Over the last couple of days, I have been busy attending to the details of creating a pleasant working environment in Cairo. This is not the easiest city to work or live, and there have been numerous distractions. For starters, I constantly hear people shouting my name. Of course, they rarely recognize my face when I respond. It is just that every third male here is named Ahmed.
This is a city that makes its presence known. It makes noise every second of every minute of every day. People with cars use their horns with the same frequency they use their stick shift. The most amazing people in Cairo are the taxi drivers who have nerves of steel and rarely pay any attention to the other driver’s horn.
If you want to take the pulse of the ‘Arab Street’, hop in for a few dozen taxi rides and start the interviews. I have yet to meet an Egyptian taxi driver who didn’t merit an honorary Ph.D. in political science. The nature of their profession makes them a sounding board for Egyptian public opinion. So, taking a poll of a few dozen Cairo taxi drivers is the equivalent of interviewing a few thousand Egyptians.
Naturally, the conversation always gravitates towards the ‘political troubles’, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the problems of daily life. There is broad consensus that the Israelis intend to do their worst to the Palestinians and to Egypt. Another popular sentiment is that the United States has designs against the Arabs and that the American strategic objective is an existential threat to the people of the region.
In a mirror image of American sentiments they ask a familiar question: why do they hate us? The ‘clash of civilizations’ is a foreign concept on the streets of Cairo.
One of the most amazing things I constantly heard was an almost child like adulation of former president Jimmy Carter. If they held the Democratic convention in Cairo, Jimmy Carter would win by a landslide. They see him as a true ‘man of peace’. Run Jimmy, run.
I personally can’t remember the last time I heard an American declaring himself a loyal follower of Carter. Hell, I don’t remember the last time Carter came up in a conversation. As far as most Americans are concerned, ex-Presidents are consigned to the history books. If Jay Leno went around with Carter’s picture on one of his Jay walks, I bet not one in ten Americans would recognize him. But in Egypt, they still have warm memories of the man who made Camp David happen. If the French can rally around Jerry Lewis as their favorite actor, maybe it makes sense for Egyptian taxi drivers to give Jimmy Carter a landslide vote of approval.
George Bush, on the other hand, came up with dismal numbers in my Egyptian taxi poll. He comes in second last to Sharon and is considered a mere errand boy for the Israeli Prime Minister, a man universally detested as a war criminal. There is a simplistic notion that Bush is owned and operated by the Israeli Lobby. So, when Bush declared Sharon a ‘man of peace’, it struck a raw nerve with Cairo’s cab drivers. They can’t understand how a president of the United States could be so off the mark in his judgment.
Another general theme here is that the repression of the Palestinians is Bush’s way of inflicting vengeance on Arabs because of 911. A small minority of Egyptians is still convinced that the Mossad had a hand in the plot. One cab driver went so far as to suggest CIA involvement. When pressed on the issue, the driver became very defensive and finally admitted that he could not bear the burden of Egypt being held collectively responsible for the criminal act of a single Egyptian. ‘Everybody in those towers was someone’s father or wife or son. How could Egyptians or Arabs be involved in something that ghastly?’
Over the last few days, I have also made an effort to interview a number of Egyptians in academic circles. Most of these people don’t take taxis, but their opinions generally confirm the consensus among cab drivers. Many of them have spent long periods living, learning and working in the United States and Europe. By instinct and temperament, they tend to be pro-American. After voicing strong criticism of American policy in the Middle East, one of them said, “I am still glad the Soviet Union lost the cold war.” But there was little variation in their general sentiments regarding Israeli belligerency and America’s blind support of Ariel Sharon. The statements attributed to Dick Armey who recently called for the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians did not go unnoticed in Egyptian academic circles, even if it went unreported in the American press. Neither, did the passage of an additional 200 million dollars in American aid for Israel. With the Israelis calling up reserves and sending them off to Gaza, there is a fear that such an attack would result in unleashing a set of unpredictable events.
In general, the mood in Cairo is melancholy and apprehensive. There is genuine concern that the Israelis are intent on fomenting a military confrontation with the whole Arab world. Uncharacteristic existential fears have been generated by the loose talk in Israel and the United States advocating the mass expulsion and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Faith in a balanced American policy has all but evaporated.
Twenty-five years ago, I remember wading through an huge crowd of Egyptians who had taken to the street to demonstrate their exhilaration at the prospects for peace. I thought them a little naï¿½ve and had concerns about whether Israelis would ever allow peace to break out in the region. But the sentiments of the vast majority of Egyptians were hard to ignore. Their deep yearning for a normal peaceful existence could not be denied. Across the land there was a blind faith that Jimmy Carter was for real and that he would deliver both peace and prosperity, not only for Egypt, but for all the people of the region. Back in 1977, the taxi drivers of Egypt were determined to have peace, not in some distant future time zone, but an immediate peace.
A generation later, most Egyptians are seriously worried about continued Israeli belligerence and the dismal prospects of a lasting peace in the region. They are incredulous that the Israeli government continues a brutal military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. Today, they got word that the Likud party voted against the creation of a Palestinian state. How far will Israel go to achieve its territorial fantasies? Will they attack Egypt or Syria? Can Israelis be trusted? What are the intentions of the American government? Will Washington be silent if Israel resorts to mass expulsions?
These Egyptian concerns are expressed, not in loud bursts of passionate anger, but in a very civil resigned manner. After listening to the endless charges of ‘incitement’ reported by the American media trusts, I can tell you that listening to local TV is like listening to NPR. Egyptian newspapers are, if anything, a little boring and very politically correct. So, those irresponsible American ‘experts’ and journalists who work for the Israeli Lobby should take a crash course in Arabic and learn to check their assumptions with Cairo’s taxi drivers. Better yet, they should close down the Lobby and get honest work.
Walking around the streets of old Heliopolis, looking for material, I am struck by the civility of a people who live their lives in such difficult economic circumstances. After decades of political trauma caused by the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and the Gulf war, they retain exceedingly polite manners and address each other in formal terms that are very flattering. Almost all the cab drivers ask me “Where are you going Excellency”. I wasn’t even dressed for the occasion, having forgotten to pack a top hat. If we happened to disagree on a political point they would interrupt with a cordial “Your Excellency doesn’t understand the point, allow me to explain it again”. So many taxi lectures, so little time.