Egypt. The Waking Dreams of Supersonic Generals

Nostalgia for Heroic Times · The memory of the Arab-Israeli wars, particularly those of 1967 and 1973, remains deeply rooted in the Egyptian army. And the pilots and generals who took part in the battles cultivate the memory, made up of heroism, sacrifice and death, which they share with the younger generations. Encounters.

Samir Michael stands framed in his doorway, seven decades young, and one wouldn’t guess that the General used to travel faster than a bullet thousands of feet above Cairo. When he was in his mid-twenties Egypt went to war with Israel for the last time. Samir was faster back then, 2460 km/h faster, now he walks slowly through his living room guarded by wooden Jesuses, crucified and eternally sad. There are things this supersonic general does not like to talk about; like when in 1967 Israeli jets turned his air base into an inferno or why he stopped flying. And things he likes, “A jet is moving at 300 metres per second, imagine how many manoeuvres within that, your reactions must be a tenth of a second, or you die,” smirks Samir, “the fighter pilot should be very fast, it comes from within.” He could fly at an altitude of 50 cm and pick up groceries on the way home (his self-taught signature). The flying sense, Samir cannot articulate it, but he knows from where it comes—God.

Samir has a warm smile, but beyond it is a state-trained killer, Samir and his hellish machine (his MiG21) made two confirmed kills, besides a few air-to-surface raids (one unsanctioned). During the War of Attrition which sent young pilots like Samir into aerial dogfights between 1969 and 1973, they called on God, at times plunging their MiGs in acts of martyrdom. Samir did not. Now he knows God stood by him back then. Near the general hangs a photo of his son under a cross, he died in a car-crash years ago, aged 23. That’s when Jesus arrived.

“Pleasure of being alive”

Samir turns and looks between the sofa and a picture of Jesus presiding on a throne, and says “flying needs someone bold, brave and fearless. As I was flying low, there was a feeling that I could die any second, that feeling of danger gives you,” he pauses, “this pleasure. Pleasure of being alive.”

The 1967 Israeli raid destroyed most of Egypt’s air force, leaving Samir, his comrades and the rest of the nation despondent. It was a turning point for the Egyptian army, and Samir. The pilots were Soviet trained in battle techniques and soft spots of their MiG21s (like low-speed flying that gave more grace to otherwise stubborn MiGs—a trick that would serve them well in the coming war). And when zero hour finally came, they scrambled for Egypt’s last full-scale war with one thing on their minds—vengeance.

One day Samir had enough with surprise Israeli sorties that teased Egyptian pilots, and scanned a map to plot a secret vendetta. He stole his MiG21 and slipped off base, flying low avoiding both Egyptian and Israeli radars, towards an Israeli base in Sinai. He dropped bombs on oblivious Israelis chilling in the sun and flew away. Israelis retaliated and Egyptians, puzzled, scrambled. Samir grinned back at his base.

He kept that sortie a secret until the day when Hosni Mubarak’s vast monopoly over everything, including testimonies of pilots like Samir, collapsed in 2011. Liberals called for a civil state, Communists for an old dream of socialism, Islamists awaited their moment, homosexuals prowled in packs in public, gun lords pushed their illegal merchandise amid habitual bloody clashes. Sometime between Saturdays public funerals and curfew-defying LGBT house parties, the generals re-emerged as well. Around then Samir walked into a studio and disclosed how he took an expensive aircraft and dropped bombs on tanning Israelis in an undeclared act of war, grinning, and viewers across the country grinned along with him. Willingly or not, Samir found himself inside the army fandom.

Military futurism

Vanity, exclusivity and death—that is what one gets inside the clan as old as the Egyptian republic itself. Since the 1952 coup which ended the monarchy, the army established itself as the arbiter of the Egyptian economy and politics. And four wars with Israel produced generations bred on militarised patriotism. Now under Egypt’s fifth general president, Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, wartime fighter pilots like Samir are greeted everywhere with cries of “Long Live Egypt!” The fandom spans from the vulnerable, dependent on state support who found the post 2011 revolution’s democratic fluctuations too risky, to the elite who lived in abundance under military presidents. This contemporary brand of nationalism—jingoistic, armyphiliac and tech-savvy—became the state-sanctioned popular movement of today, outshining other post-revolutionary clans. The Armed Forces together with the president propel the republic into a military futurism: the New Suez Canal, or Dubai-like “New Capital” outside Cairo, or the million housing units for the vulnerable built at the speed of light thanks to 500,000 conscripts at the army’s disposal, or another bridge commemorating a general or battle. Sonic booms are heard again over Sinai, as Al-Sisi’s government fights a war against terror.

The officers tour schools and give postmortem details of Egyptian “martyrs” from another Sinai raid, sometimes to a diminutive audience who barely know their alphabet. Around the country billboards reading “The Army and People are One” bake in the summer heat. And the song “Blessed Be Your Hands,” which burned its way into Egyptian cortexes since Al-Sisi’s first elections in 2014, was played at the Egypt-Russia match at this year’s world cup. In the thick of this, fighter pilots of 1973 became national heroes once more.

Egypt’s “1973 victory” over Israel (how it’s officially celebrated) reestablished the Egyptian army’s status. The young pilots returned a bit older, a bit harsher and a bit darker. They were given heroes celebrations, which did not last long, the rank of major general, stipends, prestigious medals, exclusive army club memberships and were gradually barred from speaking publicly. The popular grand narrative was the property of military presidents, first Anwar Sadat then Mubarak, and they feared that Egyptians would be led astray by the bravery of battlefield officers or, worse, contradictory accounts.

MiG21s replaced by modern US fighter jets

A few years later, in 1979, a US-brokered peace treaty was signed with Israel, ending any chance for more supersonic dogfights, and MiG21s were replaced by modern US fighter jets, stripped of their engines and their cadavers were exhibited for the amusement of the public at military museums. As for the pilots, they were offered “boring” state jobs like flying civilian or, worse, cargo airplanes.

Samir could have continued flying lesser planes that barely outran an automobile, but after diving like a raindrop into a swarming dogfight, he refused. His wartime wife, who nursed him after an unfortunate ejection, adds it was for the best, “he might have killed someone,” she laughs. General Samir was awarded the highest state honour, the military Order of the Republic (his favourite), hidden somewhere in this flat. A telephone call cuts in, Take My Breath Away from Top Gun rings, and Samir is scrambled for another TV interview. He dictates to the woman on the other end his details like former chief of staff of the air force and dispatches a couple of byes. Done. But Samir never really cared about honours or public ceremonials, what he cared and still cares about is flying. Mohamed Abu-Bakr, Samir’s airborne comrade, on the other hand, wears nationalism like a cloak.

“Supreme general, supreme general, please come this way,” murmur men in suits around Abu-Bakr and a couple of other generals. General Tolba Radwan is a monocular general who boasts of storming an Israeli outpost taking no prisoners, and the four shrapnels still in his body. Another General Wessam Hafez’s “beautiful fight” is never short on applause, he smoked out and shot 36 Israelis, which he mimes with a ricocheting Kalashnikov. Before 2011, they only had each other to retell their conquests. Those stern-faced generals are customarily addressed by their followers as heroes of the nation, the diamond shield that protects Egypt or God’s finest army. Abu-Bakr barely registers the adulation, sharpens his stare, sucks in his belly (the legacy of his wife’s delicious cooking) and heads towards the auditorium. The plan is first to have tea and then declare war.

“The war is ongoing!”

On the horizon cargo ships slice through the waters of the Suez Canal into Port Said, known for its tax-free hawkers and shuttered Anglican churches. Back in the seventies, it was a ghost town infested with troops, spies and guerrilla fighters, the residents were evacuated. Sinai—their former battlefield—is just a few minutes boat ride to the other side.

“Egypt is in danger!” declares pilot Abu-Bakr. His spine is damaged, and his nose scarred, a vestige of an unfortunate ejection. Today if it is not another saccharine symposium or a trip to a former battlefield or a TV appearance, many 1973 pilots take their ailing spines—MiGs’ unkind legacy—to physiotherapists at military hospitals, the best in Egypt. Bulging his eyes, Abu-Bakr continues, “the war is ongoing and we are not aware of it!” Seated beside him Generals Radwan and Hafez watch the declaration sink into their audience. For them, everyone from Americans to Israelis to homegrown dissidents are plotting against Egypt. Abu-Bakr knows this is his last chance leave his legacy.

Field Marshal Al-Sisi was elected president, twice. Unlike his predecessor, Mubarak, who depoliticised the army and mingled with business tycoons reigning unchallenged with the National Democratic Party, Al-Sisi does not have a party’s support. To avoid the fate of his predecessors (Egypt’s first president, Mohamed Nagib, was deposed by Nasser; Sadat died; Mubarak toppled; and Morsi is now in prison) Al-Sisi maintains close ties with the army. After 2011, the civil movements, recovering from decades of state witch-hunts, lacked resources and grassroots networks. The first civilian president, Muslim Brother Mohamed Morsi, was elected in 2012 and, rather tactlessly, started moulding a religious republic. Within a year the country spiralled into another bloody spring between Islamists and the rest. Terrorist attacks returned; initially sporadic shootings by armed men here and there, then focused operations on police stations and churches. Morsi was brought down and Al-Sisi was elected on an anti-terrorist nationalistic campaign. Meanwhile fuel subsidies evaporated and the Egyptian pound was devalued by half. Al-Sisi appealed to the army to step in to address market shortages and soon military manufacturers were selling everything from sugar to baby formula to cancer medicine at reduced prices, crowding out the private sector. More than ever, the Egyptian army is a complex conglomerate, untaxed and unaccountable, they own land, shipping corporations, media outlets, hotels, bridges, schools, and sporting clubs where Abu-Bakr enjoys his mango juice. After 2013, the army fellowship grew into a contagious and, at times, unsettling cast.

To bring the young into nationalism

Selfies finally stop and the bus carrying generals and followers finally crosses the new “Egypt’s gift to the world”—the New Suez Canal, built in 2016 by the army. The bus slices through traffic and checkpoints, thanks to the Generals’ armed forces IDs and races through the Sinai desert, soulless except for 1973 war monuments every few kilometres; gigantic statues of helmets, Kalashnikov bayonets, MiGs. “This land was full of blood,” says Abu-Bakr, watching the road. His mission was to provide cover for the Egyptian paratroopers, including Radwan and Hafez, to break through the Bar Lev defensive line. That is where the bus is heading. These trips are organised by pro-army clubs run by middle-aged civilians and focus on two things; to archive generals’ stories and to bring the young into nationalism. Abu-Bakr attends a few trips every year, depending on his spine, he gets especially busy around October—the anniversary of the 1973 war. The bus disembarks, as the song about the army plays on repeat and mass hysteria consumes everything in its way.

The Bar Lev sites lace the Suez Eastern bank with their underground bunkers, artillery abandoned and rusty, field telephones and radio transmitters, all the spoils of war are a part of patriotic tourism. Of four wars with Israel (in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973) 1973 is considered the only Egyptian army success. Fathers and mothers and their hyperactive kids have a chance to violate every tank or jet or machine gun found. Buzzing kids attack Israeli tanks and run around shouting die Israeli dog die. A couple finds a cosy spot on a Centurion. Men take turns grinning at the camera with a bazooka or a loaded Kalashnikov from a malnourished officer guarding the site. Giggling girls go off prowling for someone of a higher rank. The mutation of Egyptian nationalism is a century-old process, from an identity search under British occupation to a defined pan-Arabism during Nasser, followed by decades of hibernation through Mubarak’s political limbo, until today’s post-revolutionary fear-driven patriotism. The sun melts into the sands, the songs stop and dogs barking resumes. A fighter pilot who took down two Israeli jets walks holding his grandson’s hand through corroding Centurions in the orange glow, the last to leave. And the battlefield descends suddenly into loneliness again.

The president’s pilot

“Two kinds of men result from leading the life of a war pilot; those who become bitter, even aggressive, and those who crack jokes all the time,” says Abu-Bakr, “I am the joker!” To those who know him, he is a notorious prankster, and to a few close comrades he is “Captain Bakry.” He plays pranks at celebrations and funerals, only avoiding a pilot who was captured and tortured by Israelis and never recovered. He might punch Abu-Bakr. He lives with his second wife, who knows his tales by heart, in a humble flat somewhere in Nasser City, a dusty military-built district home to many generals. His prized passions are on display for journalists to marvel at, including, of course, The Order of Republic. Abu-Bakr used to be skinny, he shows a photograph of him and his former passenger, Mubarak. Now the 70-years-old “presidents’ pilot”—his nickname—taps his round belly and smiles at his wife who prepares lunch. He cannot compete with Samir’s stunts and hit lists, but he flew presidents after the war. He took Sadat to Israeli negotiations and watched him spit and curse after every meeting. To another passenger, Ariel Sharon, he pointed to Sinai and said he used to shoot at him. After Sadat’s death, Abu-Bakr was assigned to a new president, former commander of the Air Force, Mubarak. The president enjoyed hanging with pilots, recalling his own airborne days. Meanwhile on the ground, Mubarak tightened his grip on the opposition, especially Islamists who were paroled by Sadat to counter-communist opposition. In the mid nineties, terrorist attacks aimed at tourist sites spiked and led to legislation hampering political expression via formal institutions. By the late 1990s, parliamentary politics had become virtually irrelevant under a constitution that outlawed any party based on religion or class. By then Abu-Bakr retired.

The happiest experience of supersonic fighters like Samir and Abu-Bakr was the first time they switched on afterburners in their MiG21s. To this day, Samir gets goosebumps thinking of supersonic speed, no one is the same after that. Abu-Bakr remembers he looked for a demon in his cockpit when he had his first solo. Egyptian sixties were as hot as the delta wings of newly imported MiG21s. The Egyptian-Soviet comradeship began from Nasser’s clandestine weapons deals in 1954 and severed by Sadat in 1972. Soviet experts helped to build factories, the Aswan Dam, ballet schools, circuses and trained pilots, not that hot-blooded twenty year-olds like Samir or Abu-Bakr got along with cold veteran Russians.

The June 1967 shock

In 1961 the first supersonic interceptor trained by Soviets graduated, with one ace thundering by the control tower, shattering its windows; those pilots would train Samir’s and later Abu-Bakr’s squadrons. Egypt officially stepped into the supersonic age, troubling both Americans and Israelis. Fighter pilots became known as an unruly branch in the Egyptian army. The young pilots cared little about diplomacy or Israeli flypasts above Sinai, they were assured by their superiors they would defeat Israel within 24 hours. They cared only about two things: flying and girls.

One sizzling June morning in 1967 changed everything. When fresh graduate Abu-Bakr relaxed at his parents’ house in Cairo, and Samir went to have a shower after his first shift—mainly sweating in a cockpit—at Fayed airfield by the Suez, the Israelis attacked, and destroyed most of the Egyptian air force within minutes. Samir never ran as fast in his life, “It was hell! Hell on the ground,” he remembers back in his living room. He escaped from the blazing base. An Israeli Mystere shot a volley of bullets at his feet, his heart beating against his ribcage, he ran through a corridor of death emptying his pistol at the menacing machine (if I die, at least I tried to shoot that son-of-a-dog, he kept thinking). Their trajectories crossed, the Mystere flew up and Samir ran into a fence.

Things changed. Egypt sank into disillusionment. The army was deflated. Sinai was occupied. Nasser sent his top advisors to prison and reshuffled the army for the next war. Young pilots went through vigorous training. In 1969 they finally went to war to restore Egypt’s land and dignity. October 1973 was fateful, starting with a successful surprise air raid on Israeli bases in Sinai, under Mubarak’s command. The mission made the 1973 war Mubarak’s. Egyptian forces broke through the formidable Israeli Bar Lev into Sinai. One outpost was General Radwan’s conquest. The Israelis quickly retaliated—this part is underplayed in military museums and Egyptian schoolbooks—and landed a bridgehead across the canal. A ceasefire was declared. Many Egyptians died, from 5,000 to 10,000, depending on the source. Many pilots died, some in last-ditch manoeuvres plunging their damaged jets into Israeli targets, Abu-Bakr heard his comrade reciting the shahada before dropping like an arrow. The pilots developed war humour, sharp, dark and inhumane, to safeguard their sanity, “If we did not do this, we would go mad, here someone dies and there someone dies, we must laugh to forget.” War was not a place to make friends. But it brought Egypt, President Sadat and his generals’ clan a long-awaited victory.

Sadat’s look-alike

“Sadat has arrived!” The dead leader marches into the auditorium at Cairo’s Opera, packed with martyrs’ mothers of those who died in post-2011 revolts. People mob him, flashing their smartphone cameras. This impersonator has a similar bone structure, bronze skin tone and the wiry physique of the assassinated leader, the rest he carefully crafted himself; the trademark moustache, rectangular vintage glasses, Sadat’s off-duty attire, a gallabeya and, of course, the zesty wit that saw the real Sadat through the drama of postwar diplomacy. He built a TV career as the dead president. These days Saadat’s twin has a new outlet for his talent. The celebration is a bizarre display of other talents; folk dancing, sinister poems by Leukaemia patients, a man clad as a leopard mewing at the TV camera. Sadat breaks through his techie shrine onto the stage to smoke a pipe, just like the real president. Abu-Bakr, seated with a few other generals—the guests of honour—in the front row, watches the ghost of his former passenger. “May God have mercy on you, oh president!” someone shouts. The real Sadat was shot dead by an Islamist soldier at the annual October victory celebration in 1981.

Sadat has an uneasy popularity compared to Nasser, the icon of Egypt’s golden age, whose nationalistic projects included nationalising the Suez Canal, pan-Arabism and expelling the British. Sadat was a cunning man, he needed enough “victory” to pressure the Israelis for peace, which he ultimately achieved. To deal with postwar economic woes, he introduced the “Open Door” policy which spurred private investment, sidelining the public sector. Mubarak continued Sadat’s policies. To summarise Mubarak’s legacy, it’s seen as political sclerosis, ubiquitous corruption, bridges commemorating military victories (26th of July Bridge, 15th of May Bridge, etc.) and the 6th of October Panorama. It is Egypt’s most boastful 1973 memorial, with dramatic battlefield scenes lovingly painted by North Korean artists, the main building surrounded by a shrine of decommissioned MiGs. It once hosted a particular tribute to Mubarak’s heroism; a large mosaic where Mubarak presided over headquarters pointing at battle maps spread on a table, briefing Sadat and the Chief of Army Operations. Behind them cautiously tiptoe the rest of Supreme Command. After 2011, Mubarak was removed from his mosaic. His legacy was pecked by an array of vultures, from historians to flamboyant talk shows divas. Mubarak became the most unpopular of the generals and none of his twins will gatecrash events. Sadat’s twin grabs a new arrival at the Opera, an Al-Sisi impersonator. This Al-Sisi caused quite a stir lately, at the reelection of the real Al-Sisi. He appeared at one of the polling stations sending womenfolk into a frenzy. The duo cut their way through cameras to get to the stage. “Take it easy on [Al-Sisi], he is still new,” Sadat deadpans.

The army dominated the imagination of the public for six decades ever since Nasser had a revelation. Radio. From his presidential palace, he could take his nationalistic socialistic visions, coat them in his charm, and broadcast them to anyone from leftist intelligentsia to foreign advisors to illiterate workmen across the whole region. Since then the state quickly took control of the media for “national security.” State media popularised the army’s story, starting a cult of personality. When Mubarak’s stranglehold over the media collapsed, they finally could look elsewhere, for the most shocking, the most provocative and the edgiest of the ex-generals. They found Ahmed Mansoury, a “one-man show” as he calls himself, because he liked to fight the enemy alone so none of his comrades died following him. One died in 1973 after the pair took on six Phantoms in a 13-minute dogfight (usually dogfights last 2–3 minutes) against orders. Mansury’s plane ran out of fuel and he crashlanded on a highway with a truck speeding his way. He survived but his comrade died on crash landing. Mansoury still is a one-man show. He feels in his element under florescent lights and TV host’s flattery, just as he did, diving into dogfights.

Fight these “sons of dogs”

General Mansoury marches into a TV studio in Cairo Media City with a helmet emblazoned “Mansoury”, not the one he crashed his MiG21 but, one which “fought with me and saw sweat, death and blood and now is the only thing left.” Dressed in his old pressure suit, unlike Samir or Abu-Bakr, he can still fit in perfectly, and unlike them, he is unsettlingly vain. While Samir understates his account of his unsanctioned mission or how he almost died by Egyptian fishermen who thought he was Israeli after an ejection. And Abu-Bakr usually battles with eloquence and his promises of high-profile conspiracies evaporate, perhaps military censorship trims his wings. But Mansoury is the creator of his own historical thriller. He earned the aerodynamic reputation of a “crazy pilot”. The dogfight with six Phantoms, he calls a “final death manoeuvre,” though death is “a coward,” he says. He says he is “the knight fighting for the sake of God.” And something else Mansoury does that other generals wouldn’t, he calls Israelis son-of-dogs on national TV.

Mansoury wanted to be a pilot since he was tiny, watching birds roaring over his little head, flying from the air base near his house in Cairo. Then Israelis bombed that very base in 1956. The Suez Crisis was known locally as the Tripartite Aggression, with the UK, France and Israel against Nasser and his nationalisation of the canal. There Mansoury decided to fight those “canines’ descendants”. Mansoury says he took a risk but it was calculated. His comrades knew that. One day, before a dogfight, he asked his squadron to shave their heads in preparation to meet God. He claims his hair never grew back. The bold “black jaguar,” his call sign, lives in a flat with collages of old press clippings of himself as a young pilot suited, with folded veiny arms, smiling with the back-drop of his MiG21 and an eagle’s head staring down. He points at his veins on the photographs, rolls up his sleeve, tenses his arm popping out blue veins in all their glory and says, “In those veins khaki [army] blood still runs.” He is dead serious, picks up an apple from the table and splits it in two, saying, “If I hug you, I might break your ribcage.” There are 16 medals scattered around the flat, also presidential honours, fans’ eagle statues and a black Jaguaress head done by a woman who wanted to marry him. Sometimes in rare entr’actes of his grandiosity, the supersonic general succumbs to loneliness. Mansoury’s kids travelled abroad. His wife passed away. He sleeps not in their bedroom but in a “coffin-sized” cot—for the day when death finally claims him. “I want that time to return, the time of war, the flying, my wife, but the fact is … it is not possible.”

In a culture of exclusivity, those supersonic generals must remain supersonic; unreachable, unspoiled, undiminished. Physical forces that bound their fellowship—like regret, fear, weakness—should not apply to them. And if there is a shred of vulnerability, they shove it away. General Abu-Bakr says cautiously that Mansoury “is a pilot who lost his wings.” Mansoury takes a cameraman to watch him climb his old MiG 218,040 rusting away at the Panorama—the closest thing he can get to the supersonic feeling.

General Abu-Bakr could not return to flying MiGs and asked for a safe teaching position in 1971 after he crashlanded in a sandstorm, hit a cabin and killed an army cook. He pauses for a moment and disappears behind dark glasses. Samir made his last unsanctioned act in 1982 and was barred from supersonic jets since. This kind of thing the pilots keep away from their entourage. Nationalism is on the rise, reshaping the past, present and the foreseeable future of the Republic.

Those summoned supersonic pilots must perform—with some degree of coolness—national heroes. Otherwise, the chances of their legacy surviving through machismo of the army are not good. In breaks between TV appearances or battlefield trips or public oratories, in their bedrooms they dream of Barrels and Split Ss pursuing Phantoms. I ask General Samir in the end: do you miss flying? “Very, I just dreamed tonight I was flying,” smiles Samir—one of Egypt’s last surviving war mavericks.