Ramadan 2008 will be remembered for a long time.
This year the holy month kicked off with the arrest of one of the richest men in the country in connection with Egypt’s murder mystery of the century; a week later a disastrous rockslide crushed 35 homes in a shantytown leaving behind a confirmed death toll of over a hundred people and tens reported missing; then came the fire that gutted Egypt’s over 80-year-old national theater about five weeks after the great Shoura Council inferno; all followed by the much-anticipated verdict in Al-Dostour editor-in-chief Ibrahim Eissa’s court case where he was sentenced to two months in prison for “spreading rumors about the President’s health; and all the while the US economic meltdown on the other side of the Atlantic ushered in a global recession that struck a heavy blow to the Egyptian stock market in a ripple effect that has stoked fears of faltering growth rates which can only serve to exacerbate Egypt’s simmering social tension.
But truth be told, it hasn’t all been bad news on the eastern front. The hostage situation which saw 19 Egyptians and tourists kidnapped near Gilf El-Kebir leaving us bewildered for days, ended just as suddenly as it began right before Eid El-Fitr, thanks to the intervention of none other than Egypt’s special forces who brought back all the hostages safe and sound without having the Germans pay one cent of the ?6 million ransom.
And as if the media was just thirsting for any piece of good news for a change, Egypt’s state-owned, independent and opposition press for the first time in a long time published relatively similar reports of how Egyptian commandoes saved the day.
To be honest, my immediate reaction to the news was one of incredulity. “This must be the biggest spin operation in the history of Egypt’s special forces, I though to myself.
Like the little boy who cried wolf it was hard to believe that anything remotely related to the Egyptian government can function properly. The growing loss of confidence was fuelled by one story of government failure and negligence after the next in dealing with national crises that claimed the lives of hundreds of Egyptians and squandered priceless heritage sites.
The suspicions were somewhat confirmed when conflicting reports by foreign news agencies started cropping up. While the independent Al-Masry Al-Youm credited the rescue operation to 150 Egyptian commandoes with no help from the Sudanese or the Germans, the opposition Al Wafd, though still acknowledging Egypt’s vital role, claimed that the Sudanese had taken out six of the kidnappers and that the Egyptians had accomplished their mission in coordination with Chad, where the hostages had been taken; a detail which was denied by Chad officials. Italian and German intelligence were also said to have been instrumental in the successful implementation of the rescue.
Still it all seemed too good to be true, a fact evidenced by the statement of Sudanese foreign ministry official Ali Youssef who said that the kidnappers had released the hostages who had crossed the border into Egypt on their own following a Sudanese shootout on Monday. The Egyptians only completed the operation in Chad after the Sudanese had secured the hostages.
The stangest version of the story was reported by Asharq Alawsat newspaper which allegedly interviewed one of the freed Egyptian hostages Abdel Rehim Ragab Said.
According to his account of what happened the kidnappers had released them in Chad on Sept. 28 on Sunday night at around 8 pm. They packed them all into one of their four Toyota Cruisers with little food and water, but gave them a GPS satellite locator. They kept driving due east for almost 300 km until they were apprehended by Egyptian forces who flew them back to Egypt. He denied witnessing any armed conflict between the kidnappers and either Egyptian or Sudanese forces.
A statement by the Italian foreign minister corroborated this story when on Tuesday Sept. 30, he denied ever having spoken of a raid or a violent incursion, stressing that the hostages were freed without any bloodshed.
Reports along the same lines appeared in Der Spiegel, The Times and The Guardian.
But it seems that as far as many Egyptians are concerned, what actually happened is irrelevant in a way. What I found astounding was people’s willingness to believe in the extraordinary prowess of our special armed forces. No matter who I spoke to, whether it was a fellow journalist, an ex-police officer a political pundit or a housewife, they all agreed that the military is the last man standing, Egypt’s only truly functional state-affiliated body.
It’s hard not to agree.
Earlier this year at the height of the bread crisis when lower income families were queuing up for hours to buy the subsidized five-piaster bread loaves from government bakeries and over ten people died in related violence, it was the intervention of the military forces’ bakeries that helped contain the crisis for lack of an emergency plan.
Similarly when the site of the Duweiqa rockslide was about to gravitate into a violent confrontation between angry and bereaved survivors of the shantytown who threatened to close off the Autostrad, and the riot police, it was the army that restored a semblance of order, not to mention providing heavy machinery required to aid the rescue effort.
So, whether or not they single-handedly saved the day in the hostage crisis, hats off to Egypt’s answer to the SWAT team. True that, if anything, their deployment in none-military related issues is stark evidence of the failure of most other government institutions, they do get the job done. Just where the army’s loyalties will be directed in case of serious political upheaval continues to be taboo – a subject that is, as yet, off limits to the media.
Still October 6 is certainly a day worth remembering with nostalgia: Happy Armed Forces Day everyone. At the very least, we all get the day off.
Rania Al Malky is the Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.