The View from Cairo

After a visit of a few days in Cairo to talk with dozens of people about the possibilities of peace, I came away with answers that seemed, at least, to be surprisingly clear. Sadat wants peace; the intelligentsia does not want normal relations with Israel; and the ordinary people do not want war. So I was told. And whether they are accurate or not, these opinions appeared to be solidly rooted in the self-interest of those who are said to hold them.

Sadat is the most enigmatic of the three forces. It is possible and perhaps even probable that when he set events in motion by attacking Israel in 1973 and by inviting himself to Jerusalem in 1977, he had no clear conception of what the consequences for the Middle East would be. What is clear is that in both war and peace he was, and is, playing above all to what he thinks of as an American audience, the one that for him counts the most by far.

The large numbers of poor Egyptians have no spokesman, no Gallup poll to record their views. What was striking was that every politician or journalist I talked to, including the young intellectuals who back the PLO, claimed that Egyptian young people would not want to fight again. One hundred thousand casualties in the various wars with Israel are enough. Moreover, the widening of the Suez Canal is now going forward and the cities on its banks are being rebuilt. A nation planning to make war would not be likely to block its route of attack in this way.

This does not mean that war is impossible. Some new Pharoah may arise who rejects Camp David. He may have missiles that can fly over the Canal and the entire Sinai peninsula from deep within Egypt. Nevertheless, for the next decade, a long time in the Middle East, there seems very little possibility of an Israeli-Egyptian war.

This peace between Israel and Egypt does not, however, bring with it “normalization” either now or in the near future. The intellectual and professional classes seem overwhelmingly opposed to the exchange of ambassadors that has taken place and to carrying on regular trade and diplomatic relations, or collaborating on development projects. Aside from their sympathies for the Palestinian cause, they have other reasons for doing so. The wages of professors are low in Egypt; a teacher often makes ends meet by lecturing in Kuwait or elsewhere in the oil sheikhdoms for very large fees. Technicians and researchers of all kinds need their jobs as consultants and temporary workers in the Arab world if they are to keep up their standard of living at home. Egypt’s largest single source of foreign currency derives from the remittances of some two billion dollars a year sent back to the families of the quarter of a million Egyptians employed in other Arab countries. This “diaspora” is as large as, or larger than, that of the Palestinian technicians with which…

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