Column: Egypt at a crossroads in history
Hosni Mubarak is Egypt's last pharaoh.
The pharaohs date back to the 21st century B.C. Pharaoh is the reverential designation for the ruler or royal king. Egypt's pre-dynastic times return more than 5,000 years.
I spent years in Egypt and the Middle East as a reporter. Its people and places are burned into my heart and soul. The pyramids of Cairo and King Tut's tomb are there. The Corniche and Pigeon Rocks along the coastline promenade in downtown Beirut. The road from Beirut to the stone city of Damascus and the jut to Amman as well as the magnificent garden of the late King Hussein. On to Riyadh and the blindness of the glaring endless desert and to the sprawling, spewing, black oil fields. And all my remembrances of Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, and traveling in his unforgettable footsteps. Its Arab culture was cultivated in me with incidents of five seconds, five hours, or five years that bled into my life from 1957 to 1973.
Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk in 1956 and ruled Egypt until his death in 1970. Nasser was hailed by millions of Egyptians on his passing as one of God's beloved. He was a firebrand of pan-Arab nationalism.
Mubarak, also an army officer, became president 30 years ago. He has ruled with virtually none of Nasser's charisma. He became a heavy-handed, bureaucratic autocrat who jailed and hammered his enemies.
Egypt today is at its most critical crossroads of modern times. What will it do?
I learned more about the Arabs at the American University of Beirut than from any place or person in the Middle East. The students represented the entire breadth of the Arab world - from Tunisia in North Africa to the Saudi Arabian peninsula. They were very bright undergraduates with a political passion for change that I had never seen - not in the U.S., Europe or Asia. My conclusion then and now: Beneath the skin of many educated Arabs is an unbelievable passion to restore Arab dignity. Many told me they planned to return home and become political warriors in the cause of pan-Arab nationalism. One young woman, Nadia Salti, went back to her home in Jordan and blew up part of an American aid building. I went to see her in prison. We spoke for more than an hour. I remember to this day her smiling face that hid a mountain of passion. She was hung at the age of 19.
The biggest battle is for the soul of Islam. Islam is not a religion or a cult. It is a total system of life - religious, social, economic, political, legal and military. The ultimate goal of Islamists is to establish strict Sharia, Islamic law, throughout the world. Arabs, in general, are split with their traditional past contending with a noncompromising, violent future. That is precisely where Egypt is at this moment.
Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, since the movement was founded 83 years ago, has a history of violent ideology. One of its members, Sayyid Qutb, influenced Osama bin Laden in his formation of al-Qaida. Qutb's writings are very influential among today's Muslims. The brotherhood has struck a moderate tone during the present Egyptian turmoil. It supports Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. representative on nuclear issues, to succeed Mubarak. ElBaradei has indicated that he would accept the brotherhood into his government if he became the new president. The movement would thus share in the policy-making of the ruling party. This has created red flags since the brotherhood shares the Shia teaching of Iran. U.S. officials have warned they will review the $1.5 billion in economic and military assistance to Egypt if the movement becomes part of a new government.
In all of this, I recall my chats with the university students in Beirut. To them, in dealing with non-Arabs, truth was relative. However, they were very loyal to intimate friends and most relatives. I found a lot of dodging the truth among Arabs. One example was this constant reminder: Various government statistics were outright fakes or lies.
I have a deep suspicion regarding Mubarak's statement that he will not seek the presidency during the September elections. In my wide travels in the Mideast, I came to the conclusion that a good number of Arabs see the truth in that which benefits them most. Mubarak may be stopped, but he is a tough soldier. Remember that the Americans, Europeans and others had no knowledge of the current explosion.
The present 1.5 billion Muslims constitute 22 percent of the world's population. Their birth rate is larger than all of the world's Christians and other believers. Muslims will exceed 50 percent of the world's population by the close of this century. Decades ago, the students at the American University in Beirut told me of this universal fact:
"Remember what we told you. Israel would do well to remember it too."