Egypt sees bias in U.S., not unrest at home

President Hosni Mubarak will criticize America's full support for Israel during his visit here as his country's progress toward economic and political freedom seems to be stagnating.

March 03, 2002|By G. Jefferson Price III | G. Jefferson Price III,PERSPECTIVE EDITOR

CAIRO, Egypt - When Hosni Mubarak, the president of Egypt, comes to Washington this week, he will undoubtedly deliver the same message chanted like a mantra by Egyptian officials in this capital city - the United States' blind support of Israel is dangerously unhelpful in the abiding war with the Palestinians; putting Iraq in the "axis of evil" and threatening an attack on Saddam Hussein only make matters worse in the Middle East.

The Egyptian media are saturated with reports on the daily bloodshed in Israel and the Israeli-occupied territories that describe Palestinian suicide attackers as "martyrs" and their acts as "sacrifices." In the Egyptian mind, the evil axis is the alliance between the United States and Israel.

"Somebody is out to abort the whole peace process: Sharon and his policies," says Nabil Osman, the head of Egypt's State Information Services, referring to Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister.

"We have a great deal of difficulty explaining to people this total bias on the part of the United States," says Fayza abou al-Naga, the minister of state for foreign affairs.

"The United States is biased in the Arab-Israeli conflict for giving blind support to Israel," complains Moustapha al-Fiki, chairman of the foreign relations committee in parliament. "This is what the layman in the streets feels."

It's as if it were a national obsession. Well, not quite that, acknowledges Osman, who sits in an opulent office the size of a small ballroom in Nasr City, a Cairo suburb, quiet and insulated from the dusty, noisy, crowded city of 15 million. "But take into account that if something befalls [Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat, the street will be on fire."

The idea of the street ablaze in Egypt is frightening, and there's no question that the images of Israel's lopsided war against the Palestinians appall Egyptians as they do all Arabs. But some say the incessant focus on Israel is a convenient distraction from infuriating domestic issues: two decades of one-man rule, government ineptness, corruption and the huge gap between the very rich and the very poor.

More than 70 million people live in this country. More than a fifth live or work in Cairo, where extraordinary wealth glitters against a backdrop of widespread poverty. And most in and out of the government seem to agree the rich aren't paying their taxes.

The city grows and grows from its historic center out to the Sahara desert where tens of thousands of squatters live in shoddily erected communities, many without water, electricity or sewer service

Unemployment is at 8 percent, according to the government; it's closer to 18 percent, according to independent analysts. Each year, 600,000 to 800,000 young people come into a job market in which the government no longer guarantees employment, and the struggling private sector can't make up the difference.

Thanks to the 1997 Asian financial crisis that frightened investors away from developing economies and a campaign of terrorism in Egypt, the economy was in bad shape before Sept. 11. The terrorist attacks in the United States made the region seem even scarier.

Since then, Egypt's vital income sources have been more crippled. Tourism dwindled. Traffic through the Suez Canal disappeared because insurers treated the canal as a war zone. Exports fell for the same reason.

Even Angel Sabet, an inhabitant of the trash city of Zarayeb, has felt the impact of this economic plunge. Zarayeb does not just wallow in its own trash. The community lives off the trash of a large part of Cairo because its Coptic Christian population has a monopoly on trash collection and recycling for a large part of the city. Nothing modern about this enterprise. Huge bags of trash are brought into Zarayeb on all sorts of conveyances, from wobbling trucks to donkeys. There, trash is stacked high in the alleys and every other empty space and sorted through for anything worthwhile - metal, plastic, clothing, paper, thread.

Sabet, 23, the mother of two small children, was working for a project that gave some women of Zarayeb, the most needy daughters of trash collectors, a little work and some education. She was given colored threads and paid to stitch patterns drawn on cards made from recycled paper. The finished product was popular among tourists and hotels used the cards for seasonal greetings. She was making 150 to 200 Egyptian pounds a month doing this - $30 to $40.

Now that the tourist trade had plummeted, there are no customers for the needlepoint cards, and the hotels also cut back on greeting cards last Christmas. Sabet is out of work.

"The attacks [Sept. 11] hurt us all," she says. Her husband worked in a shoe factory whose products were sold to tourists, "and now even he is out of work."

The startling thing about this tall, slender young woman is that she does not despise her trash dump environment. "This is where the garbage is," she says. "This is where the money is."

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