Popular Images of Army Officers and Freedom Fighters as National Heroes in the 1950s and 1960s
In order to be able to gain an insight into the present moment in Egypt and the ascendance of Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to power, and how he has been able to win the hearts and minds of millions of Egyptians, it is vital to trace a number of significant early representations of the military figure in popular works. Here, I aim to problematise the notions of ‘heroism’ and ‘patriotism’ of the army officer and the freedom fighter and how they have been represented in a range of popular cultural productions, specifically in the 1950s until the mid 1960s. I draw on the conceptual framework of ‘nationhood’ and I critique some of the popular reflections on the meaning of a strong nation-state that is supported by a patriotic army. Sisi’s image, with his highly regarded military uniform (before he was elected president in June 2014), his posture and appearance of confidence and strength, and the way he is shown in pictures and on the TV screen surrounded by army men to demonstrate unity and discipline, is a contemporary reflection made of flesh and blood of that heroic military figure whom we have seen over and again in numerous Egyptian films, particularly those made after the 1952 Revolution. In the popular imagination, Sisi is in lineage with Nasser, specifically in his clampdown on the Muslim Brotherhood group. We continue to see Sisi’s supporters carrying his posters side by side with Nasser’s.
© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 D.S. Mostafa, The Egyptian Military in Popular Culture, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-59372-6_2
Nasser’s ideas and speeches on such concepts as liberation from colonial and neo-colonial rule, unity amongst the Arab nations and their armies, unity in the face of Zionism to liberate Palestine, and unity between the people (al-sha‘b) and the army (al-geish) were extremely influential after the July 1952 Revolution and brought Nasser mass support throughout the Arab world. In his short book Falsafat al-Thawra (Philosophy of the Revolution),1 published in 1954, Nasser makes it clear to his readers that no other institution in the country would have been able to overthrow the monarchy and put an end to British colonial rule with the July 1952 Revolution except for the army. He writes:
The situation needed a coherent power whose members are brought together within one framework, and who are not involved, to an extent, in individual or class conflicts. This power had to be drawn from the people [al-sha‘b], and for its members to be able to trust one another, and for them to have within their capacity the material power which would guarantee a quick and decisive action. These criteria only applied to the army. [...] It was rather the development of events which defined for the army its role in the colossal struggle to liberate the nation. (Nasser 2005, p. 29)
Nasser then poses this question: ‘Was it a must that we, the army, had to carry out what we did on 23rd July ? [...] The answer is: Yes! There was no escape! Today, I can say: We are living two revolutions, not only one’ (p. 26). He goes on to explain that many people around the world had experienced two revolutions together, both political and social, and Egypt was no exception. He then calls upon all Egyptians and Arabs alike to stand united in achieving social justice and liberation for their nations (pp. 26-27).
As radio was one of the most accessible means by which the majority of Egyptians could receive the news and listen to Nasser’s speeches, and to a variety of nationalist songs and programmes which hailed the July Revolution, the Free Officers’ ideology was literally present in every Egyptian home. There are countless scenes in black-and-white Egyptian films of the period where we see ordinary Egyptians gathering in coffeehouses (which are hugely popular in every neighbourhood across the country) to listen to the radio, discuss politics, sing along with their favourite singers and follow political events and speeches. When TV came along in 1960, it became another fundamental means by which the Nasser regime could disseminate its ideology and achievements. These two media, radio and TV, remain remarkably influential amongst the majority of Egyptians as information and dissemination tools of the state.
This chapter aims to demonstrate through a diverse range of popular representations in cinema, literature and song during the 1950s and 1960s how the Egyptian people became united behind Nasser. He was the iconic military figure who inspired this long-lasting image of the army officer as a national hero. The other symbolic figure who gained mass popularity in artistic expressions of the period was that of the freedom fighter (fida’i), where her/his image was reignited and immortalised before and during the Suez War (1956). I situate two iconic novels in a comparative analysis, namely Latifa al-Zayyat’s The Open Door and Naguib Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail, to discuss different viewpoints regarding the July 1952 military regime. Films such as God is on Our Side, No Time for Love and Ismail Yassin’s comedies are also contextualised and critiqued to show popular representations of the military figure on the one hand, and the freedom fighter on the other. A selection of nationalist songs, dedicated for Nasser in particular, by the popular singer Abdel Halim Hafez are also highlighted and examined.