By Marie-Jeanne Berger
The most recent attempts by the country’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to police the minds of Egyptians has led to a gregarious poster campaign around Cairo. Large photographs of a soldier cradling a baby with the slogan “Al-Gaysh wa Al-Sha’ab Eed Wahda” (The Army and the People are One Hand) have been plastered around the bigger arteries leading out of the city on such roads as Salah Salem, as well as the backs of public transport buses, crowding the mind of the already over-burdened citizen with a number of bewildering questions. Who is the impish designer who fabricated such devious mind sucks? Why? Why do the backgrounds change from fluffy clouds to white to swirly flags? What is this baby/soldier alliance? And how has this image become such a striking symbol of the Egyptian military, finding so central a role in the iconography of this military power?
The poster began to appear around Cairo the day before the planned general strike on Feb. 11. Tanks were stationed in major squares around the city. Many of these tanks were plastered with—yes—bumper stickers, affixed with the same message: The army and the people are one hand. There was also a miniature version of the poster as bumper sticker.
These were stuck to the sides of heavily armored, camouflaged fighting vehicles. The only real purpose of this kind of vehicle is to shoot ammunition at people. The idea that a picture of a baby would somehow mitigate the violence of this killing car is ironic at best, and dreadfully foolish at worst. Like a pig in a wig, this ingenuous disguise did not hide the true identity of the vehicle; the bumper stickers served only to frustrate passersby with the idiocy of the whole operation. Over the past few weeks, in infinite jest, more and more posters have come to grace the highways; some are slightly different, but they all depict the same figures: soldier, baby, army, people. But this is not the first appearance of such a kind of image. In fact, it has existed much longer in the lexicon of military totalitarianism.
The most perfunctory research on the subject (type Al-Gaysh wa Al-Sha’ab Eed Wahda into Google Image) reveals a plethora of such baby/soldier images. You can find a further glut of pictures by simply typing in ‘soldier and baby.’ You can see babies in camouflage onesies, babies being kissed by soldiers and a few images with babies on automatic rifles or inexplicably holding guns. A Russian propaganda poster from the 1960s, titled, “Russian baby with soldier” also reveals a similar image. But what exactly does this emblem suggest about the army and its propaganda machine?
Because of the reality of conscription, most Egyptians have a positive impression of the military, at least in regard to its lower echelons. Indeed, the infantry is made up of the sons of Egyptians: young, naïve and serving because they are compelled to. During the protests of January and February 2011, many Egyptians viewed the army as a necessary opposition to the ostensibly corrupted police forces. The army was set up as the only formidable force to defy the paper tiger of the police, who brutally assaulted and arrested protestors in the early months of the uprising. The army ‘protected’ these people. The apparent difference between the police and the army, is the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense, respectively, but both forces are controlled by the same governing entity: the nebulous ‘state,’ which during this period at least, is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
The past few months have witnessed the focus of protests shift from criticizing Mubarak to criticizing SCAF. The root of SCAF power is restricted to a small, exclusive cabal of powerbrokers who use the immense organizational institution of the army to carry out its operations in the self-interest of a few. Naturally, it has been difficult for people to realize the difference between those who are serving at the base of the operation, and those who control the finances and political will of the country. After Mubarak fell, people felt the dawning awareness that the skeleton of the political regime in this country had not changed, only the skin hanging off of it. As public opinion changed, the military was forced to react to repair its reputation; the posters are an example of this. Good, old-fashioned PR.
But what exactly is this poster representing? One taxi driver explained that the image symbolizes the army carrying its people. I suggested that the poster indicated that the people were incontinent, powerless and dribbled onto their chins. Incapable to walk or stand alone, they must be carried through life by some grander father figure, a patriarch in fatigues. The kind of fatigues that American military aid has bought and paid for, judging by the quality of the gear. More importantly, the photograph speaks to the submission of the Egyptian to a totalitarian, dictatorial state. We have seen images of propaganda before. A trawling of the propaganda disseminated by such regimes as Maoist China, Hitler’s Germany, North Korea under Kim Jong Il, Stalin, Lenin and Fascist Italy all depict the men that will protect the country. In this propaganda, a tricky displacement has occurred. The power of a few is depicted as the power of many: the many being those serving in the Egyptian military. This is misleading, and altogether obscures and sanctions the actions of the SCAF behind the blanket of the army in full.
But the poster also speaks to a much more worrying reality: the militarization of society. The increasing presence of soldiers, walls, fences, tanks, armored vehicles, censorship and general surveillance are all a testament to this — the poster, its product.
Our confrontation with these kinds of images furthers to reify them, and naturalize the content of the image. In this photograph, safety and security of the ignorant masses is displayed by the proximity of the baby’s body to the assault rifle slung across the body of the soldier. Furthermore, the soldier is wearing the costume of war—full camo, vest and helmet. Does this mean that Egypt is in a current state of warfare that the army is somehow bearing? Or will it happen in the near future?
Is it a constant state of war, and if so, who are they fighting?
In the war of ideas, propaganda has a crucial role to play in maneuvering public opinion. While the images may at first seem so harmlessly amateur as to be unworthy of criticism (Clouds? Is this a fantasy warzone? Played out in the sky? Can soldiers float? Are they Superman?), public space in this city has become an intense ideological battlefield. As one cab driver told me, “Yes, these images are on the street, but please, hurry while you take the picture. The army owns these streets.”