Leaning in the doorway of a neighbor’s cement store, Sayed Mohammed issued his highest praise for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“He is sugar,” Mohammed said. “Very sweet. He has made great efforts to resolve this thing peacefully with Iraq.”
Beside him, store owner Mohammed Saleh nodded in agreement: “We Egyptians are in a powerful position because we have right on our side.”
“If I see Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, I will kill him,” added Mohammed, 37. “He’s an atheist.”
Worse, said the 50-year-old Saleh, pointing to his radio, “He has made people forget our cause. When you listen to the news now you don’t hear anything about the Palestinian cause--it’s all Iraq.”
On street corners, in cafes and at the marketplaces of Cairo, conversations like this one are commonplace these days. Egyptians have voiced broad support for Mubarak’s efforts to seek a negotiated settlement of the Aug. 2 Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. They feel that Egypt--long scorned for its peace initiative with Israel--is becoming a leader of the Arab world again.
Men, in particular, backed Mubarak’s push to send a pan-Arab military force to Saudi Arabia to guard against an Iraqi invasion. The force is symbolic compared to the huge U.S. buildup--a few thousand Egyptians, Moroccans and eventually Syrians, compared to tens of thousands of American troops. But to Egyptians the principle is important.
At Eid Kowlah’s sidewalk cafe, Khaled Hassam, 42, said that sending Arab troops was a must.
“If this is solved through the United States, it will be a scandal to us all. We will feel great despair,” Hassam said. “The scene must not be void of Arabs.”
Women, however, were not as convinced. Street vendor Zeinab Hussein, 48, a mother of five, has a husband in the Egyptian army. She fears that, if the hostilities escalate, he could be sent to the Persian Gulf.
“I am worried about the souls of the people who might die in the war,” Hussein said over mounds of mangoes, figs and yellow pears. “And if they die, what good will that do us?”
A watermelon vendor next to her said that she is worried about her three cousins in Kuwait who haven’t been heard from since the invasion.
Many Egyptians have friends and family working as contract laborers in Iraq. Over the years, they have written home with stories about how badly they are treated and how they are robbed of their pay for menial labor. During the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, many Egyptian workers were pressed into service in the Iraqi army.
There have been no demonstrations of support for Saddam Hussein in Egypt as there have been in other Arab countries, such as Jordan, or in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Iraqi leader’s claim to represent poor Arabs against the rich has largely fallen on deaf ears in the working-class neighborhoods of this capital. Rather, Egyptians blame Hussein for dividing “the Arab nation,” as if he were the only reason for its disunity.
They repeat the stories they have seen on television and in newspapers about rapes committed by Iraqi troops in Kuwait. Several of the most notorious assertions have been discredited, but the image of Iraqi rapists remains.
“Someone should cut Saddam’s throat with a sword,” said taxi driver Ibrahim Ghamri, 43. “He doesn’t deserve to be a head of state. Iraqi troops wrecked homes and raped girls. Even Israel wouldn’t do that.”
Indeed, at least in Eid Kowlah’s cafe, Israel’s image seemed to have benefited from the sudden existence of an enemy perceived as a bigger devil. Chauffeur Attah Kamel Mostapha, 35, said, “I think Israel was right when it destroyed the atomic reactor in Iraq (in 1981).”
Mostapha feels that President Mubarak should have gone even further, breaking relations with Iraq. Hussein, he said, acts “hysterically” and “shouldn’t even be a foreman to factory workers.”
Around Mostapha, men slapped dominoes against the metal tables while sucking on their coal-fired water pipes. The air was rich with the scent of spicy tobacco and strong coffee. War seemed far away.
Asked if they feared a terrorist attack in Egypt in reprisal for Mubarak’s stand, the men shook their heads.
“We Egyptians don’t fear death,” said Abd Salam Ali, 53. A waiter brought fresh coals for his free-standing shisha pipe.
“The president is representing the interests of Egypt. Saddam has put us in a very critical situation that can’t be solved by America or anybody else. The solution is in God’s hands. Egyptian soldiers are fighting for the sake of the Arab nation.”
Outside of the cement store, one man tried to stand up for Saddam Hussein, but his neighbors scorned him.
“What Saddam has done he did out of hunger from the war with Iran. He went into people’s houses and found them poor,” said the man who asked not to be identified.
“What he has done is stealing,” corrected store owner Mohammed Saleh.