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April 11, 2008

Mother Egypt Cries Again!

Roy Meachum

Lurking in newspapers' back pages, correspondents report there are riots along the Nile over the scarcity and cost of bread. For Egypt's millions of poor, it is not simply "the staff of life." Those flat loaves are life itself.


No one told me before I set out for my first visit to the land of pharaoh Tutankhamun and pyramids. I didn't understand why the Cairo bread riots delayed departure for several weeks.


Later I learned the turmoil reached such a pitch as to send Anwar Sadat scuttling to Alexandria that January; the former royal yacht was readied to take the Egyptian president and his family across the Mediterranean.


Named ironically "The Bride," the same boat made the same trip about 25 years earlier when Sadat's predecessor, Gamal Abdul Nasser, exiled King Farouk. The sybaritic monarch ordered the captain to deliver him to Rome; that was the time when life had suddenly become "sweet" for Italians publicly restrained by Mussolini and World War II.


A few years later Federico Fellini stunningly captured that brief era when modern Bacchanals flourished in the Vatican's shadows; the great film director called his work "La dolce vita" – the sweet life. Rigidly Islamic and politically prudes, Egypt's new military rulers restricted orgies to behind closed doors.


When Nasser – the nation's "George Washington" – died, the country's people of all classes took for granted another uniform would take his big chair. Muhammad Anwar Sadat occupied half the air space; he was shorter and skinnier than the late president. Both swore allegiance to the Free Officers Revolutionary organization, which provided the authority to depose the king.


Among Nasser's legacies was a sizeable Soviet contingent, invited to build the high dam at Aswan. They also provided a shield, Egyptians hoped, against Israel and European enemies. France and imperial England staged a high-tech invasion after Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel ran a separate operation that was closely coordinated. All three packed their armed forces in when Dwight David Eisenhower strongly disapproved.


Not a rich country to start, Egypt attempted to gain nationhood on other people's monies, further handicapped by political enemies. It's still trying.


The collapse of the conglomerate building the canal led to imperial England's assuming "the burden" for Cairo.


Egypt's declaration of independence (1919) produced little important difference. The king and all significant entities lived off allowances that could be withheld without notice, at least partially.


London ruled its imperial holdings on the sound Roman principle: divide and conquer. In the 20th century, power passed through the monarch and his ministers and rested firmly with Copts. They were Christians and could be afforded trust the English government was unwilling or unable to grant Egyptian Muslims.


Sacking and humiliating Copts cost the Free Officers heavily. Poor Mother Egypt! Beyond their family wealth, the native Christians reached out to the entire Christian community with pleas of persecution. It happened, but nowhere near the degree Western churches chose to believe.


After Eisenhower sent France, Israel and post-colonial England to their home barracks, Egypt expelled foreigners – mostly Europeans; they departed with all their professional skills and millions of pounds in their bags. Nasser and his faithful couldn't have cared less. Taking over their country after centuries and centuries of conquests and plundering was the greatest high Egyptians enjoyed since Cleopatra lay down with the asp that did her in.


But the cost proved very onerous, for reasons we have discussed. Sadat's 1973 sneak attack on Israeli cross-canal positions did a lot, after 1967's Six Day War rout, to regain respect. Egyptians told me they had refused to travel they were so ashamed; their armed forces were caught completely off-guard.


In 1977, financial chaos came to the Nile in a way that enflamed riots, burned former D.C. Transit streetcars (I saw them), and instilled fear that the largest western Islamic nation might collapse.


Sadat had kicked out the Russians four years earlier to guarantee the sneak attack across the Suez remained a secret, and it did. But this caused Moscow to keep pockets buttoned. The immediate triumph over Israel four years earlier guaranteed lip-service only from America and its allies. Egypt's lack of real collateral kept away any thought of substantial international funding.


The streetcar-burning riots created the image of political strife and uncertainty. Radical Islam had started recently to rise. Before my final flight to Rome in January, 1979, the numbers of women wearing covering hijabs had grown impressively. But Washington's real fear originated from Moscow. It was 10 years before the Berlin Wall tumbled into gravel.


Nearly 20 years on, there's no way to figure the Egyptian president's flying off to Israel without the United States playing a role. Sadat announced his trip on CBS-TV to venerable anchorman Walter Cronkite and the very next day an Egyptian air crew asked to land at Jerusalem's Ben Gurion airport. The date was Nov. 19, 1977, exactly 10 months after the bread riots.


Anwar Sadat's speech before the Knesset the next day broke the Arabs' solid front against the Jewish state. Almost right away, as such things go, Libya's Muammar Khadafy kicked in several millions to start a drive among his fellow Muslims to lure Egypt's president back into their camp. They failed.


Reluctantly announced but very clear to sensible observers, American sources promised money and other aid to the little "actor," as his comrades started calling Sadat during World War II. Within the very next year the signs were obvious.


The U.S. embassy in Cairo cranked up an expansion mode. All sorts of things began to happen, including an overhaul of the city's notorious phone system. Egyptians had been saying for years: If it's very important, don't bother calling, bring it yourself.


As you know, just about the time when Sadat became comfortable with American, Israeli and other promises, an assassin struck and mortally. It was in the sacred month of Ramadan, on October 6, a soldier dropped out of the parade that celebrated Sadat's 1973 unexpected attack over the Suez Canal.


The armed figure ran toward the reviewing stand where the slight president stood between the beefy Vice President Hosni Mubarak, and the greater bulk of Gen. M. Abu Ghazalah, once top military aid at the Washington embassy. I knew him as no admirer of Sadat.


How the AK-47 bullets found only the slimmer and shorter president still exists as an incredible mystery!


Few anticipated the economic cost of the loss of the man that excited the world by his speech to the Israeli Knesset; the national leader who signed the Camp David accords was gone, and with him much of Cairo's credibility in the international capitals and markets.


From what we know, corruption has always been in style along the Nile. "Bakshish" arrived with the Ottoman Empire; it means paying extra, but in another spirit than the Creole lagniappe. In this age, it's used to signify bribes and payoffs, which nearly halted building the Suez Canal in the sand, in the 19th century.


As a British colony, corruption existed but limited chiefly to court circles or as a way to expedite whatever the plan or problem. Principally the scarcity of funds held down massive Bakshish. But soon after Farouk sailed off on "The Bride," and especially when most Europeans were kicked out, their left-behind spoils ramped up pay-offs. They contributed largely to economic governmental chaos that triggered the 1977 bread riots.


At least I understood why the D.C. Transit cars were sacked and burned; I have no specific rationalization for the current riots. Mubarak tried to stave them off weeks ago, actually commissioning the Army to dedicate ovens to feed Egypt's impoverished. Still this week's riots happened.


Unlike 31 years ago, outside money – especially Americans' – flows in, even higher because of the Palestinians' intifadah. The flow became a flood with the invasion of Iraq. Washington desperately needs a stable and not interfering Egypt.


With all that U.S. dough in their wallets, Mubarak and his consorts became George W. Bush's best friends in the Middle East. They hardly ever criticize, contenting themselves to a gentle poke now and then. Their critiques – to keep the game "honest" – are designed to bounce right off the White House's thick skin. They know very well Washington is too busy in Iraq and Afghanistan to oppose any demands.


Meanwhile, the Egypt population I lived among has catapulted from about 35 million to nearly 80 million. By 2015, the number is predicted to grow to some 90 million and at mid-century, to the range of 125 million.


Men, women and children live for their differences; no one really wants to be exactly like someone else. In Egypt boys and girls are necessary for their parents’ survival, especially when officials slip into their own pockets the dollars, pounds and Euros designated to pay for bread and other necessities.


And this time around, unlike 1977, Washington has little funding to bail out Cairo's big chairs.

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