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Authors: Ben Coes

First Strike

BOOK: First Strike
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To Susan Coes

My mother, my first reader, who taught me and many others to love books,

who worked so very hard so that my brother, sister, and I could aspire, who raised us with love

 

The question all Americans must ask themselves lingers painfully:

How does a war like this ever end?

—J
EREMY
S
CAHILL
,
Dirty Wars

 

PROLOGUE

PRESIDENTIAL PALACE

CAIRO, EGYPT

FOUR YEARS AGO

The meeting room in Egypt's presidential palace looked largely the same as it did three centuries before. Ten-foot-tall windows let in soft sunlight through a latticework of finely crafted decorative grating. The walls were covered in ornate green-and-white wallpaper, hand-painted by one of Egypt's most famous artists. A ceiling of coffered gold was imprinted with images from mythology. From its centermost point, a massive marble-and-glass chandelier dangled, refracting the room's natural light in thatches of beams that fluttered as a gentle wind made its white and pink tendrils dance in peaceful rhythm.

The room's timeless beauty was juxtaposed with the chaos outside. Bloodcurdling screams came from Tahrir Square's teeming masses of protesters. Inside the room, angry yelling echoed from President Morsi and his assembled cabinet, crowded around the center of the conference table, shouting at each other in bitter recrimination and second guessing.

A year before, the leaders of the Middle East's most populous country had all toiled in obscurity as the senior wing of the Muslim Brotherhood. Now they were cabinet members serving in the presidential administration of Mohammed Morsi. The Brotherhood had succeeded in climbing to power. Egypt—one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful countries in the Middle East—had elected Morsi president. He was the Arab Spring's most tangible result, and with his election the Brotherhood had gone from the fringes of jihad to political relevance.

But that was all about to end. The Arab Spring had come and gone. Leading an actual country quickly exposed Morsi for what he was: a bumbling, ineffectual, megalomaniac a hundred times more despotic than Hosni Mubarak, the dictator he replaced. Since his election in June, Morsi had made one terrible decision after another, shutting down the judiciary, then disbanding parliament, and ultimately decreeing his actions to be above the law because he
was the law.

Populist fever still teemed in Cairo's streets, but now it was coming for Morsi. His time—their time—was slipping away, and they all knew it. They all felt it. Cairo … the presidency … Egypt … everything they'd worked for, sacrificed for, lied, cheated, and killed for … soon it would be gone.

Power would be gone.

Morsi sat at the end of the table. He looked tired. He had on thick-lens glasses with metal rims. He ran his fingers over his neatly trimmed beard. He slouched forward, listening to the debate.

It was Garotin, the Muslim Brotherhood's young military strategist, who held the floor.

“The Egyptian military is aligning themselves against you, Mr. President,” he said. “The old factions have buried their differences.”

The sweat on Garotin's forehead, the anger in his voice; all of it revealed a sense of desperation and futility.

“We control the military,” said Morsi.

“We do?” asked Garotin, annoyance and disgust in his voice. “You do understand the military has the guns and the soldiers, Mr. President?”

The shouting from Tahrir Square coming through the windows grew louder and more savage.


Almawt i Marsi! Almawt i Marsi!

Death to Morsi!

“You're the minister of defense,” said Morsi. “It's your job to rein them in.”

“General Catabalis will not accept my calls. Meetings are canceled without explanation. The generals are not listening.”

“The commander general of the armed forces reports to you, not the other way around,” said Burj, Morsi's foreign minister.

“Yes, that's right,” added Morsi. “Tell the generals to clear out Tahrir Square and bring stability back to the city. Surely they don't want a repeat of the Arab Spring?”

Garotin shook his head in shock.

“Are you all blind?” he said, his voice rising. “It's obvious, Mr. President. The military is taking back the country and making it look like they're saving it, all because of your … your…”

Garotin could not finish the sentence. The entire room was waiting for him. He stared at Morsi but was unable to utter the word.

Another man spoke up, finishing Garotin's sentence: “Incompetence.”

All eyes in the room shot to a man in the corner. He stood near the windows. A black eye patch covered his right eye. He muttered the word barely above a whisper, yet it cut across the pandemonium like a knife through butter.

Tristan Nazir, at thirty, looked no older than a college student. He was thin and wore a blue button-down shirt. He had close-cropped black hair. He was good-looking, not handsome so much as professional-looking, clean-cut, perfectly put together, as if he'd just stepped out of a meeting of the university debate club. The eye patch, however, lent an altogether darker air to his demeanor: empathy for whatever injury had befallen him, fear for the violence it implied.

Nazir stared at Morsi. “I believe that is what you mean to say, Minister Garotin, is it not?”

The silence didn't last long.


How dare you!

El-Farka, Morsi's chief of staff, lurched from his seat and charged toward the corner of the room, pushing past the others, trying to get to Nazir.


Call the presidential guard!
” yelled Burj.

Morsi, for the first time, raised his voice.

“Stop your silliness, Hosni!” he said, speaking to his hothead chief of staff and pointing at the chair. “Sit down at once, or
you
will be the one arrested.”

Silence replaced the chaos and shouting.

Morsi waved his hand, calling Nazir over. Nazir stepped around the table, past El-Farka, and walked to Morsi's side. He bowed slightly out of respect, then straightened up and met Morsi's gaze.

“Tristan?” said Morsi, barely remembering his name. “The finance expert, yes? Oxford?”

“Yes, Mr. President.”

“Incompetent?” said Morsi, quoting him. “Is this what you think of me, Tristan?”

Nazir stared into Morsi's eyes. He glanced at Garotin, then El-Farka, then went back to Morsi.

“Yes,” he answered. He betrayed neither anger, fear, disgust, nor for that matter, emotion. He answered Morsi matter-of-factly. “While I was merely trying to help Minister Garotin complete his sentence, yes, I would call you incompetent, Mr. President. It does not mean that I don't like you, sir.”

A chorus of yells took over the room, yet Morsi didn't seem to notice. He locked eyes with Nazir. When the shouting in the room didn't end, he raised his hand.

“Will you all shut up,” he said.


But surely you cannot allow this impudence?

“I would rather hear a man's honest opinion than a bunch of flattery and lies.”

He nodded to Nazir. “Tell me, son, what would you do if you were in my position?”

“Excuse me, sir?”

“Tristan, if you were president of Egypt, what would you do?”


Yes, what would you do, traitor?
” someone shouted.

Nazir looked calmly in the direction of the remark.

“And you, Minister Burj, who has architected President Morsi's self-destruction, what are you then, if not a traitor?”

“I … I am a patriot,” he stammered. “
A patriot!

“A patriot to what?” asked Nazir coldly. “To Egypt? To the Muslim Brotherhood? The former is about to imprison you, and the latter will soon cease to exist.”

Another pause as collective shock swept the room.


To the caliphate!
” said Burj, standing up, pounding the table in sync with his words, stammering. “To a country ruled by Islam!”

“A noble idea to be sure, but what good is an idea if it is only that?” asked Nazir. “Ruling is about power—the acquisition of power, the maintenance of power, and the custody of power. It is about having the strength to demand that your own people sacrifice their lives in a larger struggle. It's about the willingness to kill.”

“The bloodshed must end!”

“The United States was born in the blood of murdered Indians and British and the sacrifice of their own people,” said Nazir calmly. “It was done because they had one supreme objective: a country.”

Nazir's words were stated in a quiet voice. When he finished, a long silence took over the room.

“This is blasphemy,” yelled El-Farka from across the conference table. “We are not the United States. Praise Allah!”

“Right now, we have one of the largest militaries in the world,” said Nazir. “We have more than four billion barrels of oil reserves in the central territories. These are the structural necessities of power and permanent statehood, yet we're content to watch them slip through our fingers, like sand.”

Morsi held up his hand to shut up El-Farka. He looked at Nazir.

“Your tongue is sharp, Tristan. Be careful. It will get you in trouble. I asked you a question: What would you do?”

“I apologize, sir,” said Nazir. “What would I do? If I were president, I would go to Catabalis's home and take his family. I would then have the leverage to ask Catabalis to impose martial law. Immediately. Today. Right now. After that, I would fire all military officers above the rank of colonel and have them imprisoned.”

He paused and looked around the room.

“I would behead them all.”

Shocked groans came from several people in the room.

“In five years, few would remember my actions. Those who did would fear me. But we would have a country. A nation.
A caliphate.
That is all that matters.”

BOOK: First Strike
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