Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Streets of Cairo

I arrived at the American Embassy in Cairo the same month Jimmy Carter was sworn in as President of the United States. I got off on the wrong foot with Cairo and never found a better one. “Tomorrow is Friday, but you’ll have jet-lag,” my new boss said. “I’ll send a duty driver for you on Monday.” However, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and fever hallucinations, Pharaoh’s revenge, immediately overtook the jet-lag, and I was unable to report for work until another week later. Then came the Baladi Bread and Butagas Riots.

Egypt borrowed money from the World Bank, where heckuva job Bob McNamara, of Vietnam fame, was president, and the brightest and best there recommended Egypt abolish price controls on baladi bread, flour, rice, cooking oil, and butagas. From Alexandria to Aswan, rioters took to the streets, hundreds killed, more injured. Along the main road from Cairo to the Pyramids, Islamists attacked the gaudy nightclub venues of alcohol drinking, casino gambling, and belly dancing. President Sadat declared martial law. Rioters shouted, “Where is our breakfast?" and "Nasser, Nasser." After the riots, the Egyptian government took it all back and reinstated the price controls.

On the first morning of the protests, I had gone to the Embassy without noticing any difference from every other day of chaos on the streets of Cairo. By 10 a.m., my boss dragged an army green footlocker from the secured vault into the office and unpacked its contents in front of his four-man staff of teletype operators. He spread across a desk an olive-drab webbed-belt, a leather holster embossed “U.S.,” and a .45 caliber semi-automatic M1911A sidearm. He hooked the holster to the belt and sheathed the pistol. A metal ammo box contained incendiary grenades, in case of emergency destruction of classified documents. The boss opened the main filing cabinet. “Pull the pin, toss it in, and run like hell.” To me, he said, “You’re riding with me.”

My boss drove a 1973 Plymouth Fury, still in its prime as a huge hunk of steel and V-8 horsepower. We rode out the front gate of the Embassy, past the Shepheards Hotel, and down the Corniche El Nil. At the first bridge, a crowd gathered. My boss stopped the car in the middle of the street a block away and shifted the transmission into Neutral. “Roll up your window and lock the doors,” he told me. The crowd advanced towards the Plymouth. Some carried rocks in their hands and lengths of iron pipes. “Hold on to your ass,” my boss said. Angry faces began to come into focus. My boss stomped on the accelerator with the engine still in Neutral. When the RPM needle pointed to 12 O’Clock High, he dropped the gear shift into Drive, screeching tires and raising a trail of blue smoke and the smell of rubber. He aimed the Plymouth Fury steel and horsepower at the middle of the mob. The accelerator pedal was still flat on the floor at 60 MPH, when the crowd parted like the Red Sea. At my front door, the boss said, “You just stay home until I send for you.” There was no telephone service. The next time the duty driver came for me, I had been in Cairo three weeks and had worked one full day and part of another.

Sadat’s government survived the bread riots, with a lot of help from his friends, until the assassins got him in 1981. Mubarak was his vice president. Mubarak has ruled Egypt for 30 years without a vice president but now has decided he needs one and has chosen his not-so-secret police chief, a trusted torturer. Meanwhile, Mohamed ElBaradei a United Nations bureaucrat living in Europe, got a sudden urge to participate in Cairo street riots, and American television immediately elected him “the opposition leader.” Remember Benazir Bhutto, educated in Cambridge, Mass., and Oxford, England, twice Prime Minister of Pakistan and twice run out of Islamabad on a rail, suddenly homesick for Pakistan again when it looked like regime change was in bloom? There must be some special travel agency offering special packages at special rates for special expatriate patriots.


Tina said...

Makes me glad I live in quiet li'l ole Perry GA. :-)

Tina said...

Wonder why Mubarek doesn't follow the example of Moses and get out of there.

Dennis Crews said...

Pretty fascinating story. It's amazing in retrospect the things Americans have gotten away with in other places. Something tells me there won't be much slack cut for the U.S. from now on. Glad you made it out alive back then.

Lyrics said...

Maybe you know "Streets of Cairo" is the title of the song often used to identify snake charmers and belly dancers. Some versions of the lyrics describe a mythical place in France where the women wear....


Paw Paw Bill said...

You certainly have turned up a needle from the haystack of my ignorance. Would that I had selected that title to such a clever purpose. Nonetheless, I have been to both Egypt and France. With all due respect, I prefer France.


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