- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 26, 2005

CAIRO, Egypt. — If Egypt is the cradle of civilization, and every esteemed scholar and historian worthy of his sheepskin and lectern will tell you it is, then its capital is the land of contradictions. Like the song “City, Country, City” by the band War, Cairo at once lulls you with its laidback cosmopolitanism and shakes you with its percussive-paced culturalism.

My dad used to say, “A woman has to be a lady at all times, but a man has to be a gentleman only in the presence of a lady.” That’s Cairo — and the ladies of this ancient city reflect his cultural axiom.

The women of Cairo are indeed mindful of the Muslim tenets that command respect and modesty. Many of them cover their heads, but it’s quiet common to see them walking hand-in-hand with their suitors. Their faces may not be painted with makeup,like the Alexandria girls of bygone times, but they wear form-fitting clothes with their headdresses. They faithfully say their prayers day in and out, as good Muslims do, but even the educated women who choose not to wear a hajib are mindful that the covering is more fashion statement than religious doctrine.

So explained three generations of Cairo natives. A 30-something woman, sharing a Turkish coffee, said head coverings have gained in popularity because of misinterpretations of the Koran, which tells women to use their head coverings to cover their breasts — when breast-feeding. A 40-something Egyptian official pointed out the window of his stately office and cited the irony of young women, with their heads covered, sharing a splendid afternoon tete-a-tete with their boyfriends on a bench that kisses the Nile. That didn’t reflect “religious” teaching, he said, it’s a fashion trend. A 60-plus restaurateur was far less gratuitous. He adroitly pointed to the women passersby of his popular downtown cafe and said, “This is not my Cairo.”

Believe him. Believe them all.

Cairo, like Egypt itself, continues to pull along its blatant civilities (or as some say, European courtesies) even as it tugs at Islamic ways that leave American and European visitors questioning where it stands on the road to democracy. Call the complexities Cairo chic. But the cultural complexities of Cairo are the realities in this cradle that rocks the country — as much as the election this week decided Egypt will take its first huge step toward democracy by holding a multicandidate presidential election.

Another contradiction is the men of Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak, who has held the reins of power for 24 years, has not yet said whether he will seek another six-year term this fall. His supporters said he will run, while those in search of other options said there are no other options. Mubarak detractors, who ought to be encouraged, called this week’s referendum little more than window-dressing to please — here we go again — the Americans and other freedom lovers. The bottom line, those critics claimed, is to keep Mr. Mubarak’s ruling party in power.

(I lean toward the rationale of our first lady, Laura Bush, who, during her visit to Cairo this week said, Mr. Mubarak has been “very bold and wise to take the first step.” Even if he again becomes the presidential candidate of first and last resort.)

There are other political dynamics on the minds Egyptians, and the men debate them not just in the halls of power but also while drinking tea and “filter” coffee in bustling cafes. There are social and political issues that Egypt must resolve — and they have nothing to do with a woman’s headdress.

Egypt’s population, for example, grows by an estimated 1.3 million people each year. The Mubarak administration (or the successor government) needs to grow 600,000 jobs just to keep pace. The most likely industries? Tourism and energy.

We in the West also continue to look to the East, especially Egypt, to help answer the Palestinian question. Will the Israelis indeed withdraw from Gaza and the West Bank? If that happens, who will patrol the border to ensure security? Will open elections in Egypt become a reality? Will Palestinians regain enough contiguous land to call it a state?

Egypt willingly sits at the crossroads of democratization of the Middle East. Indeed, Egypt represents where our civilized world has been — with that country’s unmatched antiquities — and where our civilization is headed — with the potential for transparent governance in Egypt. No other civilization has captured the attention and imagination of historians as Egypt has.

You don’t need to be a scholar or archeologist to understand why. Just look at a map and you’ll get the clear picture of Egypt, which stands at the juncture to the three continents.

Fashion statements come and go. But neither Egypt’s role in our past nor its role in the future of democracy is a coincidence. That fact holds true whether you spew hatred toward Jews or hatred toward Muslims. Indeed, it is true whether you are a Christian, a Muslim or a Talmudist.

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