CAIRO — Col. Tamer al-Rifai, the spokesman for the Egyptian army, posted Jan. 27 an official statement on his Facebook page saying that, under the slogan “Army and People,” the Egyptian armed forces had a special stand at the Cairo International Book Fair from Jan. 27 to Feb. 10. The army hoped to spread military awareness, culture and national values to Egyptians from all classes.
Al-Monitor visited this stand to find out more about it. As visitors passed through Abdul Rahman al-Sharqawi Hall where the stand was situated inside the book fair in Nasr City in Cairo governorate, soldiers and army affiliates hosting the event invited them to visit the Ministry of Defense’s stand. To lure in visitors, the entry to the stand had many statues and murals depicting the heroic acts of Egyptian soldiers throughout history.
As soon as visitors entered the main hall, they heard the song “Tislam al-Ayadi” (“God Protect the Army’s Hands”), one of the most popular songs produced in the wake of the June 30 events that led to the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood. The song addresses the armed forces and thanks them for their efforts and sacrifices and for supporting the Egyptian people and protecting them from religious fascism.
The stand featured officers’ publications in politics, sociology, technology and culture and included more than six sections. An officer was in charge of each section to explain its content to visitors. The sections included books on social sciences, car mechanics, quality control, project success methods, general culture and military magazines and journals like Al-Nasr, Al-Mougahed, Al-Difaa, Al-Wafaa and the military medical magazine. Another section was called “October War Heroes” and included books about the Egyptian army’s accomplishments in the October 1973 war with Israel.
The stand also featured a special section called “Influential Military Officers in Egypt’s Cultural Life.” It included officers’ publications and highlighted the military’s presence and success in Egypt’s cultural life, as well as artistic and literary figures with a military background. For instance, it featured documents about late artist Ahmed Mazhar, who is dubbed “The knight of Egyptian cinema” and who graduated from the military academy and worked in the army's cavalry unit before becoming a famous actor.
The section also featured books about well-known novelist Youssef al-Sibai, who left military service after becoming a brigadier general. He became a prominent novelist and scriptwriter in the Arab world. He has occupied several cultural posts and became Egyptian minister of culture in 1973. The section featured a book about Capt. Mahmoud al-Jouhari, a famous coach in Egyptian and Arab soccer. He was the professional director of the Egyptian league and the adviser to the head of the Jordanian Federation for Football after leaving his post in the armed forces.
Under the headline “Research Sciences,” the stand featured books mostly written by Egyptian officers about foreign challenges facing Egypt and targeting its national security and safety. “The Iranian Intervention in the Region and Its Impact of Arab National Security” and “Political, Economic and Military Case Study of Somalia and Its Impact on National Security” were two books that were featured.
Another section was called “Impact of Electronic Crimes on National Security.” It showcased the key publications of officers on dangers of the internet and electronic crimes that targeted Egypt’s national security.
Ahmed al-Zayat, who was in charge of the stand, said in a Feb. 1 press statement that the main goal behind their presence at the exhibition was the need for the armed forces to communicate with citizens and “let them know about the danger of foreign conspiracies plotted by evil powers and foreign forces targeting the army and state.”
Ahmed Abdul Halim, the former deputy minister of defense and professor of strategic sciences at Nasser Military Academy, told Al-Monitor, “The army always focuses on culture and reading within its ranks. In the past decades, it was present on the cultural scene, and nobody can deny this.”
The armed forces have had a symbolic presence at Cairo book fairs in the past and featured military books only. But this year, the army’s stand included books about military figures who were involved in cultural life.
He added, “This cultural role should be passed on to our people, amid the challenges facing the state and with terrorism surrounding us from every side. This role is important because people’s awareness is the only way to confront challenges.”
Abdul Halim rejected accusations from experts and observers who said the army was trying to invade political, economic and cultural life. He said, “The army has always been and will remain part of the public’s national belonging.”
Novelist and socio-political researcher Ammar Ali Hassan told Al-Monitor that the military expansion into Egyptian culture is dangerous for the military institution itself. He said, “Military culture and structure make it incapable of creating innovative content because soldiers are told to obey orders without asking, and therefore they do not accept the opinions of others. Can an army officer talk about the atrocities he sees at work and write them in a book or autobiography? If he does that, he is referred to the military court.”
Article 103 of Law No. 232 of 1959 on officers’ service and promotions states that officers shall be prohibited from expressing political or partisan opinions, working in the political field, belonging to politically oriented parties, authorities or associations. Article 104 of the same law prohibits officers from giving out information or clarifications about issues that should remain confidential.
Hassan added, “The army should remain in its place, protecting the country and facing its enemies abroad. This is its role, and it should leave culture, education and economy to us.”
He added, “The Egyptian army is clearly seeking to infiltrate the cultural aspects to influence citizens, especially after the Jan. 25, 2011, incidents. The army believes Egypt is facing foreign conspiracies targeting the state and wants to get into Egyptian minds to remold them into ideas aligned with its own.”
Hassan concluded, “For a long time, the army has taken interest in research and studies, mostly related to military sciences, to cultivate its soldiers and officers. We respect and appreciate this, but the army’s interest in cultural development of civilians did not exist in the past. This culture is new for the military institution.”
Many people flocked to the armed forces’ stand, but despite the organization and readiness of organizers, the youth refrained from stopping by and visited other publishing houses. The armed forces did not reveal the turnout and participation at their stand.