Inside Egypt’s Military Mind

Posted September 3rd, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

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.

“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 and (“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.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.

Discouraging Lessons of History

Posted June 15th, 2011 by Thanassis Cambanis and filed in Writing

CAIRO, Egypt — Old ways die hard.

It only requires a quick glance at the new Egyptian junta — as most of the country’s citizens see it — to understand how the military rulers see their inviolable position. On its Facebook page, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces issues terse directives. Egyptian citizens post comments by the tens of the thousands, but there’s never any response. The military’s high-handed public outreach is similarly one-sided. One general appears on television to read the same directives, stony-faced, to a camera. And every now and again, the military stages public “dialogues,” which come across, intentionally or not, as patronizing lectures.

How does the military view its future in Egypt? What internal dynamics are shaping the military’s political strategy, which could in large part determine whether February’s revolution is a success? Within the officer corps, there are diverse views as to how much power the Egyptian army should wield, and how much it should yield to elected civilians.

It can be difficult to get answers to these questions from the military, perhaps in part because they themselves don’t yet know. So I’ve turned to reading history, hoping to find answers there, and was struck once again by the tight congruity between present-day Egypt and the critical points it has experienced over the last century and a half. During much of that time, Egypt has politically lain fallow, either because of self-induced paralysis as during Hosni Mubarak’s rule or long periods of colonial subjugation, as during the era of the British-orchestrated Veiled Protectorate.

Read the rest in The Atlantic.