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One Foot on the Moon

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Egypt resembles an iceberg, one eighth is above sea level. Seven eighths are submerged in the depths. One eighth of our lives takes place in the light of the twentieth century, seven eighths in medieval darkness…In the nineteenth century we went through pangs of birth…but the renaissance was stillborn, and when another embryo was formed in the womb [under Nasser] it was aborted.”

—Dr. Louis Awad, Egyptian literary critic, 1969

By simply turning a corner in central Cairo, one enters a different world and even a different sphere of time. A short distance behind the glossy steel-glass-and-marble office tower of Al-Ahram, the prestigious semi-official Egyptian daily, another age, another Egypt begins.

In the Al-Ahram building one finds the elaborate gadgetry of a great publishing house and research center with its ultramodern computers and automated printing presses, and with its sophisticated executives, fluent in several languages, who communicate with their secretaries—and perhaps also with the outside world—by closed-circuit television. Luxury cars come and go, and doormen in dark suits behind high glass walls require all visitors to walk through blinking metal detectors, as in an airport.

Barely fifty yards away begins a labyrinth of narrow lanes where millions of Egyptians live in seedy shacks and dark warrens above and below ground, often without water, sewers, or electricity. The vast, teeming slum districts stretch far into the distance. On crumbling walls fundamentalist graffiti proclaim the imminent victory of radical Islam whose advocates consider Hosni Mubarak a second Shah. “For every Shah there is an Ayatollah,” “Islam is the solution,” “There is no God but God.” On the broken pavement someone has just slaughtered a lamb and is cutting up its leg with a large saw. Barefoot kids wade through the dirt piled in the street. Used shoes are laid out for sale in great heaps. Clouds of smoke and dust and the stench of sewer water hang in the thick air between shacks of mud and corrugated iron.

Much of the top floor of the Al-Ahram tower is taken up by an executive dining room. Top editors, columnists, politicians, and well-known Egyptian intellectuals gather there for lunch. Since the days of Nasser and Sadat, dozens of writers and other intellectuals (including some who oppose the government) have had their offices in the building, even when the Al-Ahram would never print their articles (they were nicknamed “intellectuals on the shelf”). Through the large picture windows there is a fascinating view of Cairo, old and new. In the far distance, the pyramids float on pink-gray clouds of air pollution. Nearer, the city’s latest skyscrapers soar against the background of the slums. In the harsh light everything is bleak and gray and there is hardly a tree or anything green in sight.

I sat up there by the window talking with one of Al-Ahram’s leading columnists. He was furious that beer and other alcoholic drinks were now banned from the newspaper’s dining room as a concession to the Islamicists. He held forth darkly on the rise of the “new barbarism,” and on Egypt’s seemingly insoluble economic problems, a result partly of the population explosion and partly of corruption in high places. Then he said that, at the same time, Egypt had the best writers in the Middle East and some of the world’s finest astronomers, physicists, and cardiologists. He gesticulated dramatically. Pointing to the slums and to a complicated-looking electronic device on a neighboring roof, he said: “Here we are! One foot on the moon! The other stuck in the sewer!”

Egypt today is a somber country, grim and disillusioned. Intellectuals are frustrated, cynical, and pessimistic. Having squandered their credibility in the 1950s and 1960s by their enthusiasm for Marxism and Nasserism, some are now trying to regain it by openly siding with the Islamicists. These intellectuals preach an amalgam of religious fundamentalism, nationalist unity, and xenophobia. One evening in Cairo, I met Dr. Mohamed Amar, a former Marxist militant who, in the past fifteen years, has made the transition from Marx to the Prophet Mohammed with all of his militancy intact. “Humanitarian ideologies are on the retreat everywhere, especially in Egypt,” he said. He talked enthusiastically about the “Islamic uprising in Egypt,” which he said was “much larger than the Muslim Brotherhood,” the principal Muslim organization, “larger than its violent offshoots.” Dr. Amar said that he deplored violent actions by Muslims, such as the recent shootings of secular opponents. But, he explained, “The aim of the Islamic uprising is the elimination of the evil after-effects of foreign influences in Egypt…. The French introduced debauchery into Egypt, fornication, belly-dancing. The British tried to undermine Islam by sponsoring the Bahai heretics. Its founders were agents of British intelligence. Islam is not only a religion.” Dr. Amar went on, “It is also a political philosophy, a system of law, a comprehensive way of life.”

In the hope of stemming the radical tide, the government is emphasizing the virtues of religion in its public statements. This is having little effect. The Muslim Brotherhood and other leading fundamentalist organizations have their own clinics and other welfare programs, and these are now expanding despite the government’s efforts to close them down. The crisis of the political system is reflected in the fundamentalists’ success in supplying social services and a sense of cohesion in the poor districts of Cairo and in other Egyptian cities. Some people speak of a Muslim fundamentalist state within a state.

The Islamicist parties have not been allowed to participate in elections, but if the government permitted them to do so, they would, according to different estimates I heard, win between 40 and 60 percent of the vote. They have money and arms and veterans trained to use them by the CIA during the Afghanistan war. They have active support groups in Saudi Arabia, in Europe, and in the United States, where an Egyptian sheikh is now on trial for conspiring to bomb public buildings in New York. Islamic radicals in Egypt regard Sheikh Rahman as a saint.

Some of the money for the Muslim Brotherhood and other organizations comes from the Sudan, as well as from the US and Saudi Arabia. In most Egyptian universities militant Islamic groups have a strong influence on the curriculum and they almost completely dominate student life on the campus. Islamicist teachers are thought to have infiltrated the high schools in large numbers, and Islamic groups control the lawyers’, doctors’, and engineers’ syndicates, corporate bodies left over from Nasser’s time. I saw more bearded men in Cairo now than I had ever seen before. In the poorer sections every other woman wears the Islamic head covering.

The despondency of people who are appalled by these tendencies is heightened by continuing terrorist bombings and assassination attempts. Hardly a day goes by without some report of armed clashes between government forces and terrorists of the professedly violent group Islamic Jihad, with casualties on both sides. Especially in upper Egypt, the conflict takes the form of continuing vendettas, much as in southern Italy a few years ago, with suspected terrorists and/or their families murdered and their killers punished in turn. The tourist industry has been crippled, having lost an estimated $3 billion in revenue since 1992. In January when I was there (during the peak of the tourist season) I was told hotels in Cairo were half-empty and offering rooms at drastically reduced rates.

Militiamen carrying guns and bayonets were everywhere in downtown Cairo. Riot policemen in special trucks were stationed on the main squares and outside the Egyptian Museum, where some of the pharaonic mummies are once again on display. (They had been removed under Sadat, allegedly for the patriotic reason that it was unseemly for Egypt’s ancient kings to be so exposed.) At night, troops were patrolling the main bridges on the Nile. From the terrace of my room in the old Shepheard’s Hotel overlooking the river, I could watch military trucks drive back and forth directing their searchlights at suspicious-looking shadows.

The conventional wisdom has it that Egypt will not degenerate into a civil war, as Algeria has done, because of its history, its geography, and the special character of its religious and national life. “It can’t happen here,” I was told, because Egyptians are Sunni not Shiite Moslems and the imams who run the mosques are paid government officials. Other Arab states may be no more than “tribes with flags,” but Egypt is a real nation with its own longstanding and authentic identity. “The Islamic threat may not be marginal, but it is temporary,” says the director of the semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, Abdel Monem Said Aly. “It is less significant than the conflict with Israel was.” Peace with Israel will “release the funds needed to stem the Islamic tide.”

Egypt has been at peace with Israel for seventeen years, military budgets have been drastically cut, but the tide is running higher every year. The government refuses to engage moderate Islamicists—the well-to-do members of the Muslim Brotherhood include many businessmen and professionals—in a dialogue and expresses its displeasure when American diplomats do. “Americans and their Iranian complexes. Egypt is not Iran,” said a senior Egyptian official. The government continues, at least publicly, to treat the militants and terrorists with contempt. In an interview in The New Yorker President Mubarak has called them “belly dancers, drummers from the slums” in the pay of Iran and Sudan. They had nothing to do with Islam. “It’s all a matter of money.”1

This is obviously not how the police see it, and there is good reason to doubt that it is Mubarak’s private view. In conversation with foreign leaders, Mubarak has recently been rather somber, even grim. Human rights organizations claim that between twenty and twenty-five thousand Islamic militants are currently in Egyptian jails. There are frequent charges of torture and innocent relatives of suspected terrorists are put behind bars as hostages. The attempt, last fall, on the life of Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, according to the liberal sociologist Dr. Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “showed that all prominent members of our society are under threat of assassination.”

That is perhaps an exaggeration, but the attack on Mahfouz came after similar assaults in 1993 on the lives of Prime Minister Atif Sidqi, Interior Minister Hussein al-Alfi, and Information Minister Safwat al-Sharif. According to Dr. Ibrahim, the terrorist attacks are directed not only against the government; they are an attempt to shake up the entire society. Attacks on members of the Coptic Christian minority in Egypt “also increased, notably in Upper Egypt” where many Copts live.

Dr. Ibrahim is head of the Ibn Khaldun Center, which promotes “democratic transformation” in Egypt and other Arab countries, and he publishes a remarkable monthly called Civil Society. Among its concerns are human rights, the rights of women and minorities, and peace in the Middle East. Last year, Dr. Ibrahim proposed to hold an international conference in Cairo on minorities in the Middle East. His insistence that the treatment and rights of Egypt’s Copts be included in the agenda raised such an outcry in the government press that he was forced to move the conference to Limassol in Cyprus. The official view in Egypt is that Copts are not a minority and so, by definition, cannot be deprived of rights.

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    Mary Anne Weaver, “The Novelist and the Sheikh,” The New Yorker, January 30, 1995, pp. 52–69.

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