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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Ahmadinejad and Chavez: A Love Feast of Dictators, and Don’t Forget the Hezbollah Appetizers

"Meet me behind the hotel at 11 o'clock, and we'll see what other conniving we can do."

"Meet me behind the hotel at 11 o'clock, and we'll see what other conniving we can do."

Knowing a second language has a lot of benefits, and for far too long, most Americans have stuck their heads in the sand and thought because they know English, they have an advantage and don’t have to learn another language.  However, being fluent in two or more languages opens up so much more of the world.

Personally, I read a number of foreign language sites every day; some are news sites and some focus on some topic or interest that I have.

Usually at night time, I check abc.es, an online news site from Spain.  That way I can see what is happening in the world, usually before sites like cnn.com or msnbc.com pick it up.  Reading the news out of another country also gives a different perspective and often there is news that isn’t even highlighted by the U.S. media.

Such was the case in an article I read last night: Arranca la gira de Lieberman para frenar la expansión de Irán en América Latina, which tells about Israel’s Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s 10-day visit to Brazil, Argentina, Peru and Colombia.  (Read a similar AP article in English.)

What I didn’t realize before reading the article, but have since corroborated through other sources is how much influence Iran and the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which Iran backs, have in Latin America.  Apparently, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have become BFFs and anyone who has been paying attention knows that both of these guys have found ways to manipulate the systems of their countries in order to stay in power. Hezbollah, for its part, because of connections with Lebanese immigrants to countries like Venezuela, seems to have gotten involved in that old Latin American standby–kidnapping; and not unlike other rebel/narco-terrorist groups (i. e. FARC in Colombia), uses the ransom money extorted from victims’ families as a way of supporting itself.  (Check out this in-depth article for more details.)

Chavez and Ahmadinejad negotiated a number of deals, and it’s not difficult for those who keep up with current events to see what is going on.  Chavez already has his emulators in office in several of the Latin American countries, the latest being Zelaya from Honduras.  And although there are those who are decrying the coup that pushed him out of the country as being un-democratic, what Zelaya was doing was trying to circumvent his own country’s constitution in order to allow himself to stay in office longer, nothing different than what Chavez did a few years back.  These guys don’t really want democracy built upon a long-standing constitution; they want to create their own “democracy”, which in effect validates their dictatorship. 

As for Ahmadinejad, anyone who is not aware of the corruption in the last election in Iran is walking around with blinders on, but what goes for democracy in Iran is only pretense anyway; there is no democracy when a malevolent theocracy is in place.

As citizens of this world, we need to remain informed, as having as much information as we can is a big part of maintaining our freedom and a way to make decisions about who we support or don’t support as leaders in our own countries.  And with the Internet, we also have the ability to access many sources besides our daily print newspaper.  Of course, we must also be able to judge the veracity of these sources and extricate the biases inherent in them.

Lest you think I have some kind of slant here based on religion or otherwise, let me say, “I don’t”.  From my own personal viewpoint, I see that these guys are bad guys, bad guys who want to have power and control over millions of peoples’ lives.  And, yes, the U.S. government doesn’t like these guys either, but in reality, they are not so different from Pinochet or Marcos, whom the Reagan and Thatcher governments supported only 20-some years ago.

A dictator is a dictator is a dictator and they are like noxious weeds in the gardens of this planet.