A Glimpse of Obama in a Cairo Emptied of Its People and Its Poor
Go into the average newspaper office and you'll find the reporters staring at Sky News or the BBC or Al-Jazeera International.
But visit the studios of Sky News, the BBC or Al-Jazeera International, and you'll discover that all the journalists there are reading newspapers. Its an odd form of osmosis which - being an old-fashioned reporter - I'm not very happy about. I still believe, along with an encouraging number of young Arab and Israeli reporters, that we've got to be out on the streets, just as I was when I started in journalism in the Blyth office of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. So Fisk was prowling the streets of Cairo this week, hunting for Obama and Lady Hilary.
A colleague gave me Obama's detailed schedule, and there was the key: "11.50 am: POTUS and Sec of State Clinton tour mosque." Poor old Obama, I thought. Surely he didn't deserve to be reduced to a codename like POTUS - until dimwit Fisk realised this stood for "President of the United States". How very American. The Sultan Hassan mosque was just below the citadel and with my faithful driver Amr (the Egyptian equivalent of my even more faithful driver Abed in Beirut), we swept through the police-heavy streets of Cairo to track down the POTUS and his lady. So empty were the drab boulevards of downtown Cairo that we drove at 60mph. I should add that Amr comes from the Citadel area of Cairo and knew every back street to avoid the thousands of cops thronging the usually filthy highways of this raving hot city. And we got there. The mosques and the great Citadel of the Mamlukes baked in the noontime sun and around them lounged or stood to attention or snooped thousands of uniformed or plain-clothes mukhabarat security police. They stood in the street, they stood atop 13th century mosques with rifles, they sat glowering in tea-shops. They had emptied the place of real people, genuine Egyptians, and had "become" Cairo. The plain-clothes lads - no women, of course - were all dressed in horrible 1970s suits with gun butts protruding from the bottom of their jackets. Each wore an outrageously florid tie of indeterminate quality.
"You cannot stay here," one of them muttered at me - I had planned to hide in a local tea-house until I discovered that all the tea-drinkers were cops - "and anyway, they're going through the other gate". Thanks mate. And sure enough, round the corner were a hundred more officers. There were police generals and police colonels and police captains and a vast horde of black uniformed security men (all standing to attention with their backs to the road). One of the generals had so much sparkling braid on his hat that I feared it might fall off because of the weight of gold.
And they were cheerful. This foolish, obviously mad Englishman, wandering around in the midday sun, was a source of amusement to these bored men. I've come to see the POTUS, I explained. One of them examined my press card. "Fisk! ," he shouted. "I read what you write about us." This was not great news since I hadn't been terribly kind about his president of late - but I think he was lying. He did admit to me, though, that those ghastly police ties were all bought by the authorities. I had thought as much.
I found only one other journalist there, a friendly Egyptian photographer for Reuters who helped to talk me through the last checkpoints until there we were, bang in front of the entrance to the mosque. "They're on their way!" one of the thugs shouted. And a swishing convoy of black limousines was suddenly upon us, three of them sporting huge American and Egyptian flags. There were 32 security vehicles in all, some of them with Egyptian gunmen leaning half out of the window with their rifles.
A glimpse of the POTUS was enough, a lithe, athletic, tall figure beside a dumpy little old lady - that's what happens when the "Sec of State" wants to appear alongside her boss - and they were gone, followed by a trail of hop-skip-and-jump White House press corps girls and boys trying to keep up. Above them all, on the mosque walls, were massive, ancient gashes in the stones, shellfire from a much earlier age. Did the Egyptians, I wonder, tell the POTUS who performed this sacrilege? For the culprit was another young and powerful Western leader, fascinated by the Middle East: Napoleon Bonaparte.
Only when I left did I see the Egyptians behind the police lines, old ladies with birds in wooden cages, a broken cripple with a wooden stick, Dickensian urchins without shoes, scarved girls licking ice-creams. And I began to have my suspicions. These people were no threat to the POTUS and the little American lady. Indeed, I felt sure they would have been grateful for that strong handshake which is so willingly bestowed upon safe, blue-eyed Germans and Brits.
And I rather suspect the POTUS would like to have met these poor people. It was the police who would have disapproved. Not to mention the President of Egypt. So the POTUS had been - to use Churchill's fine description of Lenin as the Germans passed him through their land to infect Russia with Bolshevism - sealed off like a bacillus.
The POTUS wasn't being protected from danger, I was sure. He was being protected from the words these Egyptians might utter, from their views of the Arab world, of Egypt, from their views, perhaps, on the nature of democracy amid all these cops and security lads. They might have spoken of corruption and nepotism and violence. But the POTUS never saw them. Anyway, he had too tight a schedule: there were words to utter across town, about human rights and justice in what he called "the timeless city of Cairo". Timeless yes. And its people silent.
© 2009 Independent/UK