Visiting Egypt this spring — my first since the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat — I was immediately struck by the extent to which symbols of the Sadat era had already faded or been pushed into oblivion. Only one small, inconspicuous plaque informs the passerby that Cairo’s main square is “Anwar al-Sadat Square.” The shopkeepers, taxi drivers and pedestrians still know it by its old name of “Liberation Square.” Many individuals, though, especially those in opposition groups, are quick to point out that most changes under Husni Mubarak are skin-deep. The basic orientation as well as the problems of the regime remain the same.
Over the past year, people here have grown increasingly outspoken about the overwhelming American presence in the country, from US personnel in the heart of Egyptian ministries to large numbers of US-sponsored projects in both rural and urban areas. The US presence in Egypt has a fairly identifiable agenda. In the first instance, it explicitly encourages the growth of the private sector at every level. The second feature of many US funded projects — urban and rural health care delivery, basic education, the family planning programs — is the ubiquitous teams of American and Egyptian researchers busy mapping villages and neighborhoods, distributing questionnaires and conducting long and detailed interviews.
Vocal opposition to the American presence grew particularly pronounced last fall. A series of articles in the weekly al-Ahram al-Iqtisadi initiated public discussion of the expansion of US research activities, and openly criticized Egyptian scholars working on these projects. The debate continued throughout the winter and spring in this and other journals. Hamid Rabi‘a, a political scientist at Cairo University, wrote a series on mechanisms of psychological and cultural penetration, attacking both the field- study methodology and the behaviorist epistemology of Western scholars in Egypt. Yet this critical response lies uneasily alongside current economic realities which foster this activity. The low salaries of university professors — not a living wage with the present inflation — push those who have not already migrated to the Gulf to lend their expertise to research projects in Egypt, most of which have an American connection.
This opposition is not limited to the political margins of the intelligentsia. At a joint Egyptian-American conference on “Comparative Approaches to the Arab-Israeli Conflict” held in March at the quasi-official al-Ahram Center for Strategic Studies, it was apparent that US support for the Israeli invasion of Lebanon was still like a raw wound, the primary instance of the way in which the US “took Egypt for granted.” This growing coolness toward American researchers was having repercussions even in official spheres. Talk abounded of a thorough review of the procedures for granting research permits to anthropologists and others working on contemporary topics. In one case, the government actually rejected the research applications of an AID team developing a basic education project in the villages. These signals from the government are at least partially responsible for a marked slowdown in AID activities. As of April, no new funds had been obligated for the past six months.
Beyond the large matter of national sovereignty, there is no question but that public opinion toward the US and Israel underwent a major transformation in the wake of the Lebanon invasion and the siege of Beirut. Since last summer, a National Committee in Solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian People, along with a Committee to Defend National Culture, successfully blocked the convening of several conferences in Egypt to which Israeli representatives had been invited. The government has lifted many restrictions on opposition parties, particularly the Tagammu‘, making these solidarity campaigns and more general educational activities possible.
While their base is still limited, with an overrepresentation of intellectuals and students, the freer atmosphere allows the left to present its ideas to a much broader audience. In the cultural arena, political satire is once more possible. Three one-act plays grouped under the innocent title of “Evening of Laughter” deftly parody political repression under Nasser, the corruption and greed of the infitah class under Sadat, and the power vacuum of Mubarak. The final vignette is an Egyptian Waiting for Godot: A citizen languishes in an official anteroom waiting to see the leader, only to discover that the leader’s very existence is an elaborate charade. When I arrived, it had been playing for over a month and was widely discussed and applauded. Mubarak maintains a more repressive control of the Islamic groups, an indication of his assessment of where the real challenge lies. The question of whether or when the left will face yet again a round of repression is very much on the minds of the leadership. Recent bans against politically controversial books do not bode well.
Much important activity is taking place outside the confines of official opposition parties — in the growing number of independent committees and women’s organizations (such as the Women’s Solidarity Organization founded by Nawal El Saadawi), in the clandestine leftist groups, in several banned Islamic movements. At present this opposition, both legal and underground, has the ear of much of the population. Whether or not it can build an effective alternative to the present regime is far from clear.