On Saturday, 4 April 2021 the Egyptian authorities put on a dazzling and star-studded performance of epic proportions: a celebration of ancient Egyptian culture and valor meant to mark the official opening of the country’s brand-new National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in Fustat. The event, titled The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade, was an extravagant spectacle filled with song, dance and elaborate costumes. Its centerpiece was the dramatic procession of twenty-two ancient Egyptian New Kingdom mummies from their previous home in the Egyptian Museum in Tahrir Square to their final resting place in the new museum. This “legendary journey,” as it was referred to during the broadcast, is certainly something that Egyptians can take pride in, it being a quite elegant celebration of both ancient and modern Egyptian culture. But there is another side to this glorious exhibition of nationalist theater. Interwoven with ostentatious displays of cultural pride were significant discursive and symbolic moves that help elucidate the nature of the contemporary Egyptian state and the mindset of its current leaders. First, the Golden Parade displays a prime example of the current regime’s military mobilization of history to bolster its own authority. Second, it demonstrates the purposeful and ongoing erasure of the 2011 Revolution from the space of the city and from collective memory. Finally, the parade helps reveal the regime’s utter inability to comprehend anything outside of a military paradigm, which itself illuminates the further development and entrenchment of a two-tiered system of citizenship in Egypt, divided between members of the military and the increasingly exploited civilians they are ostensibly meant to protect and defend.
New Kingdom, New Capital, New State
In both words and images, the Golden Parade drew clear parallels between the rulers of these ancient Egyptian dynasties and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—and by extension the contemporary Egyptian state. Throughout the proceedings, which constantly highlighted the various monuments that the government is clearly desperate to have international tourists come visit, emphasis was placed on the military might of the rulers of these ancient dynasties. In a video posted by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities on YouTube and meant to act as an introduction to the parade, the actor Hussein Fahmy says of ancient Egyptian civilization that it “presented humanity with the first model of a strong state based on science and faith.” This is certainly consistent with Sisi’s strongman approach, which emphasizes secure borders (such as with Libya, where Egypt has carried out military operations), inflexibility in regional disputes such as the ongoing negotiations over the filling and use of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, and ruthlessness in his continued efforts to destroy what the government labels “terrorist activities” in Sinai, epitomized by 2018’s Comprehensive Campaign in Sinai (al-ʿamaliya al-shamila fi Sinaʾ), which was proudly publicized in recurring spots on both national and private television channels. It also parallels Sisi’s quite performative public piety, through which he intends to present himself as not only the defender of the country’s security, but of its religious life as well. Fahmy goes on to describe some of the rulers of the New Kingdom dynasties: Amenhotep III, whom he describes as a ruler who “maintained stability and the prosperity of the country throughout his rule”; Rameses II, “the great Egyptian king who ruled Egypt for almost 67 years”; and Rameses III who “protected his people from the invasion of the Sea People.” Later, actor Mona Zaki reminds the audience that the ancient Egyptians’ army “was one of the world’s strongest, an army that protected the people and the land.” The event thus clearly works to link these strong, militarily-framed rulers with Sisi himself, a fact that is made clear by the juxtaposition of images of the mummies’ police escort and the escort protecting Sisi’s convoy when it arrived at the National Museum for the festivities. But the connection was made even more explicit when Minister of Tourism and Antiquities Khaled el-Enany presented the president with the gift of a statue of Tutankhamun upon his arrival at the museum. El-Enany describes the statue as depicting King Tut hunting, which he says symbolizes the king “striving to destroy evil in order to found a strong state.” He then tells Sisi that in his opinion this was “the most appropriate object we could present to your Excellency.” The event as a whole thus acted both discursively and symbolically to establish Sisi as a modern pharaoh, much as his dictatorial predecessors have done before him.
But this parade and this regime have a broader goal than merely that of crowning Sisi as a modern pharaoh. Similar to the regimes of former presidents Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak, the Sisi regime aims to present itself as equal in power and glory to these ancient pharaonic dynasties. This is made clear by a prerecorded video aired during the festivities, in which the actor Khaled El Nabawy, who was (neither inconsequentially nor by chance) one of the higher profile participants in the 2011 Revolution, tours a large number of cultural and religious tourist sites that have been renovated since Sisi came to power. At one point El Nabawy is shown having a chat with el-Enany about yet another new museum that is set to open in the new administrative capital currently under construction in the desert just east of Cairo’s current city limits. El-Enany states that “the new capital will represent a new state based upon a background of science, culture and the arts.” The similarity to Hussein Fahmy’s description of ancient Egyptian civilization as “the first model of a strong state based on science and faith” is striking, and certainly by design. Here the regime clearly presents itself as the rebirth of a strong, comprehensive state, ready to bring new glories to Egypt, but only, of course, after security priorities have been met. Just as the mummies form part of the New Kingdom dynasties, the new pharaoh and the new capital are meant to represent a new era in Egyptian history, one that attempts to efface every possible trace of any alternative to its totalizing military governance.
Erasing the Revolution
The parade was a significant part of the ongoing effort to erase the 2011 Revolution from the collective memory of the Egyptian people. The parade began, of course, in midan al-Tahrir, the site of the massive uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak, and of the subsequent struggles for power that took place between at least three poles in Egyptian society: activists for democracy and basic human freedoms, the Egyptian army and their allies among those loyal to the old regime (the fulul), and various Islamist groups, the most prominent of which was the Muslim Brotherhood. The effort to efface this history has been ongoing since Sisi’s rise to power, and is visible, for example, in the fact that every January 25th the government celebrates National Police Day with no mention whatsoever of the uprising that took place on the same day in 2011. It is also visible in the rebranding of the protests that took place in 2013 against then-President Mohamed Morsi as the “June 30 Revolution,” supposedly the spontaneous and true expression of the will of the people. It was this event that the army used as a pretext for the removal of Morsi from office (read coup d’état) that brought the current regime (back) to power. But until recently the regime has been apparently uncertain of how to deal with the site of the midan itself. In addition to being the former heart of the revolution, it is also a key node in the circulation of Cairene traffic and both a symbolic and real gateway to downtown Cairo. And although the government has undertaken multiple minor reconfigurations of Tahrir since it came to power, it is only recently that it seems to have settled on a plan to finally seize the symbolic space of the midan that it has long controlled physically, and, after many years of trying, to once and for all cleanse it of the last traces of the 2011 Revolution. This plan operates on several levels, attempting to achieve its aim through the use of the renovation of the buildings in and surrounding the midan, the theme park-ification of its features with the use of professional lighting, the symbolism of the ancient Egyptian obelisk and sphinx statues recently installed in the center of the square, and the historical-mythical spectacle of the parade of ancient kings and queens.
Activists and academics have long expressed concern about the possibility that the midan would be turned into a museum of the Revolution, encapsulating and isolating it far from any possibility of political protest that might attempt to continue the never-completed revolution. But what has happened is perhaps even more drastic. The erasure was gradual, even though there were certainly significant moments, such as in 2015 when the American University in Cairo tore down the northern wall of its Tahrir campus, casually destroying the powerful revolutionary graffiti that had been painted upon it, graffiti that honored the victims of the army’s brutal attacks on protestors during the protracted revolution. Over the past year, however, the regime has begun in earnest to turn Tahrir into a memory—though not of the uprising. Rather, it is the memory of another era, of an older time, long since disappeared, when Cairo’s downtown was not a tired and crumbling agglomeration of colonial architectural intrigues, but was new, organized, and impeccably clean. The government has gone about repainting architecturally interesting buildings in the downtown area that immediately surrounds Tahrir on its eastern and northern sides, as if a few dabs of paint can cover up decades of neglect, and can conceal the blood that was deliberately, brutally and deceitfully spilled by the same army that now grips the reins of the country, much as it has (under various guises) since the 1952 coup that brought the Free Officers to power. The regime has also added professional lighting by the company Siraj Lighting to add a twist to this renovation project. Accent lighting is now installed on all the buildings and monuments that face the square, turning the midan and surrounding area into a theme-park-like tourist attraction, highlighting its colonial-architectural heritage while purposefully neglecting any aspects of its recent history. Tahrir is one of the many renovation projects that Khaled El Nabawy reviews during his prerecorded video that aired as part of the festivities. But the midan is featured for just a mere ten seconds in total, during which El Nabawy says only that it is “one of Egypt’s most prominent mayadin, bound up with historical and memorable events in the lives of the Egyptian people.” The camera briefly shows a plaque in the square that mentions the 1919 Revolution and the 1952 “revolution,” and down at the very bottom, nearly cut off by the camera as it pans downward, the 2011 Revolution and the June 30 “revolution.” Here, then, is a near erasure of one of the most significant recent events in the life of the midan and of the Egyptian people, achieved through a subtle avoidance, a generality of language, and slick camera work. The use of Tahrir for the spectacle of the mummies’ journey further transformed the midan into a parade grounds, into a stage for the pageantry of a nationalist theater of historical glorification and political violence. Tahrir was entirely devoid of people during the parade, a space wiped clean of any trace of human activity other than the spectacle at hand, which was ironically presented as a celebration of the conspicuously absent Egyptian people. With this glittering grandeur, the regime finally achieved what it has been trying to achieve for the last ten years: the near-complete erasure of the 2011 Revolution from the space and memory of the midan.
The Militarization of Everything
After much pomp and circumstance, the mummies finally made their grand appearance at the parade, each one riding in a stylish case atop its own private golden vehicle, emblazoned with its name and replete with a handy mummy-cam so that viewers could peer in on the former pharaohs enjoying their legendary journey. The vehicles exited the grounds of the 119-year-old Egyptian Museum in Tahrir and proceeded single file down a long avenue lined with dozens of actors dressed as ancient Egyptians and holding semi-futuristic (mummypunk?) glowing orbs. The mummies then took a single lap around the midan before heading down Abdel Qadir Hamza Street to the Nile corniche that would lead them to their final resting place in Fustat. Although the mummies no doubt had a great time on their lovely jaunt down the corniche, something more significant was at play during their well-orchestrated journey. Aside from the rewriting of Tahrir as a locus of pharaonic heritage, the parade also enacted the military mobilization of the mummies themselves, enlisting them against their will in the service of the army and the Egyptian state with which it is now essentially synonymous. Not only was the Egyptian military present throughout the parade, in some of the first images presented (prerecorded shots of military officers riding white horses down the parade route), in the military band that played in front of the Mugamma administrative building, in the military drum corps that preceded the mummies down the parade route, and even in the vehicles the mummies were riding, which were clearly military-issue, and only thinly disguised by their elegant neo-pharaonic decoration. While all of this certainly helped turn this cultural celebration into a military one, the true significance of the mummies’ journey was only revealed once they reached the National Museum in Fustat, where they were welcomed by a 21-gun salute. As the convoy approached the museum, the camera showed a line of five army-green cannons, each one manned by three handsome soldiers in full dress uniform. One after another, the cannons fired into the air in honor of the long-dead royals who were finally being given the proper military funeral that was the only logical conclusion to their evening’s service to the current regime. But this alone was not enough. The parade was not yet over, not until Sisi himself left the hall in the museum where he had been watching the orchestral tour-de-force performance that provided the soundtrack for the parade, walked to the front of the museum and stood at attention as the mummies passed by. Sisi thus stood reviewing the new troops, the passing former kings and queens of Egypt who had, through the magic of nationalist theater, become conscripts in this man’s army, forced to submit to him in supine passive repose. It was a miracle that Sisi resisted the urge to salute that was undoubtedly coursing through every fiber of his body as the new recruits passed by for his inspection.
This move, however strange it may be, goes well beyond your typical statecraft and nationalistic discourse. In fact, its very oddity reveals a much more sinister truth lying at the heart of the current regime, namely that it is utterly incapable of comprehending anything outside of the framework of a military paradigm. For this regime there is no logic, no sense, no thought that exists outside the circle of the military and related security services, and anything that does somehow exist on its margins will very rapidly be detained by them or conscripted into their service. It’s not that the regime doesn’t understand civil society, it’s that it simply disregards it, certain that any civilian is utterly inferior to the military’s leadership and expertise. In April 2020, during the early days of the pandemic in Egypt, and at a time when the regime was (briefly) encouraging people to wear facemasks, a clip started circulating of Sisi as he inspected the progress on one of the government’s many ongoing construction projects. In the video, Sisi thoroughly upbraids a military officer standing before him, demanding to know why the construction workers are not wearing masks. His irritation is palpable, and after emitting a grunt of disgust he asks “Fayn al-madani illi al-masʾul ʿan al-kalam da?... ʾUlli al-masʾul min? Al-madani min?,” meaning, “Who’s the civilian responsible for this? Tell me, who’s responsible? Who’s the civilian?” The civilian here, the madani, is of course the natural opposite of the ʿaskari, the soldier. And this is the key to understanding the Manichean worldview of the current regime, which separates Egypt into a two-tiered system of rights and privileges. To be sure, the two tiers of military and civilian are superimposed over Egypt’s already extremely classed society (which is ruled by a strict taboo that class divisions are not to be discussed) and have some minor permeability due to the Egyptian military’s expansive business interests and their resulting need for collaboration with mere civilians. But the fact is that the military still sees itself as a breed apart, as a beneficent ruler guiding an incompetent and childlike civilian population that would be entirely incapable of fending for itself or determining its own future, were it by some accident left to do so. The speech and actions of Sisi and his government have time and again made this abundantly clear. It is clear, for example, in the government’s recent outright refusal to consider the “martyrs” from among the medical professionals who have died of COVID-19 as a result of their work combatting the ongoing pandemic as being of equal status (financially and morally) to the “martyrs” of the Egyptian army and police. The statement is plain: martyrs for the cause of protection and healing are inferior to martyrs for the cause of national security.
Certainly, some will say that Egypt has long had a privileged military class. On more than one occasion Egyptians have spoken to me about “dawlat Yuliu,” or “The July State,” when speaking of the current regime, a term meant to indicate its being the continuation of what one woman described to me as “the military occupation we have been under since 1952.” While it is true that Egypt has been under the rule of a succession of military men for nearly 70 years now, what is currently happening in Egypt, and what is clearly evident in the pomp and rhetoric of the parade, can only be seen as an intensification of the militarization of the state, a further split between the two arms of society, and the accelerated development of the military’s role as an essentially extractive ruling regime.
Bridges, Chicken, and Disinvestment
The day after the parade, the historian Khaled Fahmy wrote an eloquent post on Facebook in which he argues that the parade demonstrates the regime’s true priorities, which focus on security and securitization to the utter neglect of public health, transportation and education. Fahmy’s assertions could not be truer. The state, which is to say the military and related security apparatuses, could not care less about these things, for the simple reason that its obvious goal is to make sure that its citizens become ignorant, sick, and so utterly exhausted from struggling to live another day that they have absolutely no energy left to oppose the will of their military masters. Moreover, the current government must be understood as an extractive regime that sees civilians as nothing more than a resource to be exploited for its own benefit. This explains why the military and its crony contractors are busy building dozens, perhaps hundreds of often entirely unnecessary new bridges across the country (undoubtedly using cement from military-owned cement plants) and indiscriminately bulldozing anything that stands in their way, from ancient tombs to the unlicensed constructions that have so proliferated in the past decades. And this explains why the number of military-owned companies has exploded since Sisi took office, and why the scope of their operations has broadened to include all sorts of non-military-related industries. It also explains why the Ministry of Interior is selling meat and chicken from the backs of small trucks parked outside metro stations across Cairo, for prices that drastically undercut local butchers. And it sheds light on the regime’s campaign to get every citizen to participate in the banking system, its efforts to force citizens to register millions of unregistered properties with the Egyptian Land Registry, and its rapid lifting of subsidies on fuel, cooking fuel, electricity, water and bread. This is also why Egypt’s plan since the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to deny, deny, deny, and to continuously fudge official statistics to make it appear that this country of more than 100 million people—which in the past year has not even had one single full lockdown, and on only two occasions briefly instituted and enforced a law that face coverings must be used in public transportation and government buildings—has somehow been spared the massive numbers of ill and dead that nearly every other country in the world has suffered. Meanwhile, Facebook feeds in Egypt continue to read like obituaries. All of these actions make perfect sense when one realizes that the current regime is intent on bleeding dry every Egyptian who has no immediate benefit to their military-industrial state, stealing from them every last bit of life until they collapse and die in the hallway of an ill-equipped government hospital, or better yet at home so that the government does not have to deal with the matter in the slightest. Its priority is not the Egyptian people. Even national security is only important to them as far as it works to protect national (read military) financial interests. The symbolism and discourse of this elegant celebratory parade make abundantly clear the fact that Egypt’s military rulers have no intention of releasing their ever-tightening grasp on the neck of the Egyptian people.
A Morsel of Bread
Ten years after the Revolution, the state is the army, and the army is the state. Prisons are filled to bursting with political and moral prisoners who are often detained for months or even years without trial. Poverty is soaring and life is rapidly becoming more and more difficult for all but a few of the country’s sizable population. Thousands of talented Egyptians are fleeing the country and starting over someplace else, while those left behind, those who do not possess the education or capital that would allow them to travel, are growing more and more desperate in their struggle to survive from day to day. The truth is that there is a war being waged on the Egyptian people, a war that has been devised and carried out by their own government. The Pharaohs’ Golden Parade laid bare many aspects of this fact: the further making of Sisi the unquestioned Pharaoh, the mobilization of multiple aspects of Egyptian history in the service of the current regime, and the nearly complete separation of military and civilian citizens as the military evolves from a privileged class into a rarefied breed that stands above the populace and looks down from an untouchable height. All of this is made possible by the erasure of revolutionary Tahrir and its re-inscription as a stage for the performance of state-penned spectacles. Despite the celebratory fantasy of the Golden Parade, Egyptians continue to suffer under the increasingly oppressive thumb of a military regime that denies their very humanity.
Tahrir revolutionaries famously chanted for “bread, freedom, and social justice.” Ten years on, hopes for freedom and social justice are quite far from most Egyptians’ minds. The vast majority are far too busy chasing after the daily bread that led off that short list of demands, struggling day in and day out to feed themselves and their families, and desperately trying to cling to what’s left of their basic human dignity, before even that is stripped from them. There is no denying that the situation is bleak. But at least for one night, Egyptians were able to celebrate and take pride in their cultural heritage, even as that too becomes little more than another weapon in the hands of the regime.
 To understand this point one only has to look at the country’s mind-bogglingly high number of politically-driven arrests and prolonged illegal detentions, the 2013 Rabaa massacre and the subsequent total uprooting of the Muslim Brotherhood, the aforementioned use of former participant in the revolution, Khaled El Nabawy, in an event glorifying the oppressive state that succeeded it, and the (rumored to be coerced) participation of rapper and actor Ahmed Mekky in the sequel to last Ramadan’s army-glorifying TV series al-Ikthiyar (The Choice), which told the story of the heroic “martyr” of the armed forces, Colonel Ahmed Mansi.