‘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?
Very simple: The Egyptian military is a reflection not of its American trainers but of Egyptian society. Its popularity in the country owes in large part to the fact that almost all able-bodied men are conscripted to serve for one to three years. Its uppermost ranks, from which rose Egypt’s presidents — Mubarak, Sadat, and modern Egypt’s founder, Gamal Abdel Nasser — are today largely pro-American. The rank and file, however, have always included thousands of Muslim fundamentalists and radicals. Unquestionably, military service is a leveling experience, creating a common bond that unites different social strata. We should not overstate its effect, though. The military features all the complexity and divisions of Egypt at large.
Since spearheading Nasser’s coup over a half century ago, the military has followed more than it has led. Nasser dragged it from the British-backed monarchy into the Soviet orbit. Sadat moved it into America’s column. Under Mubarak, it has maintained a cold peace with Israel, but it would be foolish to think new leadership could not shift the military back to hostilities with a nation millions of Egyptians revile — a nation with which Egypt fought four wars between 1948 and 1973.
In the last 20 years, two former Egyptian military officers have come to prominent attention in the United States. The first was Emad Salem, a pro-American Muslim, who volunteered to infiltrate the New York terror cell formed by Omar Abdel Rahman, the Egyptian “Blind Sheikh” who had issued the fatwa authorizing Sadat’s murder, who called incessantly for the killing of Mubarak, and whose followers bombed the World Trade Center in 1993. Without his help, the FBI could not have disrupted these jihadists, several of whom were arrested in June 1993 while mixing explosives for a planned bombing spree against the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, the United Nations complex, and a number of U.S. government targets.
The second was a contemporary of Salem’s, Ali Mohammed. He infiltrated the American military on behalf of Islamic Jihad, stealing sensitive files that he took to New York, where he used them to help train the Blind Sheikh’s cell. Later, he became al-Qaeda’s top security specialist, helped bin Laden move his headquarters from Sudan to Afghanistan, forged the terror network’s East African cells, and drew up the plans those cells later used to bomb the American embassy in Nairobi.
In Cairo, the Egyptian military is our last, best hope. We shouldn’t be overconfident.
— Andrew C. McCarthy, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, is the author, most recently, of The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America.