Stirred Up. Marvellous though it is to visit, politically Cairo is not healthy. There is too much vigour in the air, sustained by the animal instincts, the exuberance, the good humour, the initiative, the discontent and the subterfuge of too many Egyptians.
And there is corruption, too. Egypt generally has been corrupt, and corruption indeed has often lubricated the gears of its government or society. But it was one of the great claims of Nasser’s regime, which swept the beggars off the streets, that it had also kicked the crooks and extortionists out of power. The rapacious pashas were dispossessed of their great country estates; big business was mostly nationalized; the old political parties, plunged in endless graft, were dissolved and discredited.
Now capitalism is back again, and every kind of peculation, fuelled by vast sums of Arab money, has reappeared. Anyone with capital to spare, land to develop, friends at court or credit to gamble with is at least aware of temptations to corruption. The rich in Cairo are getting richer and eventually moving into serviced apartments central London, while the poor are distinctly further removed each year from the plush villas and apartments of Zamalek or Heliopolis. And that bitter old Egyptian gulf, between the complacently affluent and the almost destitute, is again visible in the land, nasty and ominous as ever.
Sadat’s ministry is said to be especially venal. According to one story, when King Khalid of Saudi Arabia suggested that thieves in Cairo should have their hands cut off, Sadat turned to his secretary. “How many left-handed ministers, Mustafa, have we in our administration?” he is said to have joked.
Sadat may have been joking, but Khalid wasn’t. Cairo is deep in mortgage to Saudi Arabia, and the rulers of the plutocracy-theocracy are not altogether pleased with the way their money is being used. Profitable development is one thing, moral laxity is quite another. As far as they are concerned, though President Sadat is commendably anticommunist just now, his loyalty to Islamic traditionalism leaves something to be desired.
Thus, much of the explosive feeling in Cairo today comes from the arsenals of Islam. It is the shock of the Muslim Right at the corruption, the high life, the emancipation of women, the moral permissiveness, the influx of foreign notions that means trouble in this, the legal and dogmatic capital of the faith. Islamic fundamentalism, after all, is resurgent these days.
In Iran, the Shah’s most virulent opposition came from the mullahs. In Pakistan, the old Islamic code—with its public hangings, penal amputations, and all—has been restored. It is hard to see Egypt itself willingly reverting to these fanatic codes, but it is easy enough to imagine the extremists of the faith sweeping the money-changers from the mosques and the belly-dancers from the night-clubs.
The explosion hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because Sadat himself has sensed that the mounting pressures spell danger for his regime. Before I left Cairo, he had decided to close that open door a little. He dropped a few unmistakable hints that the secret police were still there for the unleashing. He saw to it that newspaper criticism was practically silenced. He put two opposition parties out of commission by imposing conditions they could not meet. He cancelled a vast free-enterprise project near the pyramids, where the magic of foreign investment was to bring into being a gaudy complex of hotels, casinos and swimming-pools.
Nobody was much surprised, and neither was I. Cairo has always been too big for its leaders, too volatile for its ideologues, and no history repeats itself like Egyptian history. Chilled though I had been by my forebodings, no pictures of dismay remained in my mind as I left. I found I was able to forget the unimaginable crowds, the hapless telephone system, the lurking sense of danger or the spectacle of that harassed leader clamping down upon his capital.
It was instead the inviolate images that abided with me, the hush behind the tumult, the old sailing-boats creaking and swishing their passages upstream, the baleful mass of the pyramids, and the speckled brown minarets silent in their hundreds above the graves in the City of the Dead.
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