Cairo Marriott Hotel and Casino
During the 90s I spent a month or five weeks working in Cairo and Alexandria each year, with shorter trips in between. The company had several operations in Egypt and I would hole up at the former palace of King Farouk, now the Cairo Marriott in Zemalek and walk to work each morning.
The local company was run by an American ex-pat living in a nice villa in one of Cairo’s better areas. Walls. Street patrols. Servants. Gardeners.
The Egyptian staff at the office were mostly a middle-class college educated mixture of Muslims and Copts. I had a chance to meet many of them socially at their homes and apartments.
One Muslim was married to an Italian Catholic woman who cooked me a great Italian meal while we laughed over stories of their respective families going ape shit over their pending marriage. Solution was two weddings – one in Italy and one in Egypt.
More than one Coptic employee swore to me privately that the Copts were the REAL Egyptians – descendants of those who built the pyramids. All the others were foreign invaders.
One common trait I noticed among all Egyptians I met was a certain fatalism. Fatalism is almost part of Egyptian DNA. Nothing in Egypt ever changes and nothing would change.
As an American I found such attitudes disturbing. Americans believe things can get better. We can make them better. We will not only survive hard times; we will come out of hard times stronger and better than before. We as a people have never subscribed to the belief that a situation is hopeless – though that has certainly changed in recent years.
Well one week I visited our office in Alexandria. I was making a special trip to meet the company’s lawyer who handled all our legal work. Let’s call him Senussi.
There was a company car and driver of course but I decided to ride the bus from Cairo to Alexandria. The staff thought I was crazy but take the bus I did along the desert road to Alexandria. I always felt Alexandria a classic Mediterranean city. I could have been in Naples.
Senussi was over seventy years old. Slender and well dressed he was the consummate well connected successful Egyptian. And he had lived through it all.
Over lunch at a beautiful waterfront restaurant we talked our business and then talked of Egypt.
He was old enough to have been a young teen during World War II under the British. He lived under King Farouk and was in his twenties when General Naguib and then Gamal Nasser came to power.
Well into the 1940s, Egypt, along with most of the rest of the Middle East, remained a lesser global concern, still in the thrall of the European powers that imposed their will on the area decades before. That began to change at the end of World War II with the discovery of vast new oil fields in the region, and with the collapse of the British and French colonial empires. The pace of change greatly accelerated when Nasser and his Free Officers Movement of junior military officers overthrew Egypt’s Western-pliant king in 1952.
Championing “Arab socialism” and Pan-Arab unity, Nasser swiftly became a galvanizing figure throughout the Arab world, the spokesman for a people long dominated by foreigners and Western-educated elites. Just as crucial to the strongman’s popularity was what he opposed: colonialism, imperialism and that most immediate and enduring example of the West’s meddling in the region, the state of Israel.
“Times were not so bad under Farouk. He was a bit self-indulgent but he was not deposed by the people. There were no mobs in the streets demanding he abdicate”. Senussi was certain the CIA supported the military coup. He was sure it could not have happened without more than just tacit US approval.
Egypt’s long tradition of relative liberalism had given rise to a fractious political landscape that ran the spectrum from secular communists to fundamentalist Islamists.
Part of Nasser’s genius was his ability to bridge these divides, and he did so by appealing both to Egyptian national pride and to a shared antipathy for the West, a vestige, perhaps, of 70 years of heavy-handed rule by Britain. Thus, even when Islamist conservatives became alarmed by Nasser’s moves toward greater secularism, most still saw him as a hero for nationalizing Western businesses, and for besting Britain, France and Israel in the 1956 Suez crisis.
Egyptians, even liberals cheered him for his leadership in the international Nonaligned Movement, for proudly thumbing his nose at the threats and enticements of the United States as it sought to compel Egypt into its orbit during the Cold War. This became the means by which Nasser and his successor, Anwar Sadat, maintained their grip on power: play left and right off each other as a matter of course; bring them together when needed by focusing on an external foe.
In1978, Egypt’s political landscape was neatly turned upside down. In September, Sadat signed the Camp David accords, which led to an American-brokered peace treaty with Israel. That stunning about-face simultaneously propelled Egypt into the camp of American client-states and isolated it from much of the rest of the Arab world. Even more ominously for Sadat, what was seen in the West as an act of courage was regarded by most Egyptians as an act of betrayal and national shame. Sadat was subsequently assassinated inn 1981.
The generals have ruled Egypt ever since.Nothing had changed. “Like the pyramids” Senussi said, “Or the Nile”.
Egyptians had not been independent for over 2,000 years. They had gone from Pharaohs to foreign rulers to Kings and now the military was in charge.
The military have their fingers in everything that is manufactured in Egypt. Every senior and mid-ranking military officer was hand picked by Mubarak and all owed him their careers. They too lived in fine villas with drivers and servants paid for by the U.S.
Egypt had “elections” but everyone knew who was going to win. Only candidates from the President’s party could run anyway. No other political parties were permitted.
Then came Tahir Square.
There had been a “State of Emergency” for longer than most Egyptians in the square had been alive. Speak out against the government and you were arrested, held without charges or worse. There was no Egyptian free press.
Senussi was a fatalist. He had lived long enough to see the hopes and aspirations of the 1950s fade away into the Egyptian eternity. So he did the best he could do. He lived within the constraints of the system. He survived and prospered.
The young people in the square were not yet fatalists. They had aspirations and with social connections to the outside world they knew it didn’t have to be like this. They are wary of government simply playing musical chairs – and nothing changing.
But they had no real leaders or organizations that could speak for them.
And it came down to this again – continued military rule.
There was no charismatic faceless Egyptian – someone the young could rally behind. An unknown; a Senussi who has seen it all shaking off his fatalism, speaking for them and saying “Enough! In the name of God will you please go!” Besides, there are not enough “liberal” votes anyway.
Senussi and I left the restaurant talking of Egypt, Israel and wars.
“Was Alexandria bombed during the Six Day War?” asks Toritto
“Oh Toritto my friend! The last time Alexandria was bombed it was the Italians!”
Senussi, if he still lives, is not surprised by the events since Tahir Square.