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.
A month later, Egyptair Flight 648 was hijacked on its way from Athens to Cairo and diverted to Malta. After the hijackers shot eight passengers, Mubarak sent soldiers onboard. More than 50 innocent people were killed.
Then on Feb. 25, 1986, Mubarak got the news that his own security police were rioting. He ordered the regular army out and slapped a curfew on Cairo. Three days later, a page 3 story in The New York Times said, "After a third day of fierce street clashes here, the Egyptian Government said today that it had put down a rebellion by paramilitary police."
Eleven days later, Mubarak addressed the Egyptian parliament. The New York Times covered it on page 18. The headline: "Egypt's Army Praised in Quelling Riots, but for Mubarak the Crisis Is Not Over." The story said the riots might have involved "as many as 17,000 conscript policemen" and that the Egyptians claimed 107 people had been killed.
One unnamed "Western expert" cited by the Times could hardly believe Mubarak had contained the violence. ''It's amazing to me that this thing did not spread,'' this expert told the Times. ''In a city of 15 million, living in the conditions these people do, it's absolutely amazing.''
A New York Times editorial of March 5, 1986, noted that Mubarak had angered hardliners. "He has been too pragmatic for Arab radicals, who view any recognition of Israel as a betrayal, and has affronted Muslem fundamentalists with his cautious moves to secular freedoms," said the Times.
Despite the friction over the Achille Lauro incident, the Reagan administration stood by Mubarak.
In the 25 years since then, Mubarak has remained an authoritarian and Egypt has not become a democracy. But it has remained at peace with Israel, and Mubarak's government has been as good a friend to the U.S. as any in the Arab world.
President Barack Obama last Friday took a harder stand for human rights in distant Egypt, as it verged on chaos, than he had with Communist Chinese President Hu Jintao, when Hu stood right next to him before a state dinner. Obama implicitly scolded Mubarak and called for "a path of political change that leads to a future of greater freedom and greater opportunity and justice for the Egyptian people."
What the American president should hope for in Egypt is what we have had for almost 30 years in Mubarak: a government that does not threaten our security or freedom and that is as friendly to us as can reasonably be expected.
Another Mubarak may be far better for the American people than an Egypt heading in an unpredictable revolutionary direction cloaked in the name of representative government.
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