‘My name is Khalid Islambouli,” the assassin thundered. “I have slain Pharaoh, and I do not fear death!” This was at an annual state parade in Cairo on October 6, 1981. Islambouli, swelling with a delirious pride, had just strafed the reviewing stand with bullets, killing Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and hurtling his nation into chaos.
That was the plan. Islambouli, like several of his coconspirators, was a Muslim Brotherhood veteran who’d drunk deep the incitements of the Ikhwan’s martyred leader, Sayyid Qutb, but lost patience with the organization’s Fabian approach to revolution. He’d joined Islamic Jihad, one of several splinter groups that would later be folded into al-Qaeda by another Brotherhood alum, Ayman Zawahiri.
They’d hoped to trigger an Islamic upheaval by “cutting off the head of the snake” and seizing power in the ensuing chaos. But apart from murdering the president, the plot failed. Power passed seamlessly to Sadat’s vice president, Hosni Mubarak, who cracked down brutally on the terrorists.
The story is worth remembering as chaos grips Egypt yet again. In the drama three decades ago, one tie beyond citizenship united all the major players — the villain, the victim, the heroes who put down the uprising, and the bureaucrat who emerged from obscurity to grab the autocratic reins he has yet to relinquish: They were all members of the Egyptian military.
With events on the ground shifting even faster than the Obama administration’s positions on them — though not quite as quickly as the sudden proliferation of Egypt experts — received wisdom holds that the one anchor of stability in the unfolding crisis is the military. It is said to be the only solid ground in Cairo’s cataclysm. Otherwise, the scene at Tahrir Square, depending on who is doing the describing and who is projecting which hopes and fears, is alternatively a tea party, a human-rights riot, or an explosion of Islamist rage.
It’s true enough that Egypt’s highly professional armed forces constitute the most revered institution in the country. Their professionalism has been purchased at a cost of nearly $40 billion from U.S. taxpayers since 1978, when Sadat made the peace with Israel that drove the jihadists to kill him. Thus, when analysts herald the stability of Egypt’s military — fortified by a generation of training and cooperative relations with U.S. warriors — the implication is that this will be to our benefit. Their patriotism will prevent Mubarak’s worst excesses and usher him out the door, and their pro-Western bent will guard against that worst of all worlds: the very sharia state Khalid Islambouli and his fellow jihadists sought to impose 30 years ago.
Even if everything we’d like to believe about the Egyptian military were true, the dream of secular stability would be very difficult to realize. Thanks to the West’s conflating of democratic processes with democratic culture, the crisis is careering toward a premature “settlement” by popular elections, to be held no later than September. Unfortunately, that is years before civil society — stunted by the powerful influence of fundamentalist Islam, the constant threat of terrorism, and Mubarak’s iron-fisted rule — can evolve sufficiently for real self-government.
A transitional military coup would be best for all concerned, but it is very unlikely to happen. The democracy fetish of transnational progressives won’t allow it. That opens the field for the most organized, best disciplined faction, the Muslim Brotherhood. With the administration having finally decided to shove Mubarak under the bus, the Brotherhood and its beard, Mohammed ElBaradei, are hovering.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake, that Egypt’s armed forces are capable of thwarting the Islamist rise. The question is: Will they?
Khalid Islambouli was a first lieutenant in the army. This station enabled him to be assigned to the parade held that fateful day — an annual event at which the nation celebrates its great “victory” in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. (Yes, the same war the home team lost to Israel; this is Egypt we’re talking about.) How, you may wonder, does a jihadist terrorist become a military officer and get close enough to kill the Egyptian president, widely known at the time to be a marked man?