It had been a hectic morning, crammed with meetings that had us careening all over Cairo. On the best of days, traffic in that city can be maddening. On bad days, it’s enraging. And then there are days when you just resign yourself to fate and contemplate on the higher meaning of life as all life comes to a standstill in a sea of stalled traffic showing little or no signs of early resuscitation.
At the Indian mission we would factor in the worst case scenario while preparing for ‘VIP’ visits. Getting an appointment with a high ranking official, leave alone a Minister, was a difficult task; missing that appointment was akin to kissing away future appointments. Hence extra precaution would be taken to ensure visiting VIPs were not late for meetings, although that left our netas, used to as they are with delayed arrivals, none too happy.
So there we were racing to keep our appointment with President Hosni Mubarak at the grand Presidential Palace. Managing a large group of MPs, with its quota of stragglers, can be a tiresome affair. Believe me. I had made the mistake of letting it be known that Pramod Mahajan, who was heading the parliamentary delegation that had decided to swing by Cairo, and many of the MPs were personal friends. Promptly the task of shepherding them around was passed on to me.
To cut the proverbial long story short, after much effort an appointment had been secured with Hosni Mubarak and it was slated as the big event of the visit. Pramod Mahajan had even brought along a huge, glittering silver elephant to be gifted to the President. He had spent the previous evening rehearsing his opening remarks. Nilotpal Basu of the CPI(M) had been primed not to take off on the merits of democracy or the dangers of American imperialism. He had furiously puffed away in disagreement.
As it happened, we reached the Presidential Palace well ahead of the scheduled time. And the raees was running late. We were ushered into a plush waiting room that was as resplendent as Mary Antoinette’s salon. Nilotpal Basu lit up a cigarette and merrily used an antique Belgian cut glass bowl as an ashtray. By the time Hosni Mubarak was ready to meet us, only 10 of the promised 30 minutes remained. The raees couldn’t be late for lunch.
Pramod Mahajan got to present the elephant he had carried from India as cameras preserved the moment for posterity while both he and Hosni Mubarak beamed at each other. But he didn’t quite get to make his grand opening statement. Formal introductions over, Hosni Mubarak launched into a long tirade, in English, against the Americans, berating them for the Iraq war.
That came as a surprise because Saddam Hussein was no friend of either Hosni Mubarak or Egypt. “America wants to transplant American democracy in Arab countries,” the raees said, scorn and sarcasm dripping from his rasping voice. I saw Nilotpal Basu perk up. “What do they know of Arabs? What do they know of our society, our customs and our culture? We have our form of democracy, they have theirs. They will come to regret this one day.”
Those words have proved to be prophetic. The exact words may have been marginally different, but this was in essence what he said. A perusal of the record of discussion, lying in some file at the Indian mission and at South Block, would provide the full details, but that is really of academic interest. What is of import is the clarity with which Hosni Mubarak spoke: Egypt’s last Pharaoh knew his people, and the Arab people of the Maghreb and the Mashreq, far better than the Americans would ever get to know. He was almost sorrowful when he said, “I wish they would look at Arab society through our eyes, not theirs.”
Times change, situations change. Hosni Mubarak, the fallen raees, is now in jail. Yesterday’s Pharaoh is today’s tyrant. He is not the only pro-American Arab ruler abandoned by Americans who through their deeds, though not for the first time, have shown how hollow is the American idiom ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going.’
The Arab Street, and not the Arab Palace, is in control in large parts of Arabia. Americans, and the rest of the ill-informed world, cheered the advent of ‘Arab Spring’ as certitudes were replaced by uncertainties. That ‘spring’ skipped ‘summer’ and has turned into ‘winter’. As Arabia erupts into unbridled anti-American frenzy, the harshness of the ‘Arab Winter’ chill is all too palpable and visible.
At such times, when Americans are targeted with hideous viciousness, a plaintive question is heard: Why do they hate us so? I guess the answer to that question would be: They don’t hate you, they hate your duplicity and despise turncoats.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst & activist