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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 19:31 GMT
Uneasy Cairo awaits war

By Martin Asser
BBC News Online in Cairo

In happier days, Cairo could be best described as an exuberant, chaotic city - Mother of the World as Egyptians admiringly call their capital.

But on the eve of a possible US-led attack on Iraq all that has changed - people are subdued, fearful of what the future holds.

Cairo is inextricably linked to Baghdad - they were the twin centres of civilisation during the classical Golden Age enjoyed by the Arabs in medieval times, and together they make up the backdrop for that greatest work of Arabic folk literature, the Arabian Nights.

Wadi Nil café
Fewer clients frequent Cairo's famous coffee shops
Today, no Egyptian feels anything but sympathy for his Arab brethren hundreds of kilometres to the east, as they face the possibility of the destruction of their country.

Most people here mistrust the US pursuit of Iraqi weapons, and feel outrage at President George W Bush's mission to bring about the downfall of the Iraqi leader, Saddam Hussein.

"I don't like the guy," says a young mother, who has spent time abroad, referring with disdain to the Iraqi dictator.

"But why does America have the right to depose him? Are they going to catch him like they caught Bin Laden?" she says.

Exile solution

Washington may have lost its credibility here in Cairo, but many citizens concur with Tuesday morning's US ultimatum that Saddam go into exile - though not within the 48-hour deadline proposed by President Bush.

As well as sparing 20 million Iraqis from the threat of war, the exile solution conveniently points a way out of Egypt's current biting economic crisis, which has seen import costs rocket after the floating of the Egyptian pound against the dollar.

Security forces stand watch outside Cairo's Egyptian Museum
Police stand guard amid general unease

Peace could save the fragile tourism sector from collapse.

And a newly placated Washington could set about providing economic help to its friend, Egypt, to prevent instability elsewhere spreading to the region's biggest country.

War, on the other hand - perhaps a long, bloody war, if Saddam's Republican Guards put up a fight around Baghdad - means all bets are off for Egypt's recovery, as well as any progress on that other open wound in Arab minds, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nevertheless, this darker scenario has many supporters on the streets of Cairo.

"We like Saddam because he is tough," says one woman, who works in the tourist sector. "He defends his country from the aggressor, and that's why his people love him."

1991 flashback

So how are Cairo residents spending the last few hours before Iraq - and the rest of the region - meets its fate in the shape of the Bush administration's final ultimatum?

On Monday night, the intellectual elite packed into a hall at the American University in Cairo (AUC) to hear a lecture on Palestinian human rights by the renowned US-Palestinian academic Edward Said, followed by a lute recital by the Cairo-based Iraqi virtuoso Naseer Shama.

American University in Cairo.
The AUC is a cultural hub for the Westernised intelligentsia
There was not a dry eye in the house as Shama prayed for the safety of Iraqi and Palestinian children, before launching into his unflinching musical portrait of the bombing of Amariya shelter in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf War.

Shama's lute mimics the sweet sound of children's games, then an air-raid siren, then the sound of aircraft and bombs falling and the screams of Amariya's 450 civilian victims.

Outside the ivory towers of the AUC, many of the rest of Cairo's 18 million population are going about their business with an air of resignation as the clock ticks to Thursday morning's deadline.

Saving pennies means that shops and hubble-bubble cafes are less busy than usual. The jokes of street-corner comedians are also told with less conviction.

And simple people, unschooled in the intricacies of international diplomacy, ask foreigners - not for baksheesh these days - but for explanations about the political situation.

Will Iraq burn its oilfields? Why does Tony Blair support George Bush when the British people don't? And why can't the Middle East region live in peace, when that's what the overwhelming majority of Egyptian people say is all they want.

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