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February 11, 2011

Middle East Paranoia

Roy Meachum

After keeping the protestors in Tahrir Square and all over Egypt waiting all Thursday evening and amid rampant speculations that he would step down, Hosni Mubarak refused to budge. Newly appointed vice president Omar Suleiman confirmed his boss was not leaving.


The mostly young crowd reacted angrily, telling CNN reporters they were going nowhere, certainly not home to their mothers and dads, as the regime ordered. The protesters discarded fear long ago, showed themselves fearless when threatened by bullets, gasses, knives and even horses and camels.


What happens next? I don’t know. Egyptians put it “Allah bas yaraf” – the One God knows. Brand new experts on the Middle East daily and hourly grope on the media to explain how the demonstrations will turn out. Writing about the region since the 1967 Six-Day War, I can presume no such insight.


The reality spelled out for nearly 19 long days is that the protesters are totally fed up with the future, as they saw it. The best-educated Arab nation wants a better living, commensurate with their education. The present demonstrations were initially fueled by the gasoline a Tunisian university graduate poured over himself. He produced a fire, terminating his future.


When I lived in Cairo, ministries overflowed with men (and women) who had been promised a government position if they completed courses entitling them to diplomas. There were far and away not enough desks; the luckiest person in the room maintained dibs on the rare telephone.


The first Army dictator, Gamal Abdul Nasser, who replaced degenerate King Farouk, made a pact with the Egyptians that he would school and provide jobs. There turned out to be millions more than General Nasser could possibly anticipate.


Twenty five years after the king’s yacht sailed to Italy, the Cairo I entered was less than 12 million; the entire country almost 42 million, according to statistics. Today the capital’s population tops 17 million and the best guess about the national figure poises over 80 million.


The economy boomed after Anwar Sadat made peace with Jerusalem, but not nearly enough to accommodate the huge swell in people. The young and needy, utilizing computer skills, rose up in revolt; they ignore religion as their Western counterparts vigorously do. Yet American “new experts” predict day and night that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over the revolution.


In answer, Egyptian people employ the phrase “bokra fi mish-mish” – tomorrow we will have apricots. Their way of saying nothing will happen with prattling forecasts that the Ikhwan Muslimi – Arabic for the Brotherhood – could cash in on their days and nights in the streets and squares. They will not allow anyone to profit from their days and nights – without their nearly unanimous approval.


Israeli paranoia was to be expected. Surprisingly, powerful Arab nations feel the same. Gulf principalities and Jordon exert pressure in favor of President Mubarak hanging around Cairo. Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah attempted to bribe the army, guarantying the Egyptian army the billions it’s received from the United States, since 1979.In a single voice, they all cry “stability.”


What Arab nations fear most is change, as they always have. They are desperately afraid their countries might be infected with the democracy that Tahrir Square demonstrators shout to the skies over the Nile. And so do Israelis. By and large, their united pressures on Washington present the strong probability that what eventually happens in Cairo will carry strong condemnation of the American government and its world presence, but not its citizens.


In fact, the freedom-professing United States has fostered Middle Eastern repression since Washington assumed from London “the white man’s burden,” as English poet Rudyard Kipling phrased it. His “Gunga Din” was set in India; its depiction of how the British Raj treated natives was dead on. The regimental water-boy was indeed a “better man” than his colonial masters, with few exceptions; the quote is from the same Kipling work. (“Din” is the Arabic word for religion leading to the conclusion that Gunga was Muslim.)


As I said, Egyptians are too educated and personally kind to resort to individual bigotry even when they understand very well the hostility to their hopes asserts itself in Washington’s governing circles. They pray the White House will drastically alter its policy that defies the protesters in Tahrir Square.


The Lord God willing, as Muslims say: Insha’Allah.


(Friday is the holy day in Islamic Cairo. The pattern established over the past two weeks, after prayers the protesters have their largest turn-outs.)


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