Veteran Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem recalls the day in February 2011 when it seemed as if the Egyptian people had finally broken free from the cage of dictatorship. Read the rest of his series, Caged, here.
On the morning of February 10, as the revolution was at its peak, I received a call from a former Egyptian diplomat, Ambassador Mohamed el-Shazly. He was calling to break the news of his uncle’s death. Saad el-Shazly had been a legendary Egyptian military leader. Known as the Golden General, he had led the reconstruction of the Egyptian army after it had been shattered during the 1967 Six-Day War against Israel.
The timing of his death seemed symbolic.
As chief of staff, el-Shazly had led the army during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, the most successful in modern Egyptian history.
After the unprecedented success of the first 10 days of that war, the tide began to turn as a large Israeli force led by General Ariel Sharon broke through between the Egyptian 2nd army, which was positioned on the eastern bank of the Suez Canal in the Sinai Peninsula, and the Egyptian 3rd army, which was on its western bank.
El-Shazly wanted to respond by redeploying two brigades and a battalion from the 2nd army in order to besiege the Israelis. But Sadat refused. He feared this would look like a withdrawal and that military morale would be damaged. The military consequences of ignoring his chief of staff were grave.
After the war ended, the bitterness between the two men continued. Wanting to remove el-Shazly from the army, Sadat made him ambassador to the United Kingdom, and later to Portugal. It was during this time that Sadat undertook his historic visit to Israel in November 1977.
El-Shazly publicly opposed the Camp David Accords, signed between Egypt and Israel in 1978, and resigned from his post. He was forced into exile in Algeria, from where he wrote a book that gave his account of the 1973 war. For this, he was court-martialed in absentia, accused of writing the book without approval and of divulging military secrets within it. He strongly denied the latter charge. But el-Shazly was sentenced in absentia to three years of hard labour, while all of his Egyptian assets were confiscated.
When Sadat was assassinated in 1981, the bitterness towards el-Shazly was passed on to his successor, Hosni Mubarak, who as the commander of the air force during the 1973 war, had been one of el-Shazly’s subordinates.
When, in 1992, el-Shazly returned to Egypt after years in exile, he was arrested at the airport. Mubarak insisted upon executing his sentence, despite appeals for clemency or, at least, a retrial. The new president, it seemed, wanted to erase General el-Sazly’s name from Egyptian military history.
Now his nephew was calling me, asking if I would publish his obituary in Al-Ahram newspaper. But I had another idea.
“Would you mind moving the general’s body to Tahrir Square so that the hundreds of thousands of protesters gathered there can observe a funeral prayer for him?” I asked.
The ambassador was stunned.
It would be an opportunity to pay a long-overdue tribute to a much-maligned national hero, I explained.
“Could the demonstrators ensure the safety of the body?” he asked me.
“I’m sure they could,” I replied.
I called some of the protesters and proposed the idea to them. They welcomed the gesture and began to make preparations to receive the body. But moving it from Heliopolis, a suburb eight miles from Tahrir Square, proved too difficult in the circumstances and the plan had to be aborted.
But on the following day, Friday, February 11, after Friday prayers, almost a million protesters in Tahrir Square and the surrounding streets observed the funeral prayer for General Saad El-Shazly.
The symbolism was not lost on those who prayed for his soul. Here was a great military leader, who had been tarnished and punished by both Sadat and Mubarak, being honoured on the very day that Mubarak was eventually forced to step down in disgrace.
On that day, millions of Egyptians celebrated. It was time for us to break free from the cage of dictatorship, it seemed.
But, in just two years, we would learn that what we had thought was the end of dictatorship was, in fact, just a hoax.