Moses had higher hopes and a bigger entourage, and a lot more riding on his success. But his departure from Egypt wasn't accomplished with any more urgency or drama than mine. It was a few days before the revolution, before the protesting multitudes began to fill Tahrir Square.
Though the political temperature was rising rapidly—the streets around the embassies swarmed with soldiers, police bodyguards lurked in restaurants where official Cairo dines—no one warned us that our return to New York would be anything other than routine. Our friend Mohamed, who curses the unreliability of Cairo's fearless cab drivers, insisted on driving us to the airport. This was only a 12-mile journey, yet halfway there we realized it might as well have been 100. Traffic jams are routine in the Egyptian capital, a sprawling city of 20 million that seems to contain 30 million automobiles. But this was special. We'd given ourselves four hours to make the evening flight; our four hours were nearly up and we had been anchored on the same strip of pavement for over an hour, still a mile from the airport and no longer even creeping forward.
It was 11 p.m. and thousands of motorists were trying to leave Cairo, many headed for the airport but even more for the northern suburbs and the highways to Alexandria or the Red Sea coast. We saw armored vehicles in motion around the military college and Mubarak's presidential compound, and someone in the car ventured the word "coup" followed by a question mark. Patience was never one of my virtues. Certain that I'd missed my flight, no longer able to sit in the backseat merely muttering and biting my mustache, I climbed out of the car and walked as fast as I could along the shoulder past the stricken motorists, in faint hope of discovering the cause of this disaster. A quarter of a mile ahead, there it was. One huge tour bus, unable to make its left turn to the northwest—where miles of motionless vehicles stretched out far into the desert—sat there blocking both lanes of the airport turnoff. The driver had ample room to move ahead a few feet and release all the airport traffic. He just hadn't thought of it.
One way out of Egypt, blocked. Moses, it says in Exodus, simply "stretched out his hand" over the Red Sea and the Lord sent such a wind that the sea parted and the people of Israel crossed on dry land between great walls of water. Unaided by the Lord, I did the best I could. I raised my bony, trembling fist and hammered on the door of the bus, shouting and waving with my other hand to show the driver where I wanted him to move. He stared out at this raving foreign madman with alarm. If this had been the LA Freeway or the Jersey Turnpike, he would have unholstered his Glock and shot me dead in the roadway. But Egypt is a more civilized place than America, with the advantage of 6,000 more years to practice civilization. The driver squinted and fidgeted; he naturally held the door shut as I pounded on it. I guess I intended to keep pounding until I was shot or arrested. But then, to my amazement, he pulled the bus ahead just as I directed. The waters parted, the traffic to the airport began to flow, and I scurried back down the highway so Mohamed wouldn't have to stop to pick me up.
We made our international flight with a 10-minute dash through the terminal, thanks to the remarkable efficiency and kindness of Delta Airlines' Egyptian employees. To my wife, at least, I was a hero. Others who made their flights that night—displaced Tunisian diplomats, larcenous Mubarak cronies who saw the hieroglyphics on the wall?—remain indebted to me in a way they'll never know. Every subsequent flight was full, and in a couple of days all flights had been cancelled and the terminals had become dormitories for people desperately trying to leave.
Later, as courageous and ambitious journalists took great risks trying to get into Egypt, I experienced guilt about trying so hard to get out. Missing eyewitness history by such a narrow margin might have been harder for me if I hadn't been lucky enough to experience a similar moment in Prague in 1989, among the million-deep throngs of Czechs in Wenceslas Square when the Velvet Revolution crested and prevailed.
In spirit and philosophy, in contagious exhilaration, the uprising in Tahrir Square closely resembled the miracle in Prague. Czechs have suffered disappointments since scaling that Everest of high hopes, and so will the Egyptians. But what they achieved and the way they felt at that moment—and what I absorbed vicariously—will last all of us a lifetime.
Would the liberation of Cairo have moved me to the same degree? Back when Havel and Dubcek waved to the crowds from their balcony, I was a youthful, hopeful 44, seasoned but still fit and strong enough to drag a 40-pound suitcase up and down the stairs of European train stations.
That's hard to imagine now. On our first trip to Africa as senior citizens, my wife and I were unprepared for adrenaline rushes or high adventure. The friends we stayed with are native Egyptians and American citizens who live half the year in the USA. We came for many of the things all tourists come to see—the pyramids, the temples at Luxor, the tombs in the Valley of the Kings—and for a few glimpses of a less accessible Egypt our friends had promised us.
Egypt disappoints no one, and neither do Egyptians. As well as I remember the sublime architecture of the mortuary temple of Queen Hatshepsut, or the muezzins calling from a hundred minarets as a crescent moon rose over Cairo's souk, I remember my guide Mahmoud, a graduate in English literature, grilling me about Mark Twain and Charles Dickens while the crew tried to pole our felucca across the Nile at sunset, in a dead calm. (Shattering the illusion that little has changed on the Upper Nile in a thousand years, the skipper finally pulled out his cell phone and summoned a cousin with a motorboat to tow us across.)
Twain and Dickens would have appreciated Egyptians, who have an unexpected streak of dark, self-deprecatory humor, a wry fatalism akin to the one I associate with Russians or American Jews like Woody Allen. Like all African people, their history is one of serial defeat and colonial subjugation, but their history is much longer, by millennia, and it still hasn't cost them their sense of humor.
"Light" Arabs they're called, by Arabs who are less so, meaning not lighter in color but lighter in spirit. It took all their patience and humor to put up with the corrupt geriatric regime of Hosni Mubarak, and we happened to arrive just as that patience expired. Hopeless poverty is the rule for most Egyptians, along with inadequate housing; an estimated million people live in shanties among the tombs in Cairo's vast cemeteries. The traffic and parking conditions in the capital defy description. To drive anywhere in or near Cairo is madness. But the perfect symbol for the many failures of the Mubarak regime is a huge building, perhaps more than 40 stories high, that sits among the embassies on Cairo's exclusive Zamalek island. In most cities it would be called a skyscraper. It's boarded up and empty; there's no glass in the windows, birds fly in and out and trees have taken root inside. There's evidence of squatters on the lower floors. According to an English-speaking neighbor who saw me staring, it's been abandoned like that for 10 years—while a million city people sleep in tombs. When I asked him why, he said, "The builders ran out of money to bribe the government."
That's Egypt as we found it, and it was coming unglued as we left it. We were offered no explanation for certain anomalies we encountered, like a cross-city cab ride past five miles of soldiers and policemen standing facing us at armed alert, one stationed every 10 yards along the road. In front of the embassies, guards read their newspapers and drank their coffee crouched behind foot-thick iron shields. If you want to storm an embassy, someone explained, you begin by shooting the guards with sniper rifles.
After 21 Coptic Christians died in a church bombing in Alexandria, airport-level security was imposed in Cairo's Coptic quarter and at every church and mosque. But it should be noted that the most obvious civic development in Cairo, the week before the demonstrations began, was a widespread effort by Muslims to show solidarity with the anxious Coptic community.
The unrest was something everyone in Cairo could sense but that no one we met could explain. The newspapers offered nothing. The government had begun to feel the tremors and to brace itself, especially after the abdication of the president of Tunisia, yet the size and passion of the Tahrir Square rebellion clearly caught Mubarak by surprise. The octogenarian autocrat was dozing as old men do and woke to find that his world and his era had ended. In a country where history is measured out in centuries and millennia, the revolution of 2011 occurred with vertiginous speed.
Back in the states, safe on the coward's side of the Atlantic Ocean, we watched it unfold: the aborted attacks by "pro-Mubarak" thugs (if anyone in Egypt was still sincerely pro-Mubarak, we never met him), the near-martyrdom of Anderson Cooper, the abdication, the ecstasy.
The first thing that occurred to me, besides the safety of our friends on Zamalek, was, "How will the American media play this?" After their abject, often pathetic performances during the Gulf War and the Iraq fiasco, this was a fair question to ask, an embarrassment to dread. And sure enough, there on Fox News, on a TV screen behind the bar in the Key West airport, the cretin Glenn Beck was sweeping his pointer over a huge map of Africa, Europe and the Middle East, explaining that Egypt and Tunisia were just fresh building blocks in a radical Islamic "caliphate" that would soon stretch from Germany to Pakistan and complete the Muslim conquest of Christianity that Charles Martel blocked at Tours in 732.
I groaned so audibly that several travelers looked up from their mojitos. Some of these ex-disc jockeys who impersonate political scientists on cable TV are auditioning for padded cells, and Lord willing this dangerous lunatic will be the first one to wear a straitjacket.
But no one, at least no one in what's left of the "respectable" media, picked up the dreadful song that Beck was singing. Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times, on the street in Cairo, immediately absorbed the hopeful idealism that dominated Tahrir Square and wrote a series of emotional partisan columns ("We Are All Egyptians") that merit every prize for foreign reporting. To my considerable surprise, most journalists followed his lead. They ignored Israeli newspapers that accused President Barack Obama of betraying Mubarak ("A Bullet in the Back From Uncle Sam") and even conceded American culpability in the misrule of Egypt, where hunger was chronic and clean water sold at a premium while an annual $1.3 billion in military aid from Washington fattened a corrupt bureaucracy.
Even the grandstanding TV personalities with their sound-bite news analyses shied away from a right-wing script that scored Egypt and Tunisia as the victorious second coming of Osama bin Laden. Face to face with the stunning courage of Arab rebels demanding basic human rights—rebels who, thanks to the Internet, now understand just which ones they've been denied—even journalists of minimal insight realized that they'd stumbled upon the kind of popular democracy that America always trumpets and rarely supports.
For once most of us got it right. Fellow Americans, it's not about us. They're not risking their lives against tyrants because they hate the USA and hope to destroy it, nor because they love and hope to emulate us. They just want to breathe a little, and in the countries where they live the United States of America has not been a source of much oxygen. It's true that some of these revolutions may work against the strategic interests of the United States. Some will create more pressure on Israel, which is not entirely a bad thing. But this "Arab Spring," as they're calling it, appears to be nothing short of a seismic correction of the status quo, one of history's inevitable turning points that no power on earth can successfully resist.
This is a chance for the average American, half suffocated in his toxic cloud of pop culture, to learn a little history. It's available on the Internet, the same place where Egyptians discovered that there are countries where you don't have to bribe anyone to open a business or get your mail delivered. Google it, if you must. It doesn't take much research to learn that these "nations" we read about in North Africa and the Middle East are nations only because the colonial powers of the West divided them up and established their borders, and very recently at that.
The endless deserts, where the land itself was worth very little, were home to Berbers and Bedouin nomads loyal only to their tribes and local chieftains. Foreign empires like the Turkish Ottomans, who ruled Egypt and Libya for 400 years, administrated these wastelands very lightly, and from far away.
Then the desert's vast oil reserves were discovered, and the second great phase of colonial exploitation began. Libya, where the bloodiest and most dramatic upheaval of this Arab Spring is occurring, is the classic case. After the Turks left, the province was annexed by Italy—to this day its best petroleum customer—and Mussolini hanged Omar al-Mukhtar, the legendary Libyan freedom fighter, in 1931. After World War II, the oil-hungry Allies carved up Libya into spheres of influence and commercial convenience.
What is now Libya had four capitals, three armies and a puppet-king, Idris, who protested to his boss the American ambassador that he never wanted to be anything more than Amir of Cyrenaica. Stephen Blackwell, writing in Middle Eastern Studies in 2003, reminded us that "[t]he Anglo-American role in the creation of Libya has been described as 'an unblushing venture of military and economic imperialism.'"
In my long-lost stamp collection, some of it inherited from my father, I remember a stamp of British issue with the head of King George VI and "Tripolitania" printed in dark ink across his face. The U.S. and the UK established military bases wherever they chose. The key American installation, Wheelus Air Base near Tripoli, is said to have had airborne nuclear capability by 1956. The modern Libya ruled by Gadhafi was created by Western fiat in 1963, largely to expedite more efficient export of its petroleum.
If Arab revolutions turn out badly for the U.S. and its allies, we're only reaping what we sowed in a region where we operated cynically and selfishly for more than a century. I laugh when I hear Yemen, Oman and Bahrain, along with Saudi Arabia, described as "key American allies." What's our great bond with these Muslim states, I wonder, and why are most of our armed forces committed in the Middle East? Please remember that from 2001–2009 the U.S. government, under the oilmen Bush and Cheney and the versatile Condi Rice (board member of Chevron, which named a supertanker for her), was anatomically inseparable from the oil industry, in its policy or priorities.
I don't believe that it's apocryphal, the story that someone in the Bush White House intervened at the last minute to rechristen the Baghdad adventure Operation Iraqi Freedom, instead of Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL). After the WMD myth evaporated, the invasion was billed as a Red Cross mission to save the poor Saddamized Iraqis, a sham that must have fooled at least nine or 10 people, worldwide. Like all terrorists, Osama bin Laden is a common murderer who stooped to kill innocent civilians to make his point. Yet his point was always a valid one, that the West in its insatiable lust for oil had undermined and doomed traditional Islamic societies.
Bahrain, Oman: America has some of the best allies its money can buy, watchdogs we feed generously to guard the black gold beneath the desert. But overlooked through all these decades of military strategy and oil diplomacy were most of the people who live in the Arab countries, who saw the faces on their stamps change from European kings to local kings and dictators with no change at all in their misery and oppression. Under the original imperial dispensation, Africa and Asia were just cookie jars of undeveloped wealth that colonial powers raided without apology or pretense.
In the 20th century, when Western economies began to run on gasoline, and the naked plunder of natural resources was no longer considered cricket, the great powers established a network of petty monarchs and "strongmen," local warlords they propped up, subverted or seduced—whatever it took to keep the oil flowing. Hand in hand with BP, Shell, Exxon and Aramco, most of these oil princes acquired phenomenal wealth, which not incidentally was liberally reinvested in the U.S. and Great Britain. But virtually none of the abundant liquid wealth trickled down to the Arabs who still lived medieval lives in the shadow of the derricks.
What we're witnessing this spring is simply the long-awaited second act in the death of colonialism. Fifty years ago Arab countries chased off the imperial powers, and now they're chasing off the dictators and parasites who were left behind to conduct the imperial business. America will have to learn to deal with turbulent Arab democracies that will not march to "The Star-Spangled Banner" or "God Save the Queen." Islam may grow stronger in these countries: The most secular strongmen were Mubarak and the late Saddam Hussein. New governments may not embrace al-Qaida or the Taliban, but they may not anathematize them, either.
The wild card in all this realignment is Israel. No one in the Middle East has suffered more from Western meddling than the Palestinians. The history of the state of Israel is, of course, far more complicated than Cold War strategy and the chess game the great powers play wherever the oilfields are near. But this is not so obvious to many Arabs. The only unwelcome insight I retained from my sojourn in Egypt is that anti-Zionism— even among educated and sophisticated Egyptians—is more bitter than I understood and unlikely to diminish any time soon. Disillusioned by the Western powers' historical mendacity, hardened by the belligerence of Israel's Likudists, Arabs tend to make few distinctions between Washington's policies and Jerusalem's. Too few distinctions, I'm sure, but there it is. To many Arabs, Israel is just the huge American air base next door, armed with nuclear weapons like our Cold War fortress in Tripoli and perpetually reminding them of their relative impotence.
This is the reality that won't change, whatever transpires this brave Arab Spring. The Middle East is a deadfall trap for rational diplomacy. Our "key ally" Saudi Arabia has intervened against the liberators in Bahrain, at Washington's bidding as many Arabs see it. Meanwhile, a true war rages in Libya, where American B-2s bomb Tripoli (home, once, to our nuclear warheads) in support of a faltering revolution against Moammar Gadhafi, a clinically deranged dictator who predictably and violently spurned the cup of hemlock history offered.
Personally, I wish Obama had acted earlier, to save lives and to save a bit of face after the Bush administration's cynical, oil-conscious "rehabilitation" of the Libyan ogre, a travesty Christopher Dickey recently chronicled in Newsweek. Statecraft and moral absolutes rarely cross paths, in the best of times. Bloggers are free to claim the high ground, but Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are servants of the state, charged with getting the best possible deal for the USA. It won't be a tribunal of angels that judges them, but historians and American voters.
Realpolitik is never pretty, as the remorseless Henry Kissinger used to lecture us, and it's never an easy read, either. Walking a razor-thin diplomatic tightrope, shedding reliable allies, sailing the ship of state through uncharted waters, the president probably sneers at his critics, left and right, who couldn't possibly know the half of it. Meanwhile the headline in The New York Times is "Euphoric, Egypt Votes on Future." Don't try to tell Egyptians their future is opaque—even though the Interior Ministry in Cairo, as I write this, is currently on fire for the second time in a month, arsonists unknown. They've stripped Mubarak's torture chambers and emptied his prisons, and voted in unprecedented numbers to revise the constitution and hold free elections. Americans take note: This is not about us. Their euphoria is not thanks to us, but in spite of us.