TRAVEL TO EGYPT | Editors compare notes

Shifting political currents along the Nile

Egypt 2006

By Darryl Levings

June 10, 2009

Lines of riot police at demonstrations are evidence of the Egyptian government’s approach to efforts to promote more democracy.

DARRYL LEVINGS: So, Miriam, in your travels along the Pharaohs’ freeway, the Nile, did you pick up any political vibes along with all those little scarabs and Sphinx souvenirs?

MIRIAM PEPPER: I heard tempered disillusionment with the Bush administration but nothing hostile toward individual Americans. One well-informed guide, a former translator for Colin Powell during the first Gulf War, said if Bush had a lifetime presidency, he might succeed in Iraq. But he believes the extremists just have to wait Bush out in Iraq.

LEVINGS: Our president, in his second inaugural, called for more Middle East democracy. “America’s vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one.” Many Egyptians believe this but don’t think Bush really does.

One who surprised me was Saad Ibrahim, a reformist intellectual who has gotten three trips to prison, the last on trumped-up charges involving his research/advocacy center. He says Bush and the war “midwived” changes that may ultimately usher the modern state into the Muslim region.

“My wife would hate to hear me say Bush was right,” he joked, but the president’s push forced Hosni Mubarak to open elections a bit. “Flawed as they may be, they released tremendous energy in the country.”

PEPPER: I ran into perceptions of American arrogance. But even more alarming were comments on how we are slow learners about Islam, especially how to approach Shiites and Sunnis differently.

As one person said, “People here are not Americans, not western. We think different.”

Did you sense much hostility toward Americans?

LEVINGS: What flavor do you want? America:

(a) shouldn’t be in Iraq.

(b) is two-faced on Iran nukes since Israel has them and on elections because we pulled funding from Hamas.

(c) sees all Arabs as terrorists.

(d) supports the Mubarak regime despite its corruption. At a street demonstrations in support of judicial independence, where police showed their heavy-handedness, a nattily dressed older gentleman approached me and shouted: “This is all your fault!” He meant, of course, U.S. support of the government.

My most memorable taste, though, was expressed by the oldest son in a very poor family that gave us dinner in the Cairo slums. The muted TV stayed on during our visit in the tiny room, showing an Egyptian movie. The conversation moved to cinema.

A college graduate son said he liked Hollywood films but had a question: Why did they always show Americans as better than everyone else? Most directors, I replied, be they French, British, whoever, tended to film with a bias toward their own people.

He nodded, and then said, “OK, I’ve got another question: Why do Americans see themselves as better than anyone else?”

PEPPER: Many also consider their government a hindrance. They told me Mubarak had been in office way too long, was out of touch with Egyptians and that although life has improved, it’s not enough.

LEVINGS: Yes, I think there’s a reason why they moved the tech minister up to prime minister. First, he’s got a clean reputation (since he’s not as involved with the security services) and he’s got a good record of bolstering the private sector, communications, taxes, etc. But a huge demographic balloon of youths needing employment is chasing him, and 500,000 new jobs must be created yearly just to keep things from getting worse.

PEPPER: The improvements in living conditions in Cairo, however, are significant. Our guide, in his 40s, described his mother waiting in line for hours each week for her allotment of two chickens and hours more for her bread. Streets were mostly unpaved and families often waited until midnight for hot water to reach upper-floor apartments.

New appliances or car purchases (at grossly inflated prices) often required one-year waits, with cash paid upfront. Taxes on cars were 1,000 percent. Now all currencies or credit are accepted and products are available immediately.

LEVINGS: True, but stagnation and layers of corruption are still dragging them down. One former UNICEF employee told me the demands for bribes come at every step in dealing with the bureaucracy, “unless I know an influential person.” He said two levels of corruption permeated the country — the minor, where police might require a payoff to let a driver go on his way, and at high-level –– officials or businessmen getting government loans and not paying them back.

PEPPER: Another disturbing aspect for me was a survey after the bombing in Dahab. An Egyptian blog offered an online poll about the perpetrators. It was unscientific, but a majority blamed Israel for the bombing. Why? They claim Israelis are jealous of the lost tourist traffic from Eilat.

Only a fifth of the respondents thought it could be home-grown terrorists, such as Sinai Bedouins, blamed by the government. The unending hostility toward Israel and grasping at conspiracy theories is truly disturbing.

LEVINGS: That’s fed by the constant drumbeat of Arab news reports about the Palestinians. It’s also being propagated by the Muslim Brotherhood, who say the right for Israel to exist can only be discussed after all the Palestinian demands are met. I asked a leader about Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, and he noted that every treaty should be reviewed every five years.

PEPPER: I think it’s troubling that the Brotherhood is technically outlawed but won about a fifth of the Parliament.

LEVINGS: They won as independents, although everyone knew who they were. This group is very disciplined. They could have captured more seats, but held back the number of candidates so as to not alarm the government. The police, also, held down the Brothers’ vote count.

PEPPER: How did your experts perceive the Brotherhood’s power base?

LEVINGS: They are popular, but are they just winning a protest vote against the regime? Some can’t imagine them actually running the country, but I think that’s a dangerous condescension. Others say the vote itself was skewed by the many moderates ignoring the election as a fraud. Ibrahim says if only 20 percent turned out to vote, that means the Brothers had only 4 percent of the theoretical real voting public. He thinks their wins will set off alarm bells and bring out the secular vote.

Did you notice how the once-cosmopolitan Cairo is showing a more Islamic face?

PEPPER: As a tourist who doesn’t speak Arabic, it’s hard to pick up on shifts, but we saw lots of women in western clothing, but wearing the hijab, or head scarves. One Muslim guide suggested the hijab is seen wrongly in the West as an Islamic religious dictate. He said the scarves evolved as a defense against sand storms. At home, I saw a survey that said Muslim women do not view the hijab as a “tool of oppression” as some Western women do.

LEVINGS: Others called it just a fashion in the Arab world or insisted that poor women are avoiding expensive hairdos, but I met Inas el Degheidy, a filmaker who makes waves and gets death threats for attacking Egypt’s gender inequalities. “If I walk on the street this way I will be harassed,” she said, her blond hair uncovered.

Many wear the scarf to avoid sexual harassment or religious haranguing on the street. Recalling a recent wedding, where the women of her generation were bareheaded but their daughters all covered with scarves, Degheidy said, “I feel they have given in.”

What scares me is how Saudis are buying up Egyptian media and imposing their own strict religious standards, such as banning a woman from even appearing on the screen with a man. A lot of poor Egyptian men working in Arabia also bring back Wahabism attitudes.

Some intellectuals I met said public attitudes pushed by the ultra-religious made them nervous.

Many were more comfortable in the ’80s with government censors. Now, one said, they face a “social censuring that is far worse.”

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TRIP DETAILS

Miriam Pepper, editorial page editor, and Darryl Levings, national editor, recently visited Egypt, a country with a history extending more than 5,000 years. Pepper traveled as a tourist, Levings on a fellowship from the International Reporting Project from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

In between the pyramid and mosque visits, they found that this country, sometimes an oasis of relative calm amid Mideast turmoil, is shifting. Many are calling for more democracy at the same time Islamic fundamentalism is growing. How much of either will be allowed by the regime of aging President Hosni Mubarak is the topic of much speculation.

The two editors compared notes on their observations.