“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.
A widespread disillusion with conventional politics is a central feature of Egypt today. Under Nasser Egyptians had looked to leftist ideas of state planning for their salvation; under Sadat the emphasis was on a limited form of state-approved capitalism, accompanied by much corruption. Now many of them, and not just from the poorer classes, look to the Muslim militants, I was often told, not necessarily because they have acquired a deep and fervent faith in Islam but by way of protest against the status quo. And then what? Fifteen years ago, when I first visited Egypt, there was still widespread hope that peace with Israel would release many of Egypt’s resources for development. Sadat promised Egypt a new age of prosperity. Millions cheered him in the streets upon his return from Jerusalem and Camp David. “Who is for peace? The soldiers themselves!” the popular journalist Anis Mansour, who was Sadat’s semi-official mouth-piece, wrote at that time.
The war has embittered everyone’s life. The war has denied them home, street, and livelihood. Whoever reaches for the telephone and does not get a line, or opens the faucet and the water does not come, or stands in the street for hours and waits for the bus which does not arrive, and when it does there is no space on it, not even on the steps; every young man who does not find work, and if he finds work does not find a home, and if he finds a home can’t afford the rent, and hence can’t marry—all of these do not want war…Peace will bring prosperity for all.
Such hopes were already crushed during Sadat’s lifetime. Sadat was assassinated by a fundamentalist army officer less for making peace with Israel, as is often thought, than for being a “corrupt,” godless “pharaoh”; his “shamelessly” Westernized wife was a “disgrace to Arabism and Islam.” The assassin spoke at great length during his trial, haranguing Sadat and his ministers for their sins. He never once, I was told, mentioned Israel.
Vice-president Hosni Mubarak’s subsequent rise to power was generally greeted in Egypt with satisfaction and relief. Not for long, though. Mubarak was a former air force officer known for his down-to-earth manner. He abolished the crude cult of personality that had surrounded his predecessors. He did not repeat Nasser’s and Sadat’s mistake: he promised nothing. He released Sadat’s political prisoners, and liberalized the press and parts of the political system. In addition to his own National Democratic Party, several opposition parties, including the pre-revolutionary Wafd and the Socialist Labor Party (now led by Marxist Islamic fundamentalists), were allowed to participate in elections even though the results were widely thought to be unrepresentative and manipulated. Several independent non-governmental organizations, such as Dr. Ibrahim’s center, were allowed to function, though at times precariously. There were modest beginnings of a civil society, including organizations that publicly protest against human rights violations in Egypt. They would have been unthinkable in the past.
“We live in a pharaonic ‘democracy,”’ a well-known Egyptian journalist told me. “Mubarak runs an authoritarian, highly centralized regime. But he and his ministers are not unaffected by public opinion. In Nasser’s time,” he adds, “if you opposed the regime you were thrown into prison. Under Sadat, you lost your job. Under Mubarak you only get a telephone call. And maybe you don’t get a raise.” (He was, of course, talking only of people who accept the current system’s military and bureaucratic control, ignoring the thousands of Islamic militants who have in fact been arrested.)
The first decade of Mubarak’s rule brought a number of remarkable achievements. The most important was in birth control, which the government encouraged by providing information for women and making available contraceptive devices. Estimates vary, and official figures are thought to be unreliable. But according to one United Nations expert, population growth in Egypt appears to have declined in the past fifteen years from 3.5 to 2.4 percent a year. The population of Egypt, now approaching 60 million, is expected to reach 90 million by the year 2025, a figure considerably lower than the 120–140 million it might have reached had birth rates not dropped as they did.
Military expenditure is also said to have dropped from 16 to 6 percent of GNP. (It had been as high as 36 percent under Nasser.) Thanks largely to United States and European aid, Cairo’s facilities for power, sanitation, and other parts of the infrastructure have vastly improved. Twelve years ago the sewer system in parts of central Cairo was on the verge of collapse. I remember a week early in 1983 when the sewer pipes for the districts of Giza and Mohandessin burst but could not immediately be repaired because the plans for their locations could not be found. (The British were accused of having taken the plans with them in 1952.) Entire streets were flooded, people crossed them on planks and bricks. The army was brought in to help. The papers claimed that the city was “floating on a lake of sewage.” The water, electricity, and telephone systems in central Cairo have since been overhauled, and public transportation, at least in Cairo, has also improved. One no longer sees thousands of people riding on the rooftops of buses and suburban trains, or hanging in clusters out of their open doors, as was common only ten years ago. There is a new French-built metro. Numerous new elevated roads have relieved some of the traffic jams.
At the same time, however, the economy began to stagnate under Mubarak’s tired, uninspired rule. Cairo is full of jokes about Mubarak. He is described as “the man who never ties his shoelaces,” a reference to his hesitating, heavy gait and his reluctance to make clear-cut decisions. At the gates of paradise, another joke goes, the guardian angel asks him to state his talents and abilities. He answers “None.” The guardian angel says, “Ah, you must be Mubarak.”
In his third term of office Mubarak has still not picked a vice-president. The reason for this, according to another typically bad joke, is that throughout Egypt he could not find a man dumber than himself. Before the recent referendum granting Mubarak a third presidential term a story made the rounds that Clinton presented Mubarak with a monkey saying: “I’ll double your aid program if you make this monkey laugh and cry.” Soon after, the monkey laughs and cries. “How on earth did you do this?” Clinton asks. “I told him that I am president,” Mubarak says. “He laughed. Then I told him that I am trying for a third term. And he cried.” The cynicism about Hosni Mubarak was especially apparent after the clearly phony official results of the 1993 referendum approving his continuing presidency were made public. In a country where most voters are not even registered, 84 percent of the entire electorate were said to have participated in the referendum, of which 96 percent voted “yes.”
Just to keep its head above water, Egypt’s economy should grow at 6 to 8 percent a year as it did in the mid-Seventies. But growth is said to have fallen in 1993 to between 1.5 and 2 percent, and to less than 1 percent in 1994. The per capita income fell from some $730 to $630 annually. During the same period the prices of basic foodstuffs rose sharply. The poor grew poorer and more numerous and the rich, at least in Cairo, have become visibly much richer, perhaps very much richer than before. The middle and lower middle classes have been especially hard hit and many among them seek consolation—or express their rage—by joining the fundamentalists.
Since the days of King Farouk and his collection of Rolls-Royce cars and diamond-studded cravats, there has never been so much conspicuous spending in Cairo as there is today. One encounters staggering contrasts. In the narrow slum streets, the crowds stoically make way for long luxury cars, costing up to half a million dollars, as they pass through the dust, their dark tinted windows rolled up to make the air-conditioned interiors completely invisible from the outside. According to a recent report in Al-Ahram some of the posh weddings one can observe nightly in the five-star hotels cost up to two hundred thousand dollars. The new super-rich are widely rumored to be Mubarak’s personal friends and relatives. Official corruption is said to have tripled since the days of Sadat, whose sons and in-laws were also rumored to have amassed millions.
I remember some years ago talking about Cairo’s astonishing contrasts to Boutros Boutros-Ghali—at that time Egypt’s deputy foreign minister. How long would people tolerate such enormous differences between rich and poor? “Your mistake,” Boutros-Ghali said, “is that of many intellectuals. They believe that because something is bad, it simply can’t last.” “Yes,” I said, “but revolutions are always made by those nasty intellectuals who cannot stand seeing evil. When will there be such an intellectual in Egypt?” “Don’t compare Cairo to Rome or Paris,” said Boutros-Ghali, “Compare Cairo to Calcutta or Caracas, and Egypt to other countries of ancient culture, like India or Mexico. Compared to them our situation isn’t so bad.” This is still a view one hears from official spokesmen, and it may be correct, as comparisons go. But the Islamic militants do not make comparisons. They rage at what they see before their eyes.
People in private business are no longer as disdained by Egypt’s power elite as they were in the decades after Nasser’s confiscation of private property in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of the more prosperous among them have even been supporting their own private institute, the Middle East Research Center, headed by a retired army general. The center, undoubtedly created with the government’s approval, is dedicated to finding new national strategies different from, and more open-minded than, those of the other, semi-official research institute, the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, which was founded after the 1967 war, and is still staffed largely by Nasserites. Many of them still advocate a boycott of Israel and will not visit it even though they write about it a lot. The new institute deals with a wide range of regional problems from Sudan to the Gulf; it has attempted to help break the Al-Ahram Center’s boycott by setting up meetings with Israeli scholars and businessmen. It recently sponsored round-table meetings between Israeli politicians and leading Egyptian intellectuals.
The private sector in industry, banking, commerce, and tourism has grown in recent years. But the economy of Egypt, according to a World Bank expert, is still largely a “Soviet-style command economy. There isn’t a country in Eastern Europe today where 80 to 90 percent of GDP is still generated by the public sector.” Publicly owned or controlled companies still dominate most industries, ranging from textiles and food to electric power and cement and including the manufacture of shoes and household goods.
It is not easy to undo the results of forty years of socialism. Many Egyptian businessmen are undoubtedly enterprising, energetic, and hard-working. Egypt is a country where one is likely to see two men, brothers-in-law, hard at work in the middle of the night fixing their pickup truck, while a five-year-old boy holds up a flashlight for them. The problem is the inert bureaucracy that stifles initiative. Both the United States, which gives Egypt $2.3 billion in aid annually, and the World Bank have been urging Egypt for years to privatize public-sector companies that remain afloat only because they are receiving large government subsidies. A growing number of technocrats within the government have been saying the same thing.
But in Egypt the decision is Mubarak’s. Mubarak insists on moving slowly. “Too slowly,” says a Western diplomat, “especially in view of the likely reduction of Egypt’s annual aid package from the United States. But concepts of economic risk are incomprehensible to Mubarak.” His government is no longer “ideologically” committed to socialism, but Mubarak is reluctant to push privatization for fear of its political consequences. The government sees itself as pragmatic. In Egypt only the Islamic opposition parties and the left-wing Togama Party still follow an “ideology.” One of Mubarak’s supporters, a philosopher, told me he was correct in rejecting the demands of the World Bank for more privatization: “The World Bank has caused more violent unrest in the third world than did the late Soviet Union.” Privatization inevitably means widespread unemployment, and this, at a time of growing support for Islamic radicals, could prove disastrous for the regime. There is no government “safety net” of unemployment or other welfare benefits.
The present regime seems symbiotically linked with the bloated bureaucracy and with the office-holders who are running it; according to one informed estimate, there are eight million government bureaucrats. The directors of government-owned enterprises are also prominent in the governing National Democratic Party, and government ministers, when they leave office, are often appointed to the boards of nationalized industries. Not surprisingly, of 280 publicly held companies earmarked by the government three years ago for privatization, only three have so far been privatized: Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, and the Nasser Boiler Company. And yearnings for a “reformed Nasserism” are still strong. An exchange in Naguib Mahfouz’s 1967 novella Miramar suggests the reason why. One of Mahfouz’s characters is furious at Nasser. A friend criticizes him for this.
“What other system could we have in its place? If you think clearly, you’ll realize that it has to be either the Communists or the Muslim Brotherhood. Which of those would you prefer to the Revolution?”
“Neither,” he replies hastily.
I smile in triumph. “Exactly. Let that be your comfort.”
Discussing the continuing dilemma between privatization and political stability, a writer in Al-Ahram recently reported that a search was on for a “middle way”—a metaphysical state no one has yet defined.
In foreign affairs, too, Egypt in recent months has been in search of something new. Ever since Sadat’s dramatic flight to Jerusalem in 1977, Egypt has been an advocate of peace. In the early Eighties, it paid a price for its courage when it found itself ostracized by the PLO and the Arab countries. During those years of isolation Egypt did not give up on its efforts to promote Middle East peace. So successful has Egypt been in this task as interlocuteur valable that during the past three years it has practically worked itself out of its chosen role. When Israel was induced to recognize the PLO and sign a formal agreement, Egypt had a discreet but important part in encouraging this breakthrough. Morocco, ‘Tunisia, and some of the Gulf sheikdoms followed suit. But the time Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel, Amman did not even consult Cairo. Rabin telephoned Mubarak a few days before to inform him of what was about to happen; Hussein, Mubarak later complained to an Israeli visitor, never bothered to do so.
Some Egyptian economists and entrepreneurs have begun to worry that Israeli entrepreneurs and Arab financiers with surplus capital might team up to conquer vast markets in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Egyptian writers have filled the columns of Al-Ahram and other Cairo papers with dire warnings that if Israel is not checked, it might eliminate Egypt’s position as a “leading country” in the region and become the dominant political, economic, and cultural power. The recurrent word in this campaign, which in some way must have been encouraged by the government, was “hegemony.” Israel was trying to translate its military supremacy into political and economic power. The quest for “hegemony” was behind Israel’s talk of a “new Middle East.” Egypt was called upon to reassert its role as a “rival” leader to defend itself against the “political and economic threat” emanating from Tel Aviv.
Privately, other Egyptians were saying that Israel was effectively undermining Egypt’s position in the region. It was threatening to harm Egypt’s economy by encouraging Qatar, Oman and other Gulf states to sell their oil to Europe via pipelines running through Israel, instead of shipping it through the Suez Canal. Israel was driving wedges between the Arab brothers. Egyptian bureaucrats and academics were speculating on the need for an “improved balance of power”; the “co-existence” between Egypt and Israel should, they said, be a coexistence “in struggle,” similar to that of France and Germany before 1945. This “rivalry” would determine the future of the region. According to the brilliant left-wing columnist Mohammed Sid-Ahmed in Al-Ahram, Israel arrogantly assumed it was the “only victor”; it interpreted “the land-for-peace formula as an exchange of land for a Middle East market.”
The Israelis had, of course, provoked some of this by loose talk and ill-judged actions of their own. Almost seven hundred over-eager Israeli businessmen and politicians descended on Casablanca during the recent conference there on Middle East regional development, and dictated its agenda, or so it seemed to the far fewer delegates from the Arab world. Then Rabin chose this particular moment early in December to announce, cryptically, that Israel must once again prepare for a general Arab-Israeli war in the “middle range of time.” A memo prepared by the Israeli foreign ministry’s planning department, leaked to the Tel Aviv daily Ha’aretz in December, proposed “punishing Egypt” for its insistence that Israel sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Egypt, the memo proposed, was to be deprived of its role as Arab-Israeli peace broker; and American congressmen should be induced to cut US aid to Egypt. Shimon Peres quickly announced that the memo was simply that, a memo, and did not reflect Israeli policy. Egyptian officials were sure it had been deliberately leaked by Israelis to put pressure on Egypt. Foreign Minister Amr Moussa described its authors as “feeble-minded.”
In the angry exchanges that followed, Peres was misquoted in the Egyptian press as saying that Egypt was the “donkey” that would push the stalled car of progress up the Middle East road. In fact he told the Arabs that their economies had given them so far only misery and that prosperity could be achieved only by cooperation with Israel. Several Israeli economists were quick to question this excessively optimistic statement. Peres’s repeated calls for a Common Market in the Middle East, on the model of the European Union, they said, had been questionable from the beginning; the very comparison with Europe was dubious because of the incompatibility between the near post-industrial economy of Israel and the third world economy of its neighbors with per capita incomes only a tenth or less than that of Israel. The national economies that formed the European Community were roughly comparable. Israel’s and Egypt’s were not. Peres seemed to be suggesting a lopsided economic union, as if between Holland and India. He also proposed that Israel be accepted as a member of the Arab League. This too was interpreted in Egypt as a “hegemonic” attempt to dominate the League just as it was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. (Israelis would not have reacted more generously if Arafat had asked to be received as a member of the Executive of the World Zionist Organization.)
The air was thick with suspicions on both sides. If Egypt had in fact asked Jordan, Morocco, Tunis, and the Gulf states not to fall over one another in a rush to normalize relations with Israel, as officials in Jerusalem were insinuating, the Egyptians may simply have been trying to persuade these countries to coordinate their diplomacy. Or it may have been an attempt to show that Egypt was still able to call the shots. Rabin, as if to disprove the latter claim, promptly flew to Oman on a state visit. The predictable reaction was a quickly organized summit meeting in Cairo of Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, which took place in January. This, in turn, was seen by Israel as an attempt to slow the peace negotiations. But an Egyptian request to Jordan or Morocco to go slow may have been no more than an ironic comment on the viciousness of these countries toward Egypt in 1978 when it made a separate peace with Israel without consulting them.
On both sides, the “peace process” was opening new wounds even as it was curing old ones. Israeli and Egyptian insecurities mirrored one another. The idea of peace has always been interpreted differently by each side. Egyptians have never shared Israeli ideas of reconciliation, which sometimes seemed as though taken out of a Russian novel: former enemies fall into each other’s arms with tears of joy.
It has long been obvious that neither side would fulfill the other’s expectations. Israelis underestimate the frustration of Egyptians at being humiliated, time and again, by the Jewish state. Egyptians underestimated Israeli fears. They have been oblivious to popular emotions in a democratic mass society exposed to indiscriminate terror and led by coalition governments. It is always difficult for the raw nationalism of one people to empathize with the raw nationalism of another. Israelis have always had difficulty in realizing how deep a wound they had inflicted on the Arab psyche over the years; the few who did sense it were tortured by guilt and, perhaps unconsciously, wanted the Palestinians to say that the Israelis are forgiven. This, too, was unlikely. According to a poll published in Al-Ahram this winter, 75 percent of Egyptians say they are against Israeli investments in Egypt, 71 percent refuse to buy Israeli goods, 53 percent are opposed to Israeli tourists visiting Egypt and would themselves never go to Israel.
Ali Salim, a well-known Egyptian playwright, visited Israel last year and wrote a witty, sympathetic book about his impressions that became an instant best seller in Egypt. For this he was savagely attacked in both the progovernment and opposition press. He received so many threats that the police assigned him bodyguards around the clock.
When Sheikh Abdel Azuz bin Baz, the mufti of Saudi Arabia, issued a fatwa last fall endorsing peace with Israel, Al-Ahram reminded its readers that the same sheikh had also decreed that the earth was flat. Delegations of Israeli intellectuals visiting Cairo were shocked by the bitter criticism of Israel they heard from journalists, academics, and diplomats in the Egyptian foreign ministry. Members of the Israeli Foreign Affairs Council who visited in December came back shaken by the complaints they heard of Israeli “hegemonial” designs. Egypt, they said in a report, “was worried about the speed and direction of the peace process which might have an adverse effect on Egypt’s standing in the region.” President Ezer Weizman, on a state visit to Cairo last January, was so shocked by the way Egyptians talked to him of economic domination by Israel that he told an acquaintance that Egyptians seemed to believe in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. During the past few months Israel was so often and so sharply attacked in the Egyptian press that an innocent reader could have concluded that the two countries were on the verge of breaking off relations or even of war.
The truth, of course, is that Egypt’s intellectual elite has always had its reservations about the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty of 1978. As a group they have been traditionally pan-Arabist, Nasserist, or philo-Communist. A good example is the Al-Ahram columnist Mohammed Sid-Ahmed. He imagined what an Israeli-Arab peace might be like in his influential 1975 book, After the Guns Fall Silent, the first of its kind in the Arab world. It included inventive proposals on how to make peace safe for both sides, e.g., the building of industrial parks on borders. Three years later, when peace was actually agreed on at Camp David, Sid-Ahmed opposed it mainly because it was a separate peace, rejected by the Palestinians and the other Arabs.
A deep distrust remains. I often heard it said that while Egypt had opened the door to peace, wasn’t it true Israel was trying to push its way in? An Israeli diplomat in Cairo told me that a distinguished Egyptian woman had told him that Abraham had been an Arab. That remark, in his view, was typical of Egyptian attitudes in general. “Some of them even deny the Holocaust,” he said. (Schindler’s List was banned for reasons of “public morality.”)2 “They see us through a prism which we will never change.” Another woman asked him: “So you have decided to overrun us once again [as in 1967]?” An Israeli diplomat with considerable experience in Egypt said: “In making peace they may have hoped to cut us down to our true size, as they saw it. Now they see they didn’t and they are furious.”
During the ten days of my visit to Cairo I talked to some of the bestknown Egyptian intellectuals and came away, at times, feeling that many saw Israel as another Japan, a small island off the Arab subcontinent, racist and greedy, armed with nuclear weapons, ready now to overpower them by the sheer force of money and its advanced technology. At one point I said, “Okay, if you are so concerned, perhaps it would be better if there will be no regional common market. Israel could seek its political and economic future within the European Union.” The answer was, “If that’s what they’ll do, it will only prove that they are colonialists and intruders. We always knew they don’t want to integrate in the area.” One writer told me, “Israel takes Egypt for granted.” Another insisted that “the mentality of Israel is the main problem.” Samir Ragab, the publisher of the English-language Egyptian Gazette, wrote on January 24, 1995:
Frankly speaking, the Jews haven’t and will not give up their wickedness which began in the days of the Prophet Moses and until the day of the resurrection.
There are few, if any, contrary voices in the Egyptian press. “We breathe in the present but think in the past,” Lutfi Kholi, the noted political essayist, told me. “The problem is that among my colleagues in the intellectual community many still oppose all normalization with Israel.” According to Tahsin Basheer, a veteran diplomat, “Nobody is coming up with a new idea, everybody is turning in circles.” Peres, with his high-flying plans for a Middle East common market was an imaginative man, he said, “but pointing to the stars without seeing the tips of one’s fingers was not very practical either.”
In this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust the approaching expiration in April of the Non-Proliferation Treaty of nuclear weapons (NPT) has added another nasty element of contention. The semi-official Egyptian press has been agitated about this for months. The United States has been pressing for a renewal of the treaty for an indefinite period. Egypt has announced it will not sign it unless Israel signs too. This has created a serious problem for both countries and for the United States. The United States fears that if Egypt does not sign, other Afro-Asian countries might follow suit. Israel has accused Egypt of raising this issue at the worst of all possible moments and for reasons of “prestige” and “hegemony”; it wants, an Israeli diplomat said, to reemphasize its position as leader in the Arab world. When Israel refused even to discuss the subject, Egypt responded with outrage. “Whenever we mention it they jump as if they’ve been stung.”
Would Israel feel more secure if the NPT breaks down and the Arab countries acquire their own nuclear arsenal? Mohamed Heikal, Egypt’s best known columnist, has been one of several writers calling on Egypt to develop its own nuclear bomb. Some Egyptians wondered why in Israel, a democratic country, there is hardly any public discussion of the nuclear question. (There was some debate over Israel’s having a nuclear capacity during the Sixties; after the Yom Kippur War this subject became taboo.) Official Egyptian spokesmen warn Israel that they do not accept its right to maintain a “monopoly on nuclear weapons.” Field Marshall Muhammad Tantawi, Egypt’s defense minister, said that a military imbalance “often leads to the adoption of policies that are not well calculated.” Osama el Baz, President Mubarak’s chief adviser on foreign affairs and national security spoke of a dangerous “strategic imbalance.” Everything would remain “lopsided” unless Israel dismantled its nuclear arsenal and joined the NPT. Ahmed Abdel-Halim, a retired general and strategy expert of the privately funded Middle East Research Institute, told me he understood that Israel had “legitimate security concerns.” It may well need a “last resort” protection by nuclear weapons.
We could live with it when, as we were told, Israel had eight or ten nuclear warheads. But now they are said to have two hundred warheads! That we see as a threat to impose their policies on Egypt and the entire region.
The one constructive, or at least imaginative suggestion on this issue was made by Mohammed Sid-Ahmed in the English-language weekly edition of Al-Ahram. He proposed to resolve, or at least calm down, the NPT controversy by getting Israel and Egypt to cooperate on an Atoms For Peace Plan—a huge joint effort to relieve the region’s water shortage by building large nuclear-powered desalination plants.
Rabin’s rash talk of a possible general war only made things worse. Israel has never admitted that it posesses nuclear weapons. It defines its nuclear policy as deliberately “ambiguous,” yet it has leaked many hints over the years that its potential nuclear capacity was a kind of last-ditch deterrent against all-out attack. For this reason Israel refuses to sign the treaty before peaceful relations, including with Iraq and Iran, are established in the region.
According to a transcript leaked to Ha’aretz in February, at an angry meeting recently between Shimon Peres and the Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa to resolve this issue, the following exchange allegedly took place:
Peres: Before the Camp David [peace agreement] you knew exactly all the facts in the nuclear field.
Moussa: Sadat did raise the issue at Camp David.
Peres: Sadat indeed raised this issue and received the reply that on this matter we will not talk, and it did not enter the agreement. You are constantly saying: “We give peace in return for territory.” We surrendered territory but the terror continues and the Arab boycott continues. Why does no one of you criticize Iran and her nuclear program?
Moussa: Our position on the Non-Proliferation Treaty is not my personal [whim, as Israeli officials maintain.]
Peres: Sadat came to Jerusalem when public opinion was against peace and he was the pioneer throughout the Arab world, where there is still today a majority of opinion against peace.
There are deep differences in outlook between the two governments on the nuclear issue, and when all is said and done, there also seems a true clash of interests. It would be an act of statesmanship to keep that clash within strict limits. One morning in Cairo I had a long talk with Osama el Baz, still reputedly the president’s closest adviser. His high-ceilinged office is in a dusty old palace on the banks of the Nile, resplendent with gilded wood carvings and faded cream walls. He said that Egypt would sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty even if Israel did not, but on one condition: that Israel allow inspection of its sites and agreement was reached on the timetable and on the procedures of disarmament at a future date. He assured me that the nuclear issue was serious, but
not a major contention between the two countries…I understand perfectly what Rabin can and cannot do…He is for peace. We do not want to weaken him and his government…Mubarak often asks us to understand Rabin’s difficult problems and concerns…Rabin has a heart…Mubarak and Rabin are very cozy.
The unfavorable image of Israel in the semi-official Egyptian press, Osama el Baz said, was sometimes unjustified. He shrugged his shoulders: “We can’t do anything about that! There is freedom of the press in Egypt!” He assured me that he and the president were convinced that Israel did not intend to “dominate” the region. Peres was imaginative but also wise. Rabin was no fool. They knew well that they would fail if they tried. The great problem, as he saw it, was the “perception” of Israel in Egyptian eyes. The perception was bad. Israeli leaders were at least partly to blame for that.
If the “perception” was wrong, I asked el Baz, was the Egyptian government doing anything to change it? He himself had often made public statements to correct this erroneous perception, he said, even though “it isn’t my proper domain.” In his public lectures, about once a week, the subject invariably came up. The trouble was that the press did not always report his remarks in full. That was the problem.
Another problem, however, was summed up by his own sense of helplessness and that of his colleagues at the top of Egypt’s hierarchy. They can do little more than shrug in the face of evidence that they and their views are widely disdained.
Mary Anne Weaver, "The Novelist and the Sheikh," The New Yorker, January 30, 1995, pp. 52–69.↩
The reason given was that it included pictures of naked women. But the Israeli diplomat thought this was just an excuse.↩