Egypt, Lebanon, and Iran
January 26, 2002

A letter from a professor at a Middle Eastern University
Exclusive to Defense and the National Interest

View the first "Letter from the Middle East"

As the war on terrorism enters a more mysterious phase, Cairo has never been more calm. Since the downfall of the Taliban I have heard no anti-American remarks, with the exception of scattered residual complaints about civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Surprisingly, I also have yet to hear a single complaint concerning the treatment of the prisoners who were transferred to Guantanamo.

All of this lends some credence to the recently burgeoning notion that the "Arab street" doesn't like losers. Prior to October 7, al-Jazeera television was running stories about the unearthly martial prowess of the Taliban, and how the American defense machine stood no chance against such a tough, homespun force. Needless to say, stories of this kind are no longer to be found in the Arab language media. Nothing succeeds like success.

Equally strange, in this city awash with Israeli conspiracy theories, is that I have still not heard a single tale blaming Israel for fabricating the Red Sea weapons boat incident. Combine this silence (the best one can hope for in Egypt when it comes to Israeli issues) with President Mubarak's reported refusal to contact Arafat in his house arrest, as well as his marked interest in obtaining a new shipment of American anti-ship missiles, and an unexpected picture emerges. Although the mood of the Egyptian public remains steadfastly anti-Israel, it seems to me far less vehement than at any time between the resumption of the Intifada and the onset of war in Afghanistan.

My reading of the atmosphere in Cairo is that the "clash of civilizations" is very real on the level of public opinion, but very far from being an active geopolitical force. Most everyone in Egypt (including many Coptic Christians) will still tell you that Israel is evil—if you press them for an answer. What I don't hear so much of these days is any of last year's talk of Cairo teenagers ready to cross into Gaza and fight alongside their brothers. The strongest voice in the national media these days is the moderate head of al-Azhar University. The biggest controversy in Egypt is not war, but a booming trade deficit—one large enough for the government to have recently stripped lively Port Said of its duty-free status, more or less killing it economically.

That the stagnant Egyptian economy eats up more news space than Afghanistan or Israel is good news indeed for America's foreign policy and defense operatives. So too is the ever-increasing visibility of the educated middle class in Cairo. While young working class adults are unable to find entry-level positions, the new money caste in Cairo is flourishing. My moderately upscale neighborhood near the city center has been the site of flamboyant entrepreneurship in recent months, its sparkling new restaurants and coffee houses packed with young Egyptians of both sexes, most of them conversing in English or French. It remains to be seen whether this growing element of the society will gradually reform the rest, or whether Egypt is headed for a volatile economic polarization of the Brazilian variety. Although the statistics and occasional anecdotes will tell you that it¹s already happened, I sense no great degree of class resentment so far. Among other things, property crime is still shockingly low for a city hosting some of the most desperately poor ex-peasants on earth.

My most interesting encounter with an Egyptian in recent months was with a thoughtful young man who guided me through the Eastern Desert. A fluent English speaker, he has traveled extensively in the United States (New Orleans was his favorite place), and now makes his living as a professional tour guide and diving instructor, a typical combination. Let¹s call him "Khalid."

What made Khalid so unique was his balanced perspective on the conflict in the Middle East, perhaps more balanced than that of most Americans. Our travel group was filled with Westerners who tend to be highly critical of Israeli actions, and Khalid is the first Egyptian I have ever heard defend the IDF. He pushed this as far as defending the Israeli bombing of Cairo, his own hometown, during the so-called War of Attrition of the early 1970's, which most Egyptians refer to with phrases like "crimes against humanity." When several Western members of my group repeated the usual Egyptian line about the great victory of October 1973, Khalid stopped them in their tracks and insisted that we call it a stalemate.

Not that this former Egyptian soldier was lacking in patriotism. His eyes glowed with nationalistic fervor when I asked him about the lingering threat of a new Sudanese dam on the Nile. "If that happens," he said, "it is war. Absolutely no doubt. It is a question of national survival." With Egyptian water resources already strained by a continuing population boom, and with both Sudan and Ethiopia floating the idea of building dams to rival the one in Aswan, Cairo's defense concerns are quietly beginning to shift toward the South. Nationalism is alive and well within the Muslim family.


I had a different sort of guide on my recent trip to Lebanon, though his lessons were familiar. Let's call him "Karim." Karim is a taxi driver, a university graduate and Sunni Muslim now approaching the age of 40. This means that he spent his youth during some of the darkest days of the Lebanese Civil War—and he is a bottomless source of information about that conflict.

Those Americans who haven't visited Beirut would be shocked by its high quality of life. I had imagined the city as a fascinating zone of pockmarked buildings, slowly disappearing ruins, and brooding religious tensions. What I found was a wealthy and relaxed city that looks ready to join the European Union as soon as tomorrow: the general feel of the city is much closer to Athens or Lisbon than to Cairo. If you arrive on a beautiful day, as I did, the seaside setting is nearly as impressive as Rio de Janeiro's. I found it impossible to imagine such a place as the setting for car bombings and midnight executions. While visiting a nightclub in the northern part of the city, I learned that this place had once been a torture center. I found this news so inconceivable (though undoubtedly true) that I wasn't bothered in the slightest.

Over a period of two days, Karim drove me through a large part of Lebanon, whose tiny dimensions are hard to grasp when looking at a map: only through movement can you feel how small it really is. Our itinerary took us through the shadowy Bekaa Valley, down through Sidon and Tyre into Qana near the Israeli border. And throughout the trip, I was struck by the great wealth of Lebanon, at least by comparison with Egypt. This was true even of the supposedly impoverished Shi'ite areas, the places where Hezbollah is supposed to have a field day due to the poverty of the inhabitants. But I saw no poverty even remotely approaching that of Cairo's back streets.

The Bekaa is a strange experience for any American. The route from Lebanon to Baalbek is lined with sad memories for a Lebanese like Karim, and I tried to press him to spill out everything he could remember. As we entered the mountains, he pointed to the site of one of the first massacres in 1975, in which a busload of passengers was killed. At first we were driving through a Christian area, and Karim showed me where the most infamous Maronite checkpoints had been located—checkpoints where he, as a Muslim, would simply have been killed.

In the name of fairness, he also ticked off the names of several places where the Muslims had set up places of equal butchery during the conflict. He repeated the familiar horror stories of how, when approaching a checkpoint, it was often impossible to tell whether it was manned by friend or foe. One simply had to produce one¹s identification and take one's chances—ending up dead in a ditch was always a real possibility. I asked Karim if it had ever been possible simply to turn around and make a run for it. He informed me that it had happened now and then, but that the checkpoint militias would almost always chase down the escape vehicle and machine-gun all of its occupants.

It was important to have a good sense of geography, of the safe and unsafe routes depending on one¹s religion. For Sunni Muslims like Karim, this meant that the only way from Beirut to the Bekaa was a meandering southern detour through the Chouf Mountains homeland of the Druze, who charged Muslims exorbitant tolls for the privilege.

The checkpoints are still there, of course, but manned by new sorts of forces. Every 10 or 15 minutes, Karim would slow the taxi as we passed Lebanese soldiers, probably the most chic in the world. With designer sunglasses and snazzy new uniforms, the Lebanese military combines the wardrobe of playboys with the panache of Che Guevara.

After passing 4 or 5 of these checkpoints, I innocently mentioned to Karim that so far I had seen no Syrian checkpoints. To my great surprise, his face darkened: "You will," he spit through clenched teeth. "You will."

The next 20 minutes of our drive served as a further eye-opening lesson about the continued power of Arab nationalism. The clash of civilizations, in many ways an attractive thesis, has not yet emerged in Lebanon any more than in Egypt. In this place where Christians, Muslims, and Druze were slaughtering each other just over a decade ago, I found one point of near unanimity among all religions: foreigners, out! Lebanon is for the Lebanese! We are tired of being the pawns of Syria¹s war, the PLO's war, Israel's war, America's war!

Karim was the first person in Lebanon to give me this sermon, but far from the last. The sense he conveyed was that Lebanon is finally beginning to patch together a multi-ethnic understanding, after all the years of hatred. And astonishingly, Sunni Muslim that he is, he hates the Syrians most of all. When we finally passed our first Syrian checkpoint, he noticed my surprise at what seemed to be the pointless ritual of a plain-clothes intelligence officer glancing into the car. "They just want to let you know they are here, that's all. Nothing else. Just reminding you that they are here in Lebanon." Karim did have kinder words for the younger Assad than for his deceased father, whose name he was unable to pronounce without wincing.

The North-South highway running up the Bekaa Valley is separated the entire way by a concrete divider. The story behind this piece of infrastructure is almost as grim as that of the mountain checkpoints. Reduced to despair by endless civil war, young Lebanese men had invented a game they called ³Lebanese roulette." Starting high up in the anti-Lebanon range, they would accelerate their cars along any of the numerous local roads that cross the main highway. They would gun their engines to maximum speed, and try to zip directly across the highway, presumably with their eyes closed. Sometimes they would make it safely to the other side, their courage now beyond doubt. But more often than not, they would broadside an unlucky truck, school bus, ambulance, or an even unluckier motorcyclist. "The Highway of Death," they called it.

The highway of death is now the Highway of Hezbullah. An hour outside of Beirut, one begins to see the ubiquitous yellow banners, the double " l " (shaped the same in Arabic as in English) blossoming into an automatic weapon at the top. The alternate, photographic banners always come in threes: Khomeini, Khameini, and Nasrallah. Whereas our Boy Scouts go door-to-door for donations, the young Hezbullah Scouts, in their dapper uniforms and scarves, stand with coffee cans along the highway collecting coins from supporters.

Whatever terrorist actions Hezbullah may or may not be involved in, it is easy to see why many Lebanese do not regard them as a terrorist faction at all. Their chief presence is political in the most respectable sense of the term. If the banners feature the silhouette of a weapon, they also somehow project an air of municipal competence, no different than would be seen in the American Midwest. The Scouts look like nice, clean-cut kids. The only irrefutable complaint you can lodge against them concerns their attacks on Israeli soldiers, which most Lebanese (even many Christians) understandably regard as a self-defense measure.

I do not doubt that there may be wicked things afoot in the Bekaa Valley, but it is a strangely comfortable place for an American tourist despite its history of hostage-confinement and various sorts of smuggling. The Lebanese people seem to view the Bekaa not as a terrorist's nest, but simply as a Shi'ite area trying its best for economic development. To the naked eye, they seem to be having some success. For what it's worth, I sense that any American military strike in the Valley would have damaging and long-lasting repercussions among the populace of Lebanon. Karim was clearly no anti-American (he wants our ground forces to remain in Afghanistan as long as possible), but even he still speaks with deep bitterness of the American reaction to the Beirut suicide bombing of our Marines: the near-random punitive shelling of the city by the Battleship New Jersey.

The next day we headed through Druze Country toward the South, with numerous further war stories to pass the time. Sidon is a Sunni city. Tyre is largely Shi'ite, but seems to show more posters of Amal's Nabih Berri than of Khomeini. The Hezbullah presence returned in force as we approached the southern border of the country. Qana, perhaps 15 miles from Israel, is as far as Karim wanted to go.

My primary reason for wanting to visit Qana has to do with its Christian religious significance. There is an extremely well-maintained site, refurbished with private funds by two local Shi'ites who seem confident of future tourist revenue. Its central attraction is a hillside grotto where Christ and the Apostles are said to have slept. Nearby is a still crude Roman-era foundation, said to be the remains of the building where Jesus turned water into wine. This latter site is poorly marked, and when the Shi'ite guides claim that Vatican scholars have confirmed that this is the right place, you have no choice but to believe them. The ruins and the setting look about right. The guides flinched briefly when told by Karim that I was an American, but perhaps more out of surprise than out of contempt: they were even more friendly than the norm during the usual Arab tea ceremony at the end of my visit.

Also in Qana is the site of the Israeli rocket attack on a UN building in 1996, during Peres' Operation Grapes of Wrath. We Americans are used to seeing pictures of suicide bombings in Tel Aviv, so it is illuminating to visit a place haunted by Arab martyrs to the conflict. The sheer scale and significance of Auschwitz brought me to tears during my Polish visit last summer, but not having been alive during WWII, I lacked any sense of the reality of the death that had occurred there. The site in Qana, though not at the world-historic level of Auschwitz, bears witness to unconscionable and painfully recent atrocity, even for someone who supports Israel's existence in a way that Hezbullah members cannot.

There are three key elements to the memorial. Near the entrance is a mass grave labeled with the names of all of the Arab victims of the incident, some of them local townspeople, some of them, Palestinian refugees, some of them even Iraqis or Jordanians. They had sought shelter in the nearby building, and the Israelis claim to have thought that Hezbullah guerrillas were using the UN as cover for a hideout.

Whether sincere or not, this assumption was at the very least horribly, horribly misguided. A series of grisly "before and after" photos first show snapshots of women and children, amidst a mere handful of able-bodied Arab men, smiling in the sunshine at the mostly African UN staff. The "after" set shows charred and bloody corpses, many of them with half-melted colorful veils over the face.

The third element of the memorial, in some ways the most moving of all, is the charred building itself. Perhaps I was only imagining, but I thought I could still smell the burnt wood. It had been less than six years since this catastrophe, which I followed closely at the time, and I can remember exactly where I was comfortably sitting in America when it happened. I don¹t know if I have ever been to a place that was more personally jarring. Not even an accident scene where a close friend of mine had been killed was quite this threatening.

Karim seemed satisfied to have shown me a piece of the other side of the story—the Arab side. But as he began to reminisce about this incident and others of that time, his indignant air veered towards something resembling emotional breakdown. He was describing an incident of the same week in which the Israelis had attacked a Hezbullah ambulance, one which they claimed was transporting guerrillas. According to Karim, it was carrying injured children and their mothers, victims of an earlier strike.

When the Israeli missiles hit the ambulance, Karim told me, the mother of one of the babies was killed instantly, while the baby himself was thrown onto the pavement, blood pouring from his wounds. And this is where Karim lost control of his emotions and began to weep, sobbing the rest of the story at me like a devastated child. What angered him most was the female BBC reporter (the story is somewhat well-known) who came and filmed the baby as it lay dying on the road, doing nothing to help it. Karim was outraged to learn later on that this had been the woman's big "career break." He was so red with rage and sorrow that I sensed he would have killed her with his bare hands had she been within range.

Karim eventually calmed down, and we drove through the streets of Qana, past handsome Shi¹ite boys involved in raging combat with cap guns.


I did not visit Iran over the holidays, and what I have to say is only a bit of brief hearsay—but it is very interesting hearsay.

A colleague of mine at the university is a regular visitor to Iran, where he has family ties. We have had frequent conversations about the feelings of the liberal intellectuals in Teheran and their mastery of German high culture, about the frustrated and ambitious young people who have no appreciation for the conservative judiciary.

My colleague now insists that the Iranian Right Wing is living in a state of absolute terror over what happened to the Taliban. Despite the huge religious rift between Iran's Twelver Shi'ites and the Taliban's Wahabbi Sunnis, a rift often bordering on outright warfare, my colleague speaks believably of a deep visceral sympathy between the two groups.

My colleague reports that Iran may be at a turning-point. [Supreme Leader] Khameini and his friends have a frightened notion that they are on deck in the War on Terrorism. {President] Khatami and the liberals are trying to keep a low profile as the judiciary struggles to regain some control. Everyone of all parties in Iran is fully convinced that their own government is responsible for the Red Sea weapons boat shipment. And most interestingly for Americans, the lightning destruction of the Taliban is changing the attitudes on the street in every country in the Middle East.

You may wish to compare with Professor X's first missive: "Letter from the Middle East, October 15, 2001"