An American in Cairo in the mid-1980s could not have failed to notice the ubiquitous young men in black uniforms, holding rifles and standing as generally inattentive and slump-shouldered sentries in front of major embassies and public buildings. The reassuring rumor was that their rifles were not loaded.
These young men were conscripts of the Central Security Police -- the lowest of the low in Egypt's national security forces.
All young men in Egypt were compelled to serve in some security force. College graduates served as officers and in elite units. Those with lesser educations filled out the ranks. Illiterates pulled from the very bottom of Egypt's socio-economic pyramid were consigned to the security police.
They were conscripted for three years, paid about $4 per month, housed in an archipelago of camps on the outskirts of Cairo, and fed a steady diet of gritty pita bread and a bland brown-bean gruel known as ful.
Around them was a nation of intense poverty punctuated by occasional oases of conspicuous consumption. Some of these oases were frequented by Western tourists or Persian Gulf oil magnates; others by Egypt's indigenous elite.
On the evening of Feb. 25, 1986, a rumor swept the police camps: Their three-year conscription was going to be extended to four.
Thousands stormed out and rioted, torching Western hotels near the Pyramids in Giza.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had just had the worst five months of his first five years. He had taken leadership of Egypt when Muslim fundamentalists assassinated Anwar Sadat. In the wake of that potentially destabilizing event, he held Egypt on a steady course, nurturing close relations with the United States and faithfully keeping Egypt's end of the Camp David Accords, in which Egypt had become the first Arab-Muslim nation to make peace with Israel.
Then, in October 1985, Palestinian terrorists hijacked an Italian cruise ship, the Achille Lauro. They brutally murdered America passenger Leon Klinghoffer and eventually surrendered the ship at an Egyptian port.
But rather than seize these terrorists and put them trial -- or hand them over to the United States -- Mubarak cut a deal with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat to hand them over to him.
Mubarak publicly lied that the hijackers had already left Egypt, when they had not, and was embarrassed when F-14s under orders from President Reagan forced the Egyptian jet trying to carry them to Tunisia to land in Italy instead.
Before that, Mubarak had been seen as honest, if not exactly an intellectual. After that, there was a temptation to see him as dishonest and stupid.
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