Richard Reeves

A Flat for Mohammed

LOS ANGELES -- Ten years ago, one of our sons, Colin O'Neill, and I were walking across the Qasr el Nil bridge in Cairo late at night from Tahrir Square -- Liberation Square -- to the island of Gezira in the Nile. As he began the story:

"We were approached by a couple of guys about my age who looked as if they were selling something. Actually, they just wanted to talk -- in English and French. They were cousins, both of them language teachers in private schools. The four of us, leaning out over the bridge, talked for almost an hour."

When I told them I was writer, the older one, named Mohammed, who was 26, asked if I was like Charles Dickens. "Not quite," I answered.

Then he said: "I have read 'Death of a Salesman.' Is that what America is like?"

"Yes," I said. "That is not all we are like, but that's part of it."

They were well read, to say the least, but they were frustrated young men. Not angry. Frustrated by their place in a country they loved. Mohammed earned less than $30 a month. His rent, for a room he shared with another teacher, was more than $30. He made ends meet by giving private lessons to the children of rich people.

He pointed to the Nile Hilton on the river bank and said: "Though it is in my country, I can't go in there. I mean I can go in, but a coffee costs almost more money than I make in a week. The dollar is all that counts now; money is king. But it is hard for someone like me to exist here. I want refreshment, to sit with my friends, to marry, to have a flat, but how can I do these things?"

Things got worse, not better, for Mohammed over the next decade. Everything became more expensive in a decidedly corrupt country as the authoritarian rule of President Hosni Mubarak turned into a cold dictatorship -- with help from the United States, which was essentially paying Mubarak billions of dollars not to invade or harass Israel. Of course, we asked him, nicely, quietly, to liberalize, to give his people a break, but the important part of our role was our world strategy. We needed Mubarak, we thought. To hell with young Mohammed.

I love Cairo. I love Egyptians. They are, to me, like Italians. They love life, no matter what it brings. I lost my heart in Tahrir Square one midnight. It is a sprawling place of both asphalt and grass. The drivers are crazy. But in the heat of a summer night, hundreds, thousands of families were on the grass, sleeping and talking, laughing in the touch of coolness from the river. It reminded me of distant memories of Central Park, where New Yorkers would stay all night in August heat when I was very young and air conditioning was very rare.

I don't know what will happen next. It will probably be chaotic, bad for us for a while -- we seem to prize order above all these days -- but that was going to happen anyway when Mubarak died and other hard men came along to grab what spoils they could before some kind of stability comes to a country decades behind the times.

(The people we see on television in Cairo are the better-off people of Egypt. We would see and know more if American cable systems had the guts to show Al Jazeera English around the country. It is, more often than not, a better all-news deliverer than CNN, telling the stories of the world from the bottom up, rather than from Washington down.)

So it is time for us to step back, step away from Mubarak. Do not think we can control events. It is their country. Radical Islamists there are going to give us trouble, but we can handle that, maybe better than we are now.

And perhaps there will be a flat for Mohammed.

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