He hastens to add that some of the revolutionary masses in Egypt are sincere, only that their movement has been hijacked. Sowilam blames Mubarak for leaving his succession plans unclear, convincing everyone he was paving the way for his son to take over; and, he adds, the "forgery" of the 2010 parliamentary elections was "vulgar."

The United States has already spent about $40 million this year to "promote democracy" in Egypt, giving most of that money to American NGOs. This funding has enraged Egypt's rulers; in a visit to Washington, Major General Said Elassar of the Supreme Council called the money "foreign interference" and "a matter of sovereignty."

What about Egypt's largest recipient of American money, by an order of magnitude? The military harvests $1.3 billion a year in direct aid from the United States, collecting a total of $40 billion since the Camp David Accords were signed.

Sowilam brushes off the idea that American money taints the armed forces: "That is between two states. It is not secret training to overthrow the regime."

Xenophobia has risen over the summer as the ruling generals, backed by alarmist television broadcasts and state media reports, have painted activists as traitors in the pay of foreign services - especially those who criticize the military. One blogger, Michael Nabil, was sentenced this spring to three years in prison for defaming the armed forces. This month, activist Asmaa Mahfouz was arrested and prosecuted for anti-SCAF tweets and comments on television; ultimately charges against her and another activist and blogger, Loai Nagati, were dropped because of a public uproar.

The junta has accused April 6, one of the activist groups with the most street cred, of sedition, but offered no evidence. The group has sued the military for slander.

So, is the Egyptian military cynically recycling one of Mubarak's favorite propaganda canards, smearing the character of dissidents and accusing them of working for foreigners?

Or do Egypt's military rulers really believe that they're facing an elaborate foreign intelligence plot, and not a genuine public uprising?

Several activists here said in interviews they're convinced the military really does believe its own line: officers simply have no other way of comprehending the sustained barrage of criticism directed first against Mubarak and then against the ruling generals, who consider themselves paragons of probity, competence, and patriotism.

To be fair, Sowilam also loudly argues that the military must quickly return to its barracks and concentrate on national security, lest it repeat the comedy of errors and inattention that led to the 1967 fiasco. The longer the military dabbles in what Sowilam calls "the distracting indulgence of politics," the more vulnerable it leaves Egypt.

Still, he doesn't think his beloved institution has been tarnished by its thirty-year affiliation with Mubarak and by its behavior since taking direct power in February.

"The people support the army because they are fed up with these revolutionaries in Tahrir Square disrupting their lives," Sowilam said. "Some people are even asking now, where are the days of Mubarak?"

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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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