Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Egyptians Get Economic and Environmental News to Cheer About

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Egyptians Get Economic and Environmental News to Cheer About

Article excerpt

CAIRO COMMUNIQUE: Egyptians Get Economic and Environmental News to Cheer About

Crowds of young men screaming "Allahu Akbar!" and waving Egyptian flags were marching across the El Tahrir bridge connecting downtown Tahrir Square with the island of Zamalek.

Drivers of blocked cars, trucks and buses were banging away at their horns, and passengers were yelling out their windows to add to the general din in the cool Cairo night.

But, for once, it was a happy din.

Unlike the Cairo demonstrations against the United States when it seemed that the superpower again was about to pulverize pipsqueak Iraq for not complying with U.N. Security Council resolutions on weapons inspections, this demonstration was celebratory.

On Feb. 28, Egypt's national soccer squad had just delivered a stunning 2-0 blow to the favored South African team in Burkina Faso, thereby winning the African Nations' Cup for the fourth time in 41 years. One measure of the victory's importance was the fact that the Egyptian team was welcomed home at Cairo International Airport in the wee hours of the morning by none other than President Hosni Mubarak, accompanied by Prime Minister Kamal el- Ganzouri and other top brass.

It was a much-needed shot in the ann for Egypt, which has been down in the dumps in recent months, particularly since the slaughter of 58 foreign visitors by Islamic terrorists at one of the nation's most prized tourist sites, the Hatshepsut temple in Luxor, last November.

Tension was added to depression as the U.S.-British military built up for an attack on Iraq, prompting widespread condemnation in the Egyptian press and anti-war demonstrations at universities, the Khan El-Khalili bazaar near Al-Azhar mosque and even in front of the grim, fortress-like American Embassy in Garden City. American expatriates were bracing for Islamist groups to make good on threats to attack Western interests if the bombs should fall.

Thanks to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who negotiated a respite from the immediate threat of war, and to Mahmoud Al Gohari, who coached Egypt's soccer squad to victory, the tension broke. And, at least for a while, Egyptians could feel good about things.

For the most part, Egyptians sup on a pretty steady diet of bad news and discouraging realities: terrorism, repressive police, poverty, overpopulation, creaky government bureaucracies, phony democracy, pollution and horrific problems in health care and education. But the big soccer victory was a happy reminder that things are not all bad all the time -- and that positive developments were also taking place in Egypt.

For one thing, although the Luxor massacre did devastate the $3 billion-plus tourist industry, there are some early signs of recovery. The London stock brokerage firm T. Hoare and Co. recently reported that the hotel occupancy rate in Egypt was slowly rising from the depths -- although much of that rise may have been due to domestic tourism.

In early March, the ever-optimistic, peripatetic Minister of Tourism Mamdouh ElBeltagui was leading yet another delegation-this one to the Berlin Tourism Bourse -- to plump for Egypt among tourism organizations around the world.

A White Paper prepared by a group of security experts and international diplomats, including former U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Robert Oakley, concluded that Egypt seemed to be doing a good job of tightening security at important tourist sites since the Luxor incident, which was a textbook case of poor planning and incompetence. …

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