MUSCAT, Sultanate of Oman -- As Hosni Mubarak travels to the United States this week for a pivotal and sobering meeting with President Bush, the Egyptian president can only be having angry inner thoughts of "I told you so."
It was Mubarak, along with other moderate leaders such as Jordan's King Abdullah, who warned the enthusiastic war president who was going to reconfigure the whole Middle East through a war with Iraq: "You'll only create 100 bin Ladens."
Now it looks as though the Bush administration, which never met a Middle Eastern country it did not believe it could transform through naked force and naive admonition, has indeed reconfigured the region -- and all in such a short time!
Egypt, the cultural and political epicenter of the Arab world and long the center of Arab secularism, is alarmingly coming under the most conservative types of Islam, with Egyptian women now massively using the veil.
"That such a thing could happen in sophisticated Cairo, once the Middle East's cosmopolitan Hollywood on the Nile and heart of Arabic publishing, portends a cultural trend that could sweep through moderate Arab nations and set them on an even more anti-Western tilt," correspondent Lisa Anderson wrote recently in a particularly comprehensive Chicago Tribune article about Egypt's cultural shift reflecting Islam's "pull."
The Egyptian president has resisted the kinds of "reforms" called for by George W. Bush (at least until this week, when Iraq fell apart) because he sees Middle Eastern societies as still too threatened by extremism. But he has been willing to open a real discussion on reform.
Mubarak took the dramatic and unprecedented act in March, for instance, of opening the conference of reform intellectuals in Alexandria and telling them to continue this work. These are the brave Arab men and women who put together the deeply critical "Arab Development Report" for the United Nations three years ago, analyzing meticulously how frightfully backward most of the Arab world is -- and what must be done to change it.
"When an Egyptian president goes to open a conference like this, that is opposed to his policy, that is something remarkable," a high-ranking Egyptian official told me. "He wants things discussed."
But this step toward reform, which has been at least in part let loose by the shock of the war, now promises to be undone or turned backward by the arrogance and deplorable lack of the most basic understanding of culture and history by this administration.
As Mubarak comes this week to Crawford, Texas -- I must note that I am writing before the visit begins and that, the way things are going these days, anything could happen -- conservative and even radical fundamentalist Islam is gaining everywhere. So what about Mubarak's warning of "100 bin Ladens" right on our doorstep?
In Iraq, the raging young Shiites are now involved in a murderous civil war against us. Their hatred of the foreign invader is in their mothers' milk, ever since their descendant of the prophet, Imam Hussein, was murdered centuries ago by other proclaimed inheritors.
Their young leader of "the dispossessed," the firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, is close to Iran. Can he -- will he -- unite with those same Iranian Shiites who held American hostages in 1979? As Americans in Iraq are perceived more as the enemy of Islam, could the more moderate of the 60 percent of Iraq that is Shiite join his radicals?
Is al-Qaida, now in Iraq with foreign fighters as it was not before the war, already using the anti-American invader civil war for its purposes?
At this moment of predictable horror in Iraq -- those of us who knew the country feared from the beginning it would end in a civil war against the Americans -- even peaceful Kuwait is feeling dangerous reverberations from Iraq.
A flare-up in hostilities there this week between the majority Sunnis and the 30 percent Shiite population was ignited by hard-liners in both communities, until the government swiftly moved in to defuse tensions.
Meanwhile, for every Iraqi or Arab or Muslim that American troops kill, wound or maim, they will only create a family, a clan or a tribe -- and a memory demanding vengeance that will go on forever. Remember the naive idea of this administration that they could march into Iraq and impose a "government" and "institutions" with no roots or history in that bloody and fanatic soil?
More than likely, President Mubarak will bring up the complexities of the Middle East and the Islamic world when (and if, of course) he meets President Bush a world away in Crawford.
Maybe he'll recall how President Bush and his people were so sanguinely sure only a year ago that our troops would be greeted with flowers.
We can hope that the Egyptian leader from a country with a long and instructive history will ask the Texas American: "And where did all the flowers go?"
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