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Page last updated at 02:35 GMT, Tuesday, 23 June 2009 03:35 UK

Egyptians look to military 'saviour'

The podium where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981
The military podium where Sadat was shot is monument to the army's glory

By Magdi Abdelhadi
BBC Arab affairs analyst, Cairo

Nearly 60 years since the Egyptian army overthrew the monarchy, some Egyptians may be looking to the army again for a successor to 81-year-old head of state and former air force chief Hosni Mubarak.

On front of the podium where President Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981 while watching a military parade there is a huge frieze.

The gilded triptych glorifies the military and places it at the heart of Egyptian society from the time of the Pharaohs.

The central scene portrays soldiers, together with farmers, workers and students, carrying a plaque inscribed with 1952 - the year a group of army officers overthrew King Farouk and declared Egypt a republic.

Another attraction in nearby Heliopolis is the October Panorama, a permanent exhibition describing in epic terms how the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal in 1973 and destroyed Israeli fortifications.

School trips are organised to the Panorama regularly, to instil in young Egyptians pride and love of their armed forces.

The message is clear: the military injects dignity and pride into Egypt and deserves its privileged status - a status the officers have enjoyed since 1952.

But these privileges reached new heights during the rule of Hosni Mubarak, who took over after Sadat's assassination.

Officers' clubs boasting lavish sports facilities and restaurants; subsidised housing; military hospitals; these are just some of the most visible perks - the likes of which no other profession in Egypt enjoys.

The military has also been transformed into a veritable business empire, whose exact size, turnover and profit no-one is allowed to know. Not even parliament can scrutinise its affairs.

First step

No-one dares talk about the armed forces in public.

Talat Sadat
Talat Sadat is a popular figure in his Nile delta hometown of Meit Abul Koom

"We are not even allowed to mention the words 'the army' in our reporting", a young journalist tells me.

One man who broke that taboo, Talaat Sadat, spent a year in jail.

The MP and nephew of the assassinated president had suggested during a speech in parliament that the investigation into his uncle's murder was not thorough enough.

Nevertheless, a year in a military prison has not prevented him from viewing the army as Egypt's best hope after Mr Mubarak.

"We are waiting for the army to take the first step," he says "then we will support it... just like in 1952."

"I am fed up with businessmen-ministers, especially the princes of the ruling NDP," says Mr Sadat, in an apparent reference to the new business elite associated with President Mubarak's son, Gamal.

Mr Sadat is not alone.

Engy Haddad, a Harvard-educated publicist, once worked for the ruling National Democratic Party in the belief that reform was possible from within, but she was quickly disillusioned.

She then helped set up a group to monitor elections and another to fight corruption in state institutions.

She sees poverty as a ticking time bomb in Egypt and says there is no alternative but that the men in uniform intervene.

"We are all hoping that happens. And by 'we' I mean liberals. The game is no longer fair! The game is stacked against the poor. There is no future. The country is being eaten through by corruption."

She hopes that a patriotic figure from the army will see the unfairness and step in to put things right.

Warning from history

It is a dearth of coherent secular alternatives that presents such a problem to people like Engy Haddad.

Hosni Mubarak
Critics accuse Mr Mubarak of stifling political development

To liberals and leftists alike, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the best organised opposition group, is anathema.

So is what is known as the "hereditary scenario" - Gamal Mubarak being installed as president in a charade dressed up as a democratic vote.

For nearly three decades, say critics and opposition activists, Mr Mubarak has prevented development of a mature political system in the name of stability.

After hearing that even some liberals want the army to step in, I wondered what the officers would think of that.

But since the army does not talk to the media, I turned to one of the very few surviving architects of the 1952 coup.

I was granted rare access to Dr Tharwat Okasha, who is now in his late eighties, and has served as ambassador and minister of culture during the Nasser era.

He delivered a damning verdict on the consequences of the officers' involvement in politics.

Would he have taken part in the 1952 movement if he had known the consequences? The answer was categorical.

"I would never, never [have] participated. No," Dr Okasha responds in a defensive manner.

A warning from history then to those who think that soldiers can still sort out politics.


Part two of Mubarak's Egypt will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on Monday 29 June.



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