Polished steel rifles jangled as soldiers performed a drill before a small crowd to celebrate the anniversary of the October 1973 war with Israel, at a time of discontent with Egypt’s military, as liberals scrapped an electoral alliance with Islamists in order to field more candidates.
“God is the Greatest, and long live Egypt!” yelled a spectator before a military brass band outside the Egyptian Museum launched into the national anthem.
Overhead, fighter planes and bombers in formation roared past the Mogamma complex at the other end of Tahrir Square, startling the pigeons which roost in the vast Soviet-style government building.
Sami Mursi, 60, watched the jets go by with swelling pride.
“It reminds me of the first bullet that was fired in the war,” said the battle-scarred air force veteran. “I feel just like when the war started.”
The day has been celebrated with pomp every year since Egypt launched the surprise war, in tandem with Syria, to regain territory which the Arab states lost to Israel in the devastating 1967 Six-Day War.
The result was a stalemate.
But in Egypt it is considered an astounding victory. It helped nudge Egypt and Israel into signing a 1979 peace treaty -- the first between the Jewish state and an Arab country.
And it was on this day 30 years ago when fighter jets at a military parade distracted president Anwar Sadat as an Islamist army officer who opposed the peace treaty sprinted up to the stand and shot him dead.
Former airforce chief and vice president Hosni Mubarak took over power. Under his rule, Egyptians never warmed to Israel.
This year the anniversary came as the military, in power since a popular revolt ousted Mubarak in February, finds itself under growing fire from activists and political parties demanding a clear transition to civilian rule.
Rights activists also accuse soldiers of torturing detainees and stifling the press, charges the military has denied.
October war generation
The military brass band in Tahrir Square, epicenter of the revolt that overthrew Mubarak, came after a broadcast speech by Egypt’s military ruler Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi.
“The youths of this generation are a continuation of the October (war) generation, which has a sense of responsibility for the greater national good when they contributed to achieving victory through great sacrifices,” he said, according to AFP.
Mursi, who revealed shrapnel scars on his head and torso as he reminisced about the war, said he hoped this anniversary would “reconcile the military with the people.”
But for activists such as Rasha Azab, who says she was beaten by soldiers who set up a makeshift prison in the Egyptian Museum after a protest in March, Tantawi’s words rang hollow.
The journalist and veteran campaigner said she respected “simple soldiers who fought to liberate our lands” such as Mursi.
But she accused the military leadership which took over from Mubarak of exploiting the anniversary of the war and the revolt against the president, himself a 1973 war hero.
“It no longer defends land and honor. It defends its own political interests,” she said.
Tantawi has repeatedly pledged the military will cede power after Egypt holds a presidential election, expected to take place in 2012.
“Our great people, who rejected defeat and the Setback (in the 1967 defeat) and liberated every inch of its sacred territory is capable of crossing this difficult, sensitive and decisive period,” Tantawi said in his speech.
He said Egypt would become “a civil, modern state, based on peaceful democracy.”
Electoral alliance scrapped
Meanwhile, Egypt’s leading liberal party Wafd has scrapped an electoral alliance with the Muslim Brotherhood, the country’s largest political force, because it wants to field more candidates than the tie-up would have allowed, said a senior Wafd official.
The Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), the Brotherhood’s political wing, and Wafd led an alliance of 34 parties from across the political spectrum that planned to coordinate on lists of candidates for the first elections since Mubarak was ousted from office.
“The party’s higher committee unanimously decided to contest elections in a separate list and member parties of the alliance should choose to join either (the FJP or Wafd) lists,” Essam Sheha, member of Wafd’s higher committee, told Reuters.
Egyptian politics were dominated for decades by Mubarak’s now defunct National Democratic Party which was widely accused of ballot stuffing, vote buying and intimidation.
The well-organized Brotherhood was banned from formal politics but ran candidates as independents.
The army generals now ruling the country have pledged a transition to democracy and the elections will test whether the political forces unleashed by Mubarak’s overthrow will cooperate enough to allow for stable government.
Tension between liberals and Islamists
Tensions have emerged between liberals and Islamists over Egypt’s planned new constitution to be drafted by a constituent assembly appointed by parliament.
Islamic groups including the Brotherhood staged a mass protest on July 29 demanding the application of sharia (Islamic law).
Fourteen Liberal and Leftist groups have formed a coalition called the “Egyptian Bloc” calling for a civil state in which the principles of sharia are the main source of legislation.
Wafd’s leadership has faced internal opposition from members and criticism from liberal groups over the alliance with the Brotherhood. Two members of its higher committee have resigned from their posts.
Sheha denied that the decision to quit the electoral alliance was based on an ideological dispute. “We withdrew from the electoral alliance because we had a lot of candidates and the available places in the list weren't enough,” he said.
Cooperation with the Brotherhood would continue in other areas, he said, and a meeting of the alliance would take place on Saturday.
Political parties had demanded that all seats in parliament be allocated to candidates on party lists, instead of the two thirds as now stipulated under the election law.
The result is that there are fewer spaces for candidates on the party lists than the parties had hoped for.
The alliance parties as well as other groups threatened to boycott the elections unless the ruling military council make changes to the elections laws that would prevent members of Mubarak’s disbanded party to run in the elections but retracted shortly after concessions from the council.