- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 7, 2005

Egypt up close

Toward the end of a lengthy interview in his office overlooking the Nile River on Thursday, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit called a delegation from The Washington Times over to the window.

He pointed out a young couple chatting lazily by the river, the woman wearing fashionable clothes and an Islamic headscarf.

“Look at that,” he told his guests. “Ten years ago you would never have seen a girl wearing a headscarf like that, but at the same time you never would have seen a young boy and girl chatting like that in public.”

His point was to illustrate the complex ways in which his country is evolving, with Islamic symbols gaining popularity at the same time Egyptians are adopting more Western clothes and social practices.

That is the sort of nuance that is not easily picked up by reading briefing papers or attending seminars in Washington; that’s why we try to see that reporters and editors who deal with foreign affairs get out to see the world firsthand.

With that in mind, we accepted an invitation to send a high-level delegation to Cairo to see what Egypt is doing to expand democratic institutions.

Managing Editor Fran Coombs is leading the group, accompanied by Deputy Editorial Page Editor Deborah Simmons and Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter. None of the three had been to Israel or the Palestinian territories before, so they decided to expand the educational value by visiting Israel as well.

Stepping off their flight in Cairo, Mr. Coombs and Mr. Witter — Mrs. Simmons arrived a day later — were immediately swept into the world of elaborate hospitality for which the region is renowned.

Government functionaries were waiting at the foot of the ramp to escort them to the special Hosni Mubarak Terminal, where they sipped tea while other officials processed their passports and collected their luggage. Mr. Coombs thinks he noticed a red carpet at some point, but Mr. Witter was not so sure.

Getting both sides

There was more of the same on the way to an interview with Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif the next day; a government security man in a dark suit and Ray-Bans accompanied them from the hotel, jumping out at intersections to help clear the way through Cairo’s notorious traffic.

The prime minister, a tall, powerfully built man with wavy gray hair whose comments appeared in Thursday’s paper, made a strong impression on the group, Mr. Witter reports.

“He speaks more like the university professor he was than a politician,” Mr. Witter said. “He answered every question and was ready for everything.”

As a condition of coming, our group had insisted on full access to leaders of the political opposition, and the Egyptians went out of their way to cooperate.

Mr. Witter had worked in advance through an Egyptian journalist to set up interviews with a range of opposition figures; on Thursday he discovered that a government guide assigned to the group had lined up meetings with the same people. They had to get the journalist and the guide together to sort it out.

The interview with Mr. Nazif was the beginning of what we plan as a broad attempt to assess the depth of Egypt’s commitment to expanding its democracy and the impact that will have on its society.

In the meantime, our delegation members are already getting insights into a country that is pivotal to U.S. interests.

“Attitudes are more favorable to Americans than one would believe before getting here,” said Mr. Coombs. “People really differentiate between the [U.S.] administration and ordinary Americans.”

He has also noticed a public anger toward the presumed Islamists behind two recent terrorist attacks, and an unexpected willingness among Egyptians to criticize their own government. “Even our government handler is talking freely about the good and bad things the government has done.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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