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cynicism of Arab leaders, insecure in their police states and happy to see Iraq fail, is on full display in Cairo, with outdated B-roll of the fruitless search for WMD ubiquitous on local TV and commentary on America's plan to steal Iraq's oil a staple in the official press.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.
Failing that, and putting the lie to all the tongue clucking about how "badly" things are going in Iraq, the foreigner can note that Iraq--a "Shia" country no less--is blossoming into the first Arab democracy. The first time this line of argument was deployed, the questioner, a vehement, hateful type, got up from his seat at the café without a word and walked away. (And he didn't come back with a gun. There are some benefits to traveling in a police state.)
News travels fast in Cairo but it usually travels wrong. In the 1980s, riots broke out and people were killed over a wild rumor that Christians were spray-painting crosses on Muslim women's dresses using invisible ink. Subsequent rumors claimed that the iconic label of Coca-Cola (the company was fresh out from under a two-decade Arab League boycott for having a bottling plant in Israel) showed the Arabic words "No Mohammed, No Mecca" when viewed in the mirror. One would imagine that with a little squinting, literate Egyptians would be uniquely positioned to disconfirm such a thesis. In the end, it took Egypt's grand mufti to issue an opinion that the logo had been "designed in Atlanta 114 years ago in the state of Georgia and was written in a foreign language, not Arabic."
No sooner had the Coke business been put to bed than another rumor cropped up claiming that aftermarket seat belts made in Israel contained a chemical designed to make Arab men sterile (Cairo's enormous fleet of cabs have been retrofitting seatbelts in recent years). As with the invisible ink rumor, this one probably cannot be disproved, though with population densities in "popular" quarters pushing 1,000 per acre, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. Not surprisingly, Egyptians get on each other's nerves. Surprisingly, they don't seem to mind living packed together. In her superb book Cairo: City of Sand, Maria Golia retells a joke about a peasant who comes into town complaining of a toothache. He tells the dentist to pull out all the teeth except the bad one. "Let this son of a dog be all alone." To be alone is to be punished.
Cairo's insane overcrowding reaches its worst in the Manshiet Nasser neighborhood, an old dump largely reclaimed by Christian migrant workers and recently cut off from the rest of the city by a superhighway. The garbage workers, or zabbaleen, have created a system to sort out 16 types of trash, from paper to glass to cloth, and of course food. Eking out a living in the collapsing splendor of Cairo is no mean feat; more remarkable still is the way illiterate peasant migrants from the countryside have found steady work in sorting, cleaning, melting, and otherwise recycling garbage, all done with machinery that would cause an OSHA inspector to faint. A recent documentary by filmmaker Engi Wassef reveals that the worst jobs, such as culling the slop for the quarter's pigs, pay among the best, and are jobs only a low-born Christian would consider.
Their peaceful neighborhood and its self-sufficiency are a point of pride for the people of Manshiet Nasser, who pack its churches for daily services and have hewn a cathedral into the side of a cliff. The government basically stays out, with rare but tragic exceptions as when public fear of swine flu (there have been no confirmed cases, according to the semi-official press) was translated into a campaign, unsupported by the science, to slaughter the city's 350,000 pigs and pay their owners below-market rates. The government is mostly too sclerotic and unimaginative to conceive of deliberate moves against 8 million Christians, who cause it no trouble in any event and are broadly integrated into Egyptian society. But the move may have burnished the government's street cred among its more pious Muslim constituencies, a benefit more precious to the regime than any public health gains.
Egyptians are modest in matters involving the sexes, but living five or eight to a room makes them earthy at the same time. As described in the local press, Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa caused a stir last month by issuing a "fatwa legalizing a type of Islamic marriage called misyar, where couples continue to live at their parents' homes, but meet once or twice a week for sex." The ruling "perturbed this Muslim country and even divided religious scholars."
Set against this backdrop of constant turmoil and yet remarkable stability, President Obama's visit comes as a shot in the arm for Egypt's worn-out ruling class, probably the least efficient route to the heart of the average Egyptian. Whether the speech will rise above the noise level of the pig slaughter and the "visit" marriages is anyone's guess.
James F.X. O'Gara, a Washington writer, lived in Cairo for five years and visits regularly.