Alternative Facts & Official Histories: Trump’s America/Sisi’s Egypt

On Monday I returned to Trump’s America, a self-declared bastion of “alternative facts,” falsehoods clad in a negligée of truth. I missed the inauguration, but many Egyptians did not. Hardly a day passed when I was not asked my opinion about our new president.

“Obama – khalas,” said the old man baker who never sleeps, as he weighed my little bag of cheese buns. “Trumb!” (There’s no p in Arabic.) I grimaced. The baker’s “Trumb!” was not gleeful; he, like most Egyptians who asked me about the election, think Trump is bombastic, erratic, and arrogant. His inauguration speech served only to further America’s reputation for national narcissism. In short, most reactions to Trump I encountered in Egypt can be summarized as: “So, uh, what happened, guys?” – followed by “We get it, he’s kind of like Sisi.”

Egyptians know what it feels like on the other side. They also know that when it seems bad, it can get much worse. There was no women’s solidarity march in Cairo on January 21, because there are no marches in Cairo anymore. Hope is hibernating. At home, the New York Times dismantled the new administration’s remarks on inauguration turnout with a headline that plainly labeled them “false claims.” In Egypt, hardly any independent media is left. The president’s claims can never be false, even when they are far from true.

Truth has worn several disguises in Egypt over the past six years, and when new facts are crafted, old versions of history disappear – rapidly, it turns out. One evening last week, I went to Madbouly, one of downtown Cairo’s old and venerated bookshops.

“Do you have My Journey with the Muslim Sisterhood?” I asked the clerk. He looked uncomfortable and mumbled something to his colleague. An older guy – the manager, maybe – who was sitting in the back of the shop called me over.

“What do you want with that book?” he asked me, raising his voice.

“It’s for the research of an Egyptian friend who is studying in Turkey,” I added defensively.

“Turkey! That explains it – they’re extremists. They’re all Ikhwan.”  Taken aback, I reiterated that it was for a friend’s academic thesis. Why should need to justify my request for a book at all?

“Well, we’re finished with the Brotherhood. They’re done,” he sneered. “We don’t want to hear anything about them ever again. So we wouldn’t have a book like that.” (Neither, as it turned out, would any other bookstore in Cairo.)

The bookseller lectured me on the evils of extremism. But then he paused:

“So – Trump!” he announced, suddenly in a better mood. “Strong guy!”

The bookshop manager also saw something of Sisi in Trump, but unlike most of the Egyptians I spoke to, he was a fan of both. Trump didn’t know much, he conceded. But what mattered was that he, like Sisi, projected Teflon confidence in himself. Both men, he believed, would exterminate “the extremists” (the Muslim ones, that is) at any cost.

As I was leaving, I glanced at the front shelf by the door. It was lined with a series of thick, academic-looking volumes that unfolded in detail every permutation of the CIA, the Jews, and the Muslim Brotherhood’s collective plots to destroy Egypt and the Arab world. I thought about the recent arrival of Breitbart and Birtherism to the White House. Conspiracy theories and official histories are symbiotic. When a plurality of voices flatten into a monochrome, conspiracy theories seep into official histories, becoming convincing because they cannot be challenged. They blossom in the voids left by the vapidity of official narrative.

In Egypt, no site of historical memory is more insipid than the 6 October War Panorama. Built in 1989 (the ubarak era), the Panorama is lodged amid an endless zone of monumental yet uninspiring architecture – mostly military officers’ clubs, halls, and parade grounds. (Next-door is the ostensibly more enticing yet equally grim-looking International Bowling Center.) 1973 is remembered in Egypt as a spectacular victory, an ingenious comeback after the 1967 defeat that humiliated Nasser and lost the Sinai. This museum, which no Egyptian friend I asked had ever visited or cared to visit, tells the story in a three-dimensional rotating panorama show. It is the army’s history, as told by the army.

Outside the theater there are two lines of tanks: Egyptian on one side, Israeli on the other. A young soldier named Walid walked us through, explaining that he would be finishing his service soon and wanted to go back to working as a swim coach.

“You know what I love about America? American democracy,” he told us. Then, hardly pausing, he gestured toward the Egyptian tanks. “Ours are Russian-made. The captured Israeli ones? All American.”

One of us remarked that these days, Egypt’s army is receiving massive shipments of American weapons (and aid).

“No, no – it all comes from Russia!” he insisted. “Really, I promise.”

My friend Miriam and I were the only two in the panorama show, amid dozens of empty velvet seats. As the narration played and we spun slowly in the dark, Walid chatted to me about his career plans, parental pressure to marry, and his desire to travel. He asked us if we enjoyed the show, but seemed glad it was over. Teslam el Ayady (“Bless These Hands”) was playing when the lights flicked on.

May those hands be safe
May the army of our country be safe
 As life took us for a loop
A voice filled with kindness said
May our hands be severed from our bodies
If they touch Egyptians!
Said a real man [son of a real man]
We swear you fulfilled your oath!

It wasn’t the the battle cry of 1973, but the hymn of Sisi’s presidential run, 41 years later. The song was released in the summer of 2013, just after the coup, and features images of Sisi in his signature dark glasses greeting fans, interspersed with footage of military training exercises.

The compression of past and present is a key tool in history made to serve the state. The 6 October Panorama is a memorial not to history, but to the army as an institution and to its top commanders – those from whom today’s president has inherited his power.

A few weeks before my visit to the Panorama, I wandered into a temporary exhibition at a public museum just off Taksim Square, in Istanbul. “News, 1916: What Was Happening in Our Country 100 Years Ago?” the exhibit asked. Of course it wasn’t Turkey in 1916, but the Ottoman Empire: the elision is largely the point. 1916 was the year of the Ottoman victory at Gallipoli. The exhibition followed the Ottoman army from Anatolia through Arabia to Libya, marshaling a slew of interesting newspaper articles, diaries, and letters to document both life on the battlefield and the attitudes of the patriotic media at home. Mostly in Turkish (i.e., not intended primarily for foreign audiences), the accompanying text used carefully chosen language like “our soldiers’ victories” and “the sacred motherland.” If the Ottomans had clearly lost a battle, the focus shifted from military glory to the brutality and immorality of the “infidels.” The exhibit underscored the Islamic identity of the Ottomans through World War I, something the Islamist AKP government has been keen to do, as well as the continuity of Turkish identity and institutions from the late Ottoman period to the present. (Atatürk was determined to sever ties to both.)

In the last room a jarring surprise awaited. The walls were hung with posters of people’s faces: on the right, “Our martyrs of 1916” and, on the left, “Our martyrs of July 15, 2016.” The latter referred to last summer’s failed coup; these were the faces of the soldiers who died putting it down. What, if anything, do the Ottoman soldiers who died at Gallipoli have to do with the Turkish soldiers who died on the Bosphorus Bridge? Does this strange pairing give profundity to the deaths of our own time or relevance to those of another?

Back in America, I wonder what histories will be mustered to support the “alternative facts” the new administration holds dear. I don’t think Trump himself has much interest in history – it usually involves reading books – even to use it irresponsibly. But because the past provides evidence against the falsehoods of the present, it too will become a battleground.

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