Ten years ago just after the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000 in the port of Aden, Yemen, I had a short business trip to Cairo. The bombing claimed the lives of several US sailors and heightened tensions between various Jihadist groups and the West. My trip to Egypt coincided with the bombing of the Cole and gave me a chance to see Middle Easterners up close and personal during a period of political uncertainty and conflict. The attack on the Cole preceded the two later events that would come to define much of the attitude of the majority of Muslims in the Middle East. These events would be the tragic attacks of September 11, 2001 and then the US invasion of Iraq to unseat Saddam Hussein. Before either September 11 or the Iraq war, the bombing of the USS Cole and the reaction in the Middle East revealed a brewing conflict.
One afternoon in Cairo I had a couple of free hours, so I went for a walk. My hosts expressed a little nervousness that I might walk around the streets as a foreigner just a day after the bombing of the USS Cole. On the streets below, in the heart of the city, the government had posted soldiers, huge men dressed in black uniforms holding large automatic weapons, spaced about fifteen feet apart for several blocks. Walking along the sidewalk, I passed a couple of foreign embassies and dozens of these massive Egyptian soldiers until I reached the end of the boulevard. I assumed the heavy military presence was a precaution of Mubarak’s government to protect the embassies since Jihadists had been known to attack such “soft” targets in other African countries.
Once I reached the end of the boulevard I turned and followed the road around to a large commercial section of the city next to a transportation hub. Thousands of people, mostly men, milled about under a cement overpass and alongside the roads. Many of them wore the Islamic robe, a simple piece of loose fitting clothing stretching to the ankle. I found a little café, not much bigger than a closet with a couple of tiny tables, where I could get a cup of piping hot tea. The vender, a friendly man, asked where I had come from and I tried to have a friendly conversation in my very limited Arabic. After the hot drink, I strolled back to my friend’s apartment, past the immense street crowds and along the soldier-lined boulevard.
Last week as crowds of anti-Mubarak protesters filled the boulevards and squares of Cairo, some of the same I walked, I remembered Cairo of 2000. Even in those days before 9-11 and Iraq the Egyptian government ruled an agitated populace with an iron fist, giving me the impression that Egypt was a pressure cooker, waiting to explode. But why? Hasn’t Middle Eastern rage against America resulted from the policies of former President Bush? Yet President Clinton was still in office during the bombing of the USS Cole. The evidence says that the anti-American attitudes predate Bush, 9-11, and Iraq.
For the past thirty years, Mubarak’s government has tried to walk a tight-rope between placating the West and satisfying its Muslim majority population. Walking this tightrope has meant Mubarak has had to control the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that wants to establish an Islamic government aligned with other Muslims in an anti-American bloc. Now in 2011, Mubarak has failed, Egypt has unraveled, he has discredited himself in the West and lost leadership in Egypt. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood seems now to have the upper hand, with the support of most Egyptians. Unlike Mubarak, the Brotherhood will likely have no interest in walking the tightrope.