Cairo, City of Fizz and Ferment

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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