Egypt's Elite Torn by Arab Roots and Western Ties

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Posted by FYI ( on November 04, 2001 at 03:27:49:


CAIRO, Oct. 25 In the old days, before Sept. 11, cosmopolitan Egyptians shuttled between the Arab world and the West as effortlessly as they switched from Arabic to English in mid-conversation. No one asked them to choose sides.

Now America is at war and, on the street and in the newspapers here, people are saying it is a Western war against Arabs and Islam. Inside their salons and boardrooms, the country's Westernized elite is anxiously searching for neutral ground.

"We are between the devil and the deep blue sea," lamented a Cairo hostess the other evening, as her white-jacketed servant delivered goblets of red wine on a silver tray. "The Taliban on one side. And, on the other, this man Bush with his bombs."

These "other" Egyptians entertain in velvet-draped parlors overlooking the Nile, teach at private English-only schools or run international companies from cool marble- clad offices, sealed off from the rest of this clamorous dust-coated city by privilege and wealth.

Their children do not march on university campuses shouting anti- American slogans or profess admiration for religious extremists like Osama bin Laden, who has divided the world into good Muslims and bad infidels. Their children are sent abroad to study, in the United States and Europe, and return to take their place among the country's elite.

The members of this elite are the heirs to a 150-year Egyptian tradition of melding Western cultures into their own. But now they find themselves objects of suspicion to less- worldly Egyptians.

"When I came back, I was surprised at how negatively the United States is viewed in Egypt," said Mohammad Kamal, a political science lecturer at Cairo University who recently returned home after earning a doctorate degree from Johns Hopkins University.

"Sometimes I have to walk a very thin line," he added, "because I'm trying to explain the U.S."

After the attacks on New York and Washington, Dr. Kamal wrote an opinion piece for Al Ahram, the biggest Egyptian daily newspaper. He argued that differences between Islamic countries and the West stemmed from separate interests, not religions.

His students reproached him for what they saw as his defense of the United States, insisting that American policy is hostile to Islam. So, on the advice of relatives, Dr. Kamal said, he will still try to persuade his students to look at the United States in a more balanced way. But he will go slowly.

"Arabs feel that they are bombarded with the cultural products of Western civilization and they're not part of this process," Dr. Kamal said. "I see myself as someone who can reconcile these things."

But suspicion of the United States runs deep and has only become more fierce in the days since the American bombing of Afghanistan began.

In Egyptian newspapers, the United States is portrayed as a case study in immorality: corrupt, hypocritical, anti-Islamic, anti-Arab, weak, uncaring about civilian casualties in Afghanistan and swayed by a Zionist lobby.

The criticism has been relentless, with some editorialists accusing the Americans of using Mr. bin Laden as a pretext for the ultimate goal of occupying Afghanistan to control Central Asian oil routes.

Many in the Egyptian elite are profoundly uncomfortable that such views, more virulently anti-American than ever before, have become part of the normal public discourse here.

Yet, given the open criticism of American behavior and motives in the government-controlled press, they say they do not feel able to intervene with a different view.

"This is something that doesn't please me, because the last thing I want to see is the development of anti-American sentiment," said Taher Samir Helmy, a prominent Cairo lawyer and adviser to President Hosni Mubarak. "It doesn't develop with the intelligentsia and the middle class, because they know better, but the lower classes can be affected by this."

Mr. Helmy spent 17 years in the United States, studying and then practicing law in Chicago. His firm, housed on the 18th floor of a modern office tower on the Nile that is guarded by Egyptian soldiers, represents some of the country's biggest companies. He said his wife wept whenever she saw reports about the victims of the World Trade Center attack on television.

But people like Mr. Helmy are also keenly aware that Mr. bin Laden has tapped into a reservoir of resentment against the United States and, more ominously, wrapped his message in religious terms that resonate with many ordinary Egyptians.

Asked if the government should do more to counter the sweeping accusations that American culture is innately hostile to Islam, Mr. Helmy responded with a firm "no."

"The last thing we want to talk about is a clash of civilizations," he said. "This is a subject we shouldn't talk about under any circumstances.

"It's a very delicate situation when you start talking about religion," he added. "On this we are really vulnerable. We are a moderate state. We have strong alliances with the U.S. and Europe. We are supporting the U.S. now, but we have to play it very carefully."

Some members of Egypt's elite are also aware that the bitterness now expressed against the United States could, at some point, redound against the moderate Mubarak government and against them.

On the surface, social relations appear calm. But in a nation of manifest poverty, the easy success of the privileged few does cause resentment.

A willowy young woman named Lara, the daughter of a successful lawyer, said she was shocked to discover that resentment recently when she parked her brand-new red sports car in the basement parking lot of her apartment building.

When she went to retrieve it the next day, someone had scratched a message in Arabic onto the door. It said, "a thousand, a thousand, a thousand congratulations on your new car."

Still, Lara, who speaks impeccable English and hopes to move to London to pursue a modeling career, is convinced that Arab culture is superior to an American culture she believes is hopelessly racist and uncaring. "Islam isn't like that," she said. "In Islam all of us are equal."

Some American-educated Egyptians said they also felt estranged from the United States, which they fear has typecast all Arabs as terrorists. It is a disorienting sensation.

"Some of us don't fit anywhere," said Samir Farag, whose family owns one of Egypt's biggest companies that produces agricultural products and imports commodities.

Mr. Farag attended an American school in Cairo, starting in kindergarten, and now, at the age of 30, is a vice president of Coldwell Banker of Egypt.

Until recently, he considered the United States a second home. Now he said he feared being treated with suspicion by Americans because he is an Arab, as several Egyptian businessmen told him they were on recent trips.

"It was nice to be a broker between both sides in terms of business and society," Mr. Farag said. "I'm not sure it's feasible anymore."

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