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The Military vs. the Muslim Brotherhood: Interview With an Egyptian Colonel

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Suddenly, two months ago, the news from Egypt was no longer in the streets. You couldn't look out the window at Tahrir Square, at Mohamed Mahmoud, at the sit-in outside Parliament. You had to do what political journalists and dinner party conversationalists do in most places -- interpret shrouded speeches and sudden decisions, watch for subtle shifts and buried implications in the fight between powerful institutions. You had to speculate. Here was the Brotherhood's risky nomination of a mysterious string-puller for the presidency, there was the military council's warning, veiled but soaked with suggestion: "We ask everyone to be aware of the lessons of history to avoid mistakes from a past we do not want to return to, and to look towards the future."

Was it a threat? Was it a reference to Nasser's crushing of the Brotherhood in 1954? Or was it just a big empty sentence in a year full of big empty sentences?

It's pouring rain outside in Port Said. The colonel wears civilian clothes, a shiny black leather jacket and loose jeans, like a young, impatient businessman as he clutches his keys, lighter, and sunglasses in one hand and scratches his cheek with the other. His office is big, but not ostentatious, with a wide desk, two couches, and two coffee tables. There's an ancient mural made of tile on the wall. A dog sleeps on the floor. The dog's name is Rommel, for Erwin Rommel, the German Field Marshal of World War II popularly known as the 'Desert Fox.' This dog comes from a German wolf breed, but is very lazy, perhaps only because of the rain.

Colonel Ahmed Amr sends a young soldier to bring lunch, which comes on a big tray: bread, halvah, cheese, French fries, and hard-boiled eggs. He insists that I eat ("Together we share bread and salt, an old Egyptian saying"), which makes it hard to write down notes. This feels slightly intentional, but it does put me pleasantly off guard. I scribble when he turns away.

He runs a military museum, the purpose of which is to show the people of Egypt why they should support the military, so of course he talks the talk. "The people of Egypt, we love our army," he says. "The army here have never attacked the people in Egypt. Mubarak and all the kings of Egypt have known this."

Amr knows that the news has been chronicling an increasing tension between the Muslim Brotherhood, which leads Parliament, and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which is still technically running the country. The Colonel is not speaking for the SCAF, which is prudent, because he is not a diplomat. "Most Egyptians are poor and ignorant," he says. "The Islamists tell them 'Vote for us and go to heaven, or vote for liberals and go to Hell. They don't vote for Islamists because they agree with them, but because they are ignorant and afraid."

Although a distaste for Islamists is often a signal for an embrace of the U.S., Amr does not exonerate us either. He thinks the U.S. is only powerful because of luck ("Look where you are located!"), because of the Soviet Union's decline ("It was Gorbachev and Perestroika"), and that the U.S. makes a lot of mistakes. "America made Yemen the center of Al Qaeda," he tells me, shifting into the second person to address me as America: "Your problems are your own fault."

But, he explains, "if the U.S. would only invest in factories here, they would make Egypt their best friend in the Middle East. When we achieve social justice, the Islamists will lose their support." He puts me in charge of handing over his warning and plea to the U.S. "We need American help to create a strong civil state, without fear, without Islamists, without military rule," he shouts, nearly spitting the 't' in 'without'. "If we have Islamist rule, there will be ten Al Qaedas here. We've got to kill this possibility now. You've lived in Egypt. You can put this in the article you write about me. You should give a complete picture to the U.S., about how they should support us liberals against the Islamists."

The Brotherhood, to be fair, has nothing to do with Al Qaeda, but Amr is doing what I've learned most people do in revolutionary times: speak in worst-case scenarios.

The Brotherhood released a statement several days after I spoke with Amr, and it was far more discreet and diplomatic, though it too spoke about the worst possible outcome. "The Brotherhood found that there is a very real and imminent threat to the revolution," said the statement, in the sober third person, "and the process of democratic transition and transfer of power to an elected civilian government in accordance with the popular will." Then the Brotherhood cites the "most important aspects" of the challenges facing Egypt's transition, including the "refusal and subversion of endeavors to form a government," and "blatant threats to dissolve the People's Assembly" and "attempts to hinder the work of the Constituent Assembly."

The verbs are verbal nouns. The sentences have no subjects. There is a "refusal," not someone who refuses, "threats," not someone who threatens. If you were reading without context it would seem like all of the things the Brotherhood bemoans emerged, appeared, materialized, without an actor.

But if you read with context, you know they are talking about the SCAF, about military rule. The protesters on the streets, as few as they are these days, shout "Down with military rule!" The Brotherhood says it too, only with lots of verbal accessories. The revolution was about small, clear, morally incisive claims. Now, there's politics, and occasionally, men like the colonel to cut through it and show us the cross sections.