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January 31, 2011

My Poor Egypt

Roy Meachum

Sunday demonstrations in Cairo coming into my Market Street home, via CNN, brought buildings and sights familiar from when I lived in Egypt. Muhammad Anwar Sadat still slept in the presidential mansion.


The pictures portrayed scenes almost identical to the TV film that caused my first trip to the Nile to be delayed a couple of weeks. In late January, 33 years past, riots over the new higher prices for bread – called in Egyptian "baladi" (my country) – burned parts of downtown Cairo; when I landed at the airport in Heliopolis, charred relicts of Washington's former streetcars had not been removed. (DC Transit's total switch to buses brought the discarded cars to Egypt.)


Still, it was a very dark moment for the painfully thin, dark-skinned Sadat; he fled down to Alexandria. The yacht, named muhrusa (Arabic for "bride) that the last king, Farouk, sailed into exile, was readied. At the last moment the president decided otherwise. He went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize.


When I was there, Husni Mubarak hung around. The one-time Egyptian air force commanding general had been appointed to be vice president. I knew many of his fierce supporters.


Working on the first documentary (PBS) that celebrated the first visit to America by King Tut's death mask and assorted other priceless mementoes from the boy pharaoh, I conferred frequently with former air force officer Safwat al-Sharif, assigned to the Egyptian information services. His name popped up in a Friday news dispatch out of Cairo. Safwat had become probably the last secretary-general of his hero's political party. That means, in his boss's name he ran the party and all of Egypt.


Muhammad abu-Ghazala I knew passably well as major-general commanding the military delegation at the embassy on Washington's Massachusetts Avenue. He did not hide under a bushel his adoration of his air force buddy. He received his reward when the man in charge of all Egyptian armed forces died "conveniently" in a helicopter crash in Sahara's desert, west of the Nile. The embassy's military attaché received promotion to the chief of staff, in charge of Egypt's defense capabilities.


With all his partisans in strategically in place, the vice president was rattled by what must be considered as Sadat's "August of discontent." The chief of government toppled several "big chairs," as Egyptians put it. The list of "victims" swept out several ministers; the great surprise was when the list extended to Coptic Pope Shanudah – and most shockingly to the state-owned al-Ahram newspaper's columnist Muhammad Husaniain Hayken, Gamal Abdul Nasser's confidant, publicist and biographer; the most famous Arab journalist in the world. But not to the vice president.


General Mubarak's coterie sighed great relief. Since the future resided in their great political hope, they jointly or separately determined to assassinate what many years before was dubbed as "the actor," no compliment. His emotional nature was amply confirmed to them by his August acts.


On October 6, 1981, taking advantage of commemoration of Anwar Sadat's greatest personal victory, a lone shooter broke away from marchers and ran to the reviewing stand, purposely kept apart for the president's safety. The man fired an AK47 rifle, universally recognized for its large magazine and fully automatic power. The president's quoted reaction was "mush mumkin" (not possible).


The murdered Egyptian was absolutely correct. It is beyond belief that a running shooter, firing a highly inaccurate AK47 could hit alone the very slender Sadat standing shoulder-to-shoulder with his bulky vice president and even bulkier armed forces' chief of staff.


Pursuing its Middle East policy of stabilizing the region, Washington rushed to give recognition to President Mubarak, whether prompted by Israel or not. Many Americans, by their total apathy, abjectly fail to acknowledge Muslim radicalism was greatly created by U.S. policy.


Islam, as I learned from reading the Quran and living for months peacefully among millions of Muslims, is a religion of peace, more so than Christianity. In the almost 1500 years since the messenger Muhammad's "revelations" that produced the Quran, they failed to mount a counter-Crusade.


This morning's early reports out of Cairo show a city under siege, streets guarded by vigilantes. As you know, the situation in Egypt remains very fluid.


Tuesday I will comment on on today’s events.



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