For Egyptians, Salaam Equals Security

04/16/2009 05:12 am 05:12:01 | Updated May 25, 2011

Egyptians love to talk politics. And since I also love to talk politics, on my recent visit I was happy to oblige them.

Once Egpytians realized they'd found a kindred soul, and especially upon confirming I was from the United States, they were eager to talk politics whenever the opportunity presented itself. I did not initiate any of these discussions; indeed, coming as our visit did on the heels of renewed violence in Gaza and unsure of Egyptian feelings toward Americans I was reticent to bring up politics at all. But as I said in a report for Huffington Post last week, the customary salutation our family of five received from Egyptians ("American? Welcome! Obama very good!" ) encouraged me to be more outgoing, and once assured of a willingness to engage from the Egyptians I met, I took it from there, eager to steer the conversation toward politics. Even when time was brief politics snuck right in: I nodded a hello at a security guard stationed in an open-air museum in Memphis and after confirming my country of origin ("American?" he called as I walked by, and when I smiled and nodded he followed with an enthusiastic: "Obama! Yes we can!"), I was invited to visit a bit longer: "Obama," said the security guard, "he has economy ideas, yes? You agree? It work?" The ticket taker at a Cairo museum took his five second opportunity to inquire as he took my ticket: "Obama will speak in Muslim country? Good plan. Maybe Egypt?" The scarf dealer in a small shop in Aswan wanted to clarify something first: "You like Bush?" Satisfied with the response he then spoke at length about Bush's replacement, saying in part: "I think Obama understands the world, Obama listens to other countries. Egyptians feel hope, too." When I asked what he based that on, he thought for a minute and said, "He greeted others in his first speech." (Obama's Inauguration reference to Muslims, he clarified). "He has lived in other places. Maybe that helps him see bigger."

As curious as they were about U.S. politics, Egyptians proved equally willing to discuss the situation in the Middle East. The tone of those conversations struck me as serious but not grim, realistic but not fatalistic. Their relationship with Israel was often the first topic raised; every Egyptian I spoke with was proud of their country's long-standing peace with Israel. In Cairo we were shown the Israeli embassy not once but twice, and when our driver pointed out a square named after Anwar Sadat, he added: "A kind man. Good leader. A very good man because he make salaam (peace)."

Unwavering support for their neighbor was tempered with strong disagreement over tactics, and deep concern over the current situation. Our longest conversation on the Middle East situation was with a gentleman in Luxor. M. was a tall, friendly man who smiled often and seemed to know everyone. Children gravitated to him like a robed Pied Piper. I was surprised when he told us he'd served in the Egyptian Army, as his gentle nature did not seem to lend itself to military service, and when recounting that part of his life he shook his head as if to dispel images of what he called, "terrible things, terrible things" witnessed during his service. That time in uniform shaped his views on Egypt and the Middle East, and they were simple and straightforward: peace was good, because peace equaled safety and security for his country. His opinion of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was based on that premise, an echo of sentiments we heard from other Egyptians: "Mubarak good man, because he no bomb. No bomb, no violence, no death - good. That is good." He had no sympathy for Hamas, waving his hand in disgust as he said, "Hamas, no good. Hamas only want, want, want-money, power, goods. No want for Palestinians, only want for Hamas. Hamas bad for Palestinians, bad for everybody." But then he added: "Israel create Hamas. Just like English create Israel, Israel create Hamas. And now bad for everybody." M. offered no solution, only hope, again, that the situation will improve with the new U.S. administration. "Bush, do nothing. Obama, he understand better. We hope."

Again and again we heard that said, that Egyptians hope Obama understands the Middle East situation better than his predecessor. And again and again the bottom line seemed the same: that Egyptians want peace because peace means security. None of the Egyptians I spoke with saw themselves as pacifists, but as pragmatic people who just want to get on with their lives, love their families, hopefully prosper. As M. put it: "Israel make salaam. We make salaam. It is good for them, it is good for us." And he smiled as he added, "With salaam, everyone better."