The Magazine

Welcome to Cairo, Mr. President

Rumor and turmoil in the Egyptian capital.

Jun 8, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 36 • By JAMES F.X. O'GARA
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Closing in on three decades in power, the regime of Hosni Mubarak is totally out of gas (Fouad Ajami quotes a retired general who calls Mubarak a "civil servant with the rank of president"). But Egypt, whose most populated area is a slender, dense ribbon tracing the Nile, is nothing if not governable from the center. The Egyptian's lot is a hard one: meat prices are sky-high, unemployment and underemployment are probably close to 40 percent, the country is rudderless, and the population has doubled in the past 30 years. But the government is upbeat: Mubarak is now convinced, in the words of the semi-official media, that Cairo is much closer to Washington than is Tel Aviv, and that "Obama's forthcoming visit may signal Washington's first major rupture with Israel since president Eisenhower condemned the Tripartite Aggression in 1956."

The average Egyptian hears such talk and shrugs. President Bush was universally scorned, but in this country where skin lightening creams still fly off the shelves, Egyptians' overwhelmingly positive view of Obama is tinged by the same mild amusement evinced when a dark-skinned Egyptian is seen driving a late-model Mercedes. Obama's choice of Cairo to deliver a speech to the Muslim world on June 4 notwithstanding, there is growing hostility toward Americans on the Egyptian "street," fed as always by a corrupt government that hides America's largesse while trying to deflect the blame for its own incompetence and venality. Popular anger is also fanned by Arab satellite media, which have convinced most Egyptians that American soldiers spend their days violating Muslim holy places and flushing Korans down toilets.

The cynicism of Arab leaders, insecure in their police states and happy to see Iraq fail, is on full display in Cairo, with outdated B-roll of the fruitless search for WMD ubiquitous on local TV and commentary on America's plan to steal Iraq's oil a staple in the official press. Yet it is the satellite stations that have captured the popular imagination, and one hears more about what Egyptian-born firebrand preacher Sheikh Yusuf al Qaradawi and his ilk said on Al Jazeera last night. (Qaradawi is best known in the West for his fatwa authorizing the murder of American civilians working in Iraq.) Nightly porn broadcasts from a Cypriot satellite channel have had a significant, though less discussed, impact, exerting a subtle gravitational tug on men who would otherwise stay out all night socializing at the café. Sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians, a leading insincere cause célèbre for generations of cynical Arab regimes determined to keep the focus on Israel and not on themselves, has also become more heartfelt, thanks to saturation coverage from el dish.

Superficial hostility aside, Egyptians are remarkably curious, and by and large still melt when a foreigner stops to chat, although there's one in every crowd who probably really does detest Americans, with Israel seen as a smaller and more awful version of the United States. There is no mention here of the peace with Israel, a durable achievement that started with Anwar Sadat's offer to fly to Tel Aviv, or the Camp David Accords, which led to riotous celebrations in March 1979 when Egyptians concluded that their sons' days of being ground up in wars with Israel were finally over. Nor, for that matter, is there a mention of Sadat. Stores invariably have a Koran on display along with pictures of Mubarak and often Gamal Abdel Nasser. But trotting out the old airbrushed photos of the fallen pipe smoker from Mit Abul Qom would only invite trouble. Nor does Mubarak, who was shot in the hand in the attack that killed Sadat and eleven others, broach the subject. A local joke runs that his hand injury came about because he was pointing to Sadat during the attack, yelling "Him, him!"

Curiosity about foreigners has a downside for the visitor, and even an expat who does not relish being drawn into a heated discussion of politics and America's role in the world will sometimes rise to the challenge when confronted with an especially vehement Cairene. The visitor's first line of argument, that everyone loves his country first and would certainly never say anything bad about it while abroad, goes down remarkably well, suggesting that Egyptians have a better grasp of the concept of patriotism than, say, most Americans living in Paris.