Cairo, the Pole Star of Arab Cultural Consciousness

All Arab eyes are watching Cairo. But this time, with Al Jazeera present internationally, not only current Arab residents, but ex-patriots Arabs and the international community are watching as well. The events unfolding in Cairo are historical no doubt -- yet a similar event befell Egypt before (albeit not to the same degree) when King Farooq, the decadent, corpulent, and corrupt king of Egypt and Sudan, found himself in a similar dilemma as Mubarak. Then, the tyrant was a royalist who pretended to care about Egypt and his subjects while extensively vacationing and dining glutinously in the French Riviera. Now Mubarak is the corrupt autocrat who came from the lineage of anti-royalists who descended from the ranks of Jamal Abdul Nasser's: Nasser and his allies -- Free Officers who were opposed to the king -- deposed King Farooq in 1952 in a coup that changed Egypt into a republic a year later. Mubarak has new-found patriotism of a disingenuous variety, and he is letting Egypt deteriorate into a state of disarray. Instead of leaving with dignity he risks being ousted ignominiously. His obstinacy may cost Egypt much in economic setbacks and possibly a total breakdown of governmental organizations.

Cairo has emerged from the fertile Nile delta and out of the cradle of one of the most fascinating ancient civilizations. The Pharaoh Khufu saw fit to establish his great mausoleum nearby on the Giza plateau: the Fatimid caliphate established the modern day Cairo (Al Qahira in Arabic, or The Vanquisher) at the height of their power when the other Islamic capitals before Cairo waned, namely Fustat, Al-Qatta'i, and Al-Askar. The remains of these cities are within the parameters of today's greater Cairo, and part of the old city. Interestingly, the Fatimid caliph Al Moezz moved his residence and his court from Tunisia (Al Mansuriya) to Cairo.

Cairo it is still very much the Jewel of the Nile: the cultural and literary nerve center of the Arab world and the largest city of the African continent. It has one of the oldest universities in the world. It is also the Tinsel Town of Arabia, where the Arabic language film, television, and media industry has its roots. When I was in the Middle East in the seventies, all Arabic language programming was of Egyptian origin. Cairo was the first Arab city to chart its path towards modernity where the first performance of Verdi's Aida took place at the Cairo's opera house in 1871.

So all this talk of Egypt being some backwater of the North African world -- backward thinking, religious fanatics, and sympathetic towards the Muslim Brotherhood -- emanating from the media and Fox News is ignorant and ludicrous. The Brotherhood has at best a tenuous support of less than a quarter of the population (they won 20 percent of the seats in 2005), and while they are culturally conservative, they are not quite the spooks the media makes them out to be. This political faction has been around for some eight decades: it is non-violent and not as radical now as they were decades ago. What some of the news media doesn't clearly report is that they have expressly stated that whatever the Egyptian protests' outcome, they won't have any aspirations for the highest office.

But what really irks me is that for years the media has been spouting platitudes as to how the Middle East needs to be democratic. Now that democratic voices are assuming a more vociferous tone, the media has suddenly gotten rather squeamish and even afraid of this democratic movement, especially when it comes to Egypt. It is quite evident from the faces of the protestors on Tahrir Square that it represents Egypt's entire social and generational spectrum of the population: it is authentic, grassroots, peaceful, and full of patriotic rage -- in a word, democratic!

Why some of the mainstream media has no stomach for this revolution in the making? Because Egypt has a border with Israel and it has a signed peace treaty with Israel with some trade between the two countries. Also, Israel has access to the Suez Canal, and it relies on Egypt to keep the border sealed on the Gaza side. Any new government not abiding by these agreements will be colossal headache for Israel, and it has most to lose from any such eventuality; it will force Israel to rethink its Gaza strategy. Obama's envoy went to Cairo to convince Mubarak to relinquish his power, but came back singing a different tune in Europe and embarrassed the White House! I wonder who got to him to make him sing like a trained parrot unauthorized?

Egypt was progressive long before any other nation in the region. Only in the last few decades has it become marginally more conservative, due mostly to its corrupt rulers and the economic woes brought about by said rulers. Since goodwill toward the United States is in the doghouse in the Middle East, US support of Mubarak doesn't go unnoticed. While the aristocracy and the upper middle class (well connected to the regime) was economically doing well, the majority of middle and the lower income people were just getting by hand to mouth, with dire future prospects. The civil servants and army bureaucrats were skimming all the cream from the top leaving merely the whey for the rest of the populous.

Mubarak took over the reigns of Egypt after Sadat was assassinated; he came as a young idealist from the army's ranks but lost his moral bearings to corruption, political consolidation, power, and greed. He has been crushing his political opponents by incarcerating and assassinating them, and eradicating any voice of plurality. His elections have become farcical electoral events under the guise of democratic process. His oppressive regime had been mostly ignored by the populous until now, but with food prices at all time high, high unemployment among youth, a dismal fate looming over Egypt, and their backs against a wall--Facebook or not, the populous finally had enough.

Hosni Mubarak has been very successful at selling his style of regime to the west. His modus operandi has been quite simple: if you give me all the aid (bribe) that I want, I will keep peace with Israel, sell some energy (natural gas) to Israel, keep the Gaza/Egypt border sealed, keep the visiting Egyptophiles safe, give military access to the Suez Canal, and keep Muslim fundamentalists out of the Egypt's political arena. He walked this delicate high wire act quite successfully for several decades. But he had no idea that the terra firma upon which he had build this fantastical bridge to the west was turning into quicksand.

"I arrived at length at Cairo, mother of cities and seat of Pharaoh the tyrant, mistress of broad regions and fruitful lands, boundless in multitude of buildings, peerless in beauty and splendor, the meeting-place of comer and goer, the halting-place of feeble and mighty, whose throngs surge as the waves of the sea, and can scarce be contained in her for all her size and capacity." This is a synopsis of what Ibn Battuta the great Moroccan traveler and scholar wrote of Cairo when he arrived there in year 1326. It is evident from the unbroken line of regional importance and vibrancy connecting that description and current events that it is a linchpin city of the Arab world -- even though battered by its custodians through the centuries, it has lost some of its dazzling sheen. Almost every great power has passed through and has tried to conquer this captivating nation. Hosni Mubarak has steered this historically significant ship aground and now he is pretending to be the dedicated captain, when in actuality he is a rat who should have abandoned this ship a long time ago.