In this ongoing series, Ahram Online celebrates several of Egypt's Coptic-Christian war heroes who risked life and limb in defence of their homeland
He was one of the pilots who took part on what has become known in contemporary Egyptian history as “the first air strike” that kicked off the October War in 1973. He was also one of the pilots taking part in the Air Force show in the 1981 October Parade that President Anwar El-Sadat looked up at to observe when militant Islamists in the army shot him dead.
He is retired General Medhat Labib, who is carefully observing the political and economic concerns of a country he “would never hesitate to die for.”
He is fearful about present developments, but has faith-driven hope nonetheless.
Labib's reasons for concern vary from what he deems unconfident state management to the decline of national unity sentiment across wide sections of society, though “certainly not all” of it.
“There are so many people who died to make sure that this country is free and proud; it would be extremely unfair, not just to those living but also to those martyrs who willingly gave their lives, and to their families who had to live the loss, for this country to move backwards rather than forwards,” says Labib.
Economic decline, in the view of this carefully observant man, would be catastrophic for a people who went through a revolution with the hope of having a better tomorrow. “Egyptians have given so much during times of war to liberate Egyptian territories. They were giving unconditionally; they put up with so much. And the revolution of 25 January was prompted among other things by economic frustration. Our people deserve better,” Labib adds.
A better future for all Egyptians, “without any gender or religion-based discrimination,” is possible should the focus be to prompt the energy of all Egyptians and gear it in the positive direction of production. “It is certainly possible. How else do you think that the October War happened after the defeat of 1967. How do you think the army managed to regain faith and go into a very tough combat with faith and determination? It is positive — it took leadership and it took faith,” Labib argues.
This faith was not just about religion, “although it would be silly to undermine the firm base of religion in the lives of all Egyptians, whether Christians or Muslims.” But the paramount faith at the time was in Egypt, “a country for all Egyptians, with no discrimination, or almost so,” Labib recalls.
It was this faith that made it possible for Egyptian jet fighters to carry out the "first air strike" with a much fewer number of planes and pilots than the standard requirement, and it was faith that allowed the army keep pushing onward, despite the fall of so many martyrs in the early hours of the war. The people gave as much as they could to help support the army, Labib states.
His wife Nahed agrees, adding that the families of officers and soldiers at the front were not just praying for the safe return of their loved ones, but also for victory for Egypt.
“We believed we had to reclaim Sinai — Sinai was about our honour; we had to defend our honour,” Labib adds.
This retired Air Force general is not interested in discussing stories circulating in the press about the fate of Sinai and the many foreign projects that some have suggested may be in progress there. One thing and one thing only he sticks to: the Egyptian nation, not just the army, worked hard for years, with some of the best men lost, to reclaim and retain Sinai. The nation will "never" compromise the pennisular — this before Minister of Defence Abdel-Fattah El-Sissi issued directives constraining the sale of properties in Sinai to Egyptian citizens of exclusively Egyptian parents.
The army is another red line on what Labib will be drawn to say. “It is off limits for public debate. I believe it should be; it is the heart and soul of the national security of this country and its secrets should never be given away,” says Labib in response to questions about rumoured discontent within the army on current developments in Egypt.
Labib himself voted for Ahmed Shafiq, the second runner in the 2012 presidential elections who had lost to now President Mohamed Morsi. He voted out of faith in the “abilities of this man of the armed forces to do what it takes to give Egypt a push forward." Having served with him, Labib believed that Shafiq had the qualities of disciplined administration that he thought were desperately needed to make up for the last 10 years of the rule of Hosni Mubarak, which he says were marked by “political stupidity.”
Mubarak himself, and “away from the charges he is facing in the wake of the 25 January Revolution, because this is something that I cannot stand testimony to at all,” was a good member of the armed forces. As director of the Military Academy in theyear 1969 when Labib was graduating, and as head of the Air Defence where Labib served before, during and after the October War, “Mubarak was disciplined, hardworking, committed and keen on the interests of all the members of the Air Force,” he said. He added that this was not necessarily the case when Sadat upgraded Mubarak to vice president, and was not at all the case when Mubarak himself became president following Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
Labib argues that the first 10 years of the three-decade rule of Mubarak were “passable." “He did alright; he showed none of the visionary or leadership qualities of either [Gamal Abdel] Nasser or Sadat, but he got the country through the very difficult phase following Sadat’s assassination.”
In the second decade of Mubarak’s rule, according to Labib, “Mubarak’s performance dropped to unsatisfactory, and then it kept getting worse." “But for sure, Mubarak of the October War was not Mubarak of February 2011,” when he stepped down after 18 days of nationwide demonstrations demanding his ouster.
This said, Labib argues that it would be unfair to judge the entire rule of Mubarak by his last years in office. He also finds it unfair to shift from the impeccable celebration of the "first air strike" of the October War to undermining the value of this attack in deciding the course of the October War.
Fairness is a keyword for Labib. He finds it "unfair" to credit the army away from the people for the October victory, adding that it is "only fair" for Egyptians to aspire for prosperity and that it is "not fair" to judge an individual’s share of success or promotion on the basis of his religion. As such, Labib with some hesitation, dismay and frustration, finds it also “unfair” to blame Mubarak only for the decline of religious tolerance, or to suggest that the current state of religious intolerance, “which is still surmountable if the state leadership acts in the right and wise way,” can be pinned on the falling out between Sadat and the head of the Coptic Church at the early 1980s, the late Pope Shenouda III.
“The marginalisation of Copts in Egypt is a long story that started way before the rule of Sadat and that persisted after him and to date,” Labib argues. It is a marginalisation, he adds, that should have started to be rolled away after the 25 January Revolution that brought Muslims and Copts together in a joint patriotic act — arguably the first since the October War.
“But I am not worried. One day this marginalisation will come to an end, because at the end unfairness cannot prevail forever. This would not be the will of God,” he concludes.