Egypt in Transition: Sidenotes from Personal Experience

Like many others, I’ve given quite a lot of attention in the past several days to what’s been happening in Egypt.  For certain, what changes will be made there, whether there will be a complete change in government or whether Mubarek will stay in some sort of power, remain uncertain.

I think I watch what’s happening there with a different perspective than a lot of Americans.  As I’ve written here, and those that know me might be aware of, I was an Arab linguist in the U.S. Air Force back in the 1970s.  I studied the Egyptian dialect and the main focus of my work was Egypt, though I never set foot in the country, until a couple of my fellow airmen and I took a 10-day, TWA tour of Egypt in April of 1974.  (I’ve had a more detailed description of that trip started for some time now, so I won’t go into all of that now.)  But in looking back, it’s surprising that the Air Force let us take that trip to a country which had been the center of so much of our military work, especially the October ’73 War, which had taken place only about half a year earlier.

When we got there, we discovered a couple of things.  First, the Egyptian people liked us Americans, despite the country still being under some influence of the Soviet Union, as evidenced by the great number of Soviet tourists that we encountered and some military installations around the then new Aswan Dam.  Second, the country was very poor, but teeming with people.  The current news media talk about squares filled with people, making it sound as if is something unusual.  The streets were filled with people on a daily basis even back in the 70s, when the population of the country was around 33 million, nothing like the 80 million of today. In Cairo, people hung off the sides of buses, and the trains from Cairo to Alexandria had riders on top of the cars because inside there was no more room.  The big difference, of course, was back in those days, people were just going about their daily lives, not protesting for a change in government.  I also remember the poverty evident most everywhere.

Anwar Sadat was the president of Egypt in those days, coming into power after Nasser.  I admired Sadat a lot and felt that he really wanted peace for the region and with Israel, unlike so many other Middle Eastern leaders, who wanted–and want–to do away with Israel.  I was really saddened when he was assassinated in 1981 by fundamentalists, they said, but I have always wondered if Mubarek didn’t have something to do with it as a way to get power.

I think the current problem in Egypt is, yes, partially, that of a government not giving enough freedoms to the people.  But there is another problem–a world problem–too many people.  And too many people too fast.  Egypt’s problem is not so different from that of Mexico.  Poor countries (and some rich ones too) in the past century have grown in population by leaps and bounds.  Maybe it’s because of having more access to medicines and health care.  But go to a poor country these days, and you find that the majority of people are young, and these huge numbers of young people are having more babies.   And more people use more and more of a country’s resources, but the countries just cannot create enough new jobs for everyone.

I took a lot of slides when I was in Egypt, and I’ve had a few of them digitalized.  (How many of you will have those pictures you’ve downloaded to Facebook 40 years from now?)   Here are some I like:

Night view of the Nile River and the boulevard running alongside it (1974)

Pyramids of Giza (1974), at that time the pyramids were a ways outside of the city

Luxor, Egypt (1974), the street running alongside the Nile River, across the river from the Valley of the Kings

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