"He has steered us between America and the radicals," the professor, a personal critic of Mubarak, observed. "We fear both sides, and want to remain apart."
That Egypt sees itself as different from the Arab World comes as no surprise to any extended visitor. For six weeks, The Louisiana Weekly and the NNPA had sent this reporter into covering the glories and underworld of what some call the most advance nation in the Arab World.
From its spectacular Aswan High Dam to its vast chemical and agricultural industries, parts of Egypt economically resembled the First World far more than the Third. Then again, seeing a six year old child named Noeille working morning until night in a "carpet school" weaving carpets for tourists, or entering the "City of the Dead" an above ground cemetery in Cairo where thousands of vagrants seek out a living perusing mountains of trash, shows another side to this most ancient nation on earth and all of its contradictions.
The most obvious being that despite the ubiquity of its moments--Egypt is literally awash in history from Temples along the Nile to the 121 Pyramids besides Giza to the thousand years of Islamic architecture and all of its crumbling beauty--very few average Egyptians were ever informed of the rich details of their history.
Schools taught Egyptian lore starting only at independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 19th Century until the Present. Ask the typical Egyptian about the Pharaohs, from Ramses II to Cleopatra, the Romans, the Byzantines, the centers of learning from the Alexandria library to the schools of the Caliphate, and they will look at you curiously ignorant. They can see the monuments around them, but their history and meaning comes only from broken word of mouth explanations.
"The average American school child has a better knowledge of Egyptian history, the Pyramids and the like, than the average Egyptian," explained my professor-guide. From his perch at the American University in Cairo, he had experienced the poverty of that knowledge from his students first hand.
As an accidental result, though, the historical ignorance gives Egyptians a very modernist perspective, quite apart from other authoritarian regimes like China or Iran, whose dictatorships often justify their rule on Confucius or Cyrus the Great, on the Middle Kingdom's Uniqueness or the Persian destiny.
In Egypt, the absence of any kind of "Pharonic" justifications for dictatorial rule may be the key to why Mubarak's departure could easily lead to Democracy instead of Islamic Radicalism.
It is interesting to note that the nature of dictatorship in Egypt was always actively cloaked in Democratic constitutional rhetoric. Elections were held regularly, and while the ballot boxes were stuffed, the Mubarak regime rarely sought Soviet style 99% margins of victory.
Even Hosni Mubarak's current efforts to retain power until the national elections in September, and a potential Presidential succession, are described in constitutional terms. Mubarak's newly appointed Vice President Omar Suleiman said early on Thursday, justifying why his leader must stay in power, "The presidential elections will be carried out in August or September, it will not go beyond that time. And from now till that moment we have less than 200 days, during which certain amendments will be carried out, amendments which take a great deal of time…Constitutional amendments require 70 days to be passed."
"When I was instructed by the president to engage in a political dialog, I requested, and some responded. I believe they requested for some time to deliberate and they will respond shortly. What’s more important is that I am meeting with representatives of the youth who sparked this movement in Egypt. The final thing is that we lay down a work plan. It starts with dialog and we should reach a conclusion in order to assign committees to address each issue, and then find out the outcomes of the recommendations and decisions in order to be put into implementation. What is more important in this entire process is to abide by the time limit in order to carry out these amendments."
Very few dictators take the time in the Third World to justify their autocracy in electoral terms. Mubarak himself went so far as to go on ABC News on Thursday to say, in almost a Cincinattus vein, he was "fed up" with power and only staying in office to avoid a "political vacuum" if a proper period of transition was not allowed.
In doing so, Mubarak telegraphed to the Middle Class that only he can bring the stability that they expect, and avoid the Muslim Brotherhood from coming to power. The Dictator's latest stated gambits to end the State of Emergency that last lasted since 1981, restore press freedoms, and allow a widening of the number candidates who can qualify to run for President are all moves to reassure a Middle Class increasing uncomfortable with corruption in his government. They--and the military--are just as uncomfortable, though, with the idea of the Muslim Brotherhood rule, something that Mubarak knows.
The problem is that neither Egypt's Professional middle class, the largest in the Arab world, nor the Army which has remained strictly neutral up until this newspaper went to press, nor parts of Mubarak's own Government seem to think there is much to worry about from the Islamic radicals.
The last of these groups, Egypt's Civil Service, carries the most promise for an orderly transition to something other than a pro-Islamist government, On Thursday, Egypt's public prosecutor issued a travel ban on three former ministers and a senior member of the ruling party, among them the unpopular former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly.
Correspondents say these legal measures against some of the most powerful people in the country are confirmation of a deep split within the ruling elite over Mubarak's continued tenure in power. The public prosecutor's statement said other officials were covered by the ban, which would last "until national security is restored and the authorities and monitoring bodies have undergone their investigations".
It is clear that Egypt's own power structure is preparing for a transition. They can see the restlessness in the middle class, and they also are not blind to the military's concerns.
Like in Turkey, where a secular army has stood as the bulwark against Islamist regimes coming to power and undermining Democratic rule, Egypt's best chance to avoid going the way of Iran or Gaza--with Muslim Brotherhood playing the roles of Khomeini or Hamas--lies in the military's vast public support.
It is the most popular institution in Egypt, and its leadership has a vested interest in keeping away from Islamic radicals--American money. Egypt's entire national budget is just over $45 billion.
As a point of reference that is just over $16 billion more than the State of Louisiana's Appropriations for 2011, for a country with almost seventeen times the population.
US Foreign aid to Egypt, almost $1.5 billion, accounts for a huge portion of the military budget, something that most generals have been loath to risk. It has been a reason they have not pushed their troops to defend Mubarak's hold on power, amidst US disapproval, and would likely not allow the Muslim Brotherhood to come to power either, as that would endanger US aid.
Moreover, the Egyptian Army controls 14% of that nation's economy. One rarely told story in the fall of Mubarak has to do with the fact that his son Gamal, the current President's intended successor, had assembled a cadre of World Bank trained economists set upon loosening the Army's economic power. That lessened the military's support for the dictator, and any group that advocated the same--like the Muslim Brotherhood.
Such a stand hardly went against Army's fundamental ideological outlook. Frankly, the military is the most secular of institutions in Egypt. It is the clearest descendant from the secular Arab nationalist movements of the 1950s, sometimes for good or ill. As a consequence, though, it officer cadre rarely makes common cause with Islamists.
It is not an accident, therefore, that early on Wednesday, the Muslim Brotherhood declared that it would not field a candidate for President. "The Muslim Brotherhood are not seeking power," Mohammed Morsi, a member of the group's media office, said at a news conference. "We want to participate, not to dominate. We will not have a presidential candidate, we want to participate and help, we are not seeking power."
The Islamist umbrella group also sought to dispel fears that it would push for an Islamic state in a post-Hosni Mubarak era. "We reject the religious state," said Mohammed Katatny, former head of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary bloc. "We are not responsible of the speeches and statements of external forces. The regime has been using the Muslim Brotherhood scarecrow to tell the world that the regime is the only one who can safeguard the country, but this is wrong and it is their way to try to ignore the people's demands."
Do not think there decision is a lucky coincidence. Most likely, the Army, ready for a Democratic change, did not want to endanger either its secularist or its financial resources by allowing the extremists to come to power.
Nor, likely, would the voters of the Middle Class. It is worth noting the political differences in Egypt from the country where the protests began, Tunesia, to see why.
In Tunesia in 2007 covering a series of stories for the Weekly and the NNPA News Service, this reporter was struck by how every town building, outside of the tourist beach resorts, seemed to be emblazoned with a huge photo of now Tunesia's ex-president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali..
It seemed almost Stalinist in its civic support of the "leader", a curious result because otherwise Tunesia seemed modern and affluent. The weather, on par with the cool breezes of Southern California, even in the height of summer, has been a center of civilization since Carthage. It's Roman ruins, not only in Tunis, but in Dugga, exceed those found a Pompeii.
The people are generally well educated and bilingual, Francophonic as well as Arabic. Yet, while I could engage anyone from the street fruit seller to the office professional in Egypt with criticisms of Mubarak and expect them to agree and argue politics, no one in Tunesia ever seemed to make disparaging remarks about Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Not even when his family members, including his somewhat notorious wife, Leila Trabelsi, engaged in active corruption. It seemed a personal fear of reprisal matched with an acknowledgment that Tunesia could easily have been as poor as its neighbors in Algeria or Libya that kept them quiet. Eerily so.
Asking one guide about the Tunesian President's nearly four decades in power, he responded quickly, "Thatcher was in power for over a decade. Bush got his son elected. It happens everywhere."
He dismissed the conversation, and looked out over the open road. Standing there in the summer sun were Libyans who had walked over the boarder carrying plastic milkcartons filled with petroleum. They were trying to sell them in the hot sun to the far richer Tunesians, just to momentarily escape the poverty of their native country right over the desert ridge. Literally risking spontaneous combustion to do so.
Mainly, middle class Tunesians feared that poverty, and the government expelling them into it; fears rarely seen in Egypt on that scale..
Even that, though, could not stop the Democratic march in Tunesia when a young man in one of the Southern cities set himself on fire to protest the lack of economic opportunity. A university graduate, he could find no job but as a fruit-seller, and even then he was chased off the street.
If that cauldron of fear did not bring an Islamic revolt, in part out of a realization that Tunesia would lose the billions in tourist dollars from European vacationers, it remains even less likely that Egypt would so explode.
Though caught between poverty and wealth, Egypt has a sophisticated elite and a well-educated middle class, neither of whom have forgotten that their previous President Anwar Sadat was assassinated by the Muslim Brotherhood, a killing specifically masterminded by Ayman al-Zawahiri, now Osama bin Laden’s number two and chief ideologue.
It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood has never broken 20% support and have in recent years fallen below that.
Some fear that if they won power at the ballot box, the Brotherhood might never let go. But Islamists participate in elections in countries such as Turkey, Malaysia and Indonesia where democracy has taken hold, and few fear an Islamist takeover.
Mubarak's fumbling attempts to end the week long protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez have done little to dishearten Democratic activists. Even the advent of sword-wielding Bedouins on horseback or pro-government Bully Boys will Molotov Cocktails have almost nothing to disperse the crowds.
As the Economist magazine put in, "To leave 85m people to live under dictatorship—burdened by a corrupt and brutal police force, the suppression of the opposition, and the torture of political prisoners—would not just be morally wrong; it would also light the fuse for the next uprising. Some would wish to install a new strongman and wait for him to create the conditions for a secular democracy. But autocrats rarely plan for their own removal, as the sad state of the Middle East shows."
"Despite the undoubted difficulties in the short run, even a messy democracy could eventually be a rich prize—and not just for Egyptians. A democratic Egypt could once again be a beacon to the region. It could help answer the conundrum of how to incorporate Islam in Arab democracies. And, though Israel is understandably fearful of the threats on its borders, an Egyptian government that speaks for the people might one day contribute more to a settlement with the Palestinians than an authoritarian’s “cold peace” ever could."
"Egypt’s upheaval may make Westerners nervous, but when Egyptians demand freedom and self-determination, they are affirming values that the West lives by. There is no guarantee that Egypt’s revolution will turn out for the best. The only certainty is that autocracy leads to upheaval, and the best guarantor of stability is democracy."
The Egyptian Middle Class' fundamental attitude was best demonstrated by a protester in Tahrir Square. Speaking of Mubarak, he told ABC News, "In a way, he's a tragic figure. He started off good...But the concentration of power corrupted him."
Hardly the comments of an elector that seeks Islamic rule.