President Bush meets with Arab leaders in the Red Sea port of Sharm e-Sheik Tuesday. It marks the president’s first trip to Egypt.
It’s too bad that Bush will only have time to spend about 24 hours in the country, and almost all of that in a resort city. A longer stay in Egypt, particularly in the megametropolis of Cairo and capital of the Arab world, would be an eye-opener, and probably not the way his critics expect. One look around at the urban chaos around him, and Bush could feel reasonably confident that his policies are on the right path.
THE ENVIRONMENT: On environmental issues, Bush is seen by greens around the world as the boogeyman. But one whiff of the air in Cairo makes one realize that by comparison, the New Jersey Turnpike smells like the Garden of Eden. The skies over Cairo (and to a lesser extent, Alexandria and Luxor) are consistently tinged gray or brown with smog. What makes up Cairo’s stench? Well, there are close to 800 factories around the city, most of which have safety- and pollution-control systems that would make outgoing EPA director Christie Todd Whitman break out in hives, provided she didn’t double over from an asthma attack first.
But the most noticeable ingredient in the suffocating cocktail of pollutants is the lead-heavy exhaust emitted by the city’s 1.2 million vehicles. About two-thirds of Cairo’s cars and trucks are aging and badly maintained. There are Datsun trucks on almost every other street — and since Japanese automaker Nissan retired the name Datsun in 1983, most of these trucks have been on the road for at least 20 years, about the median age vehicles on Cairo’s streets. (Dust and windblown sand from the surrounding desert adds to the atmospheric woes of the city’s 17 million residents.)
The United States doesn’t have these problems because almost all use of leaded gasoline is banned here. But more than 90 percent of the gasoline sold in the Middle East and Africa is (often heavily) leaded, and about 30 percent of the gas sold in Asia and Latin America contains lead. Unsurprisingly, Cairo’s air exceeds the World Health Organization’s acceptable limits for most pollutants.
While more than 800 infants in Cairo die annually as a result of maternal exposure to lead, the United States has largely beaten the public-health threat of lead poisoning. Federal surveys show that the percentage of American children with elevated blood-lead levels has dropped from 88.2 percent in the late 1970s to 4.4 percent in the early 1990s. But while Cairo’s leaded skies are a serious environmental problem, it’s not a worry that’s particularly politically useful for the green movement. The Bush administration’s policies have been blamed for flooding in Prague and erosion of the white cliffs of Dover, but it’s hard to persuade people that the Bush administration is responsible for lead-spewing Cairo cabbies.
SMOKING: Based on the tobacco fumes found in every corner of Egyptian society, one could conclude that most of North Africa smells like Keith Richards’s gums.
Bush has been criticized by public-health gurus for not demonizing the tobacco industry the way his predecessor did. The American anti-smoking movement is fascinatingly out of step with the rest of the world. Most restaurants in Cairo have two sections: Smoking and A Lot More Smoking. Hotel lobbies, bars, taxis, airport waiting areas, and even the rarely enforced nonsmoking sections have a heavy scent of cigarettes that soaks through your clothes, skin, hair, etc. with a scent one usually associates with Denis Leary. And then there’s the shisha or hooka pipe smokers, who puff away at tobacco mixed with molasses and flavors like apple or cherry through a water pipe.
Meanwhile back in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is attempting to ban smoking in every public place in the city. There’s an odd skewing of priorities. Bloomberg and NYC anti-smoking advocates are worried about secondhand-smoke exposure in places that have fairly well-enforced nonsmoking sections, while there are whole countries where everybody gets exposed to secondhand smoke almost every waking moment.
Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is patting itself on the back for a planned treaty to combat tobacco smoking worldwide, with proposals for steep tobacco taxes, total bans on advertising, increased health-warning labeling on packaging and other regulations. Judging from the amount of smoke that’s acceptable in the public spaces of Europe and Egypt, the WHO officials have got their work cut out for them. While Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson may enthusiastically endorse the WHO plan, Bush isn’t missing much by not staking his personal prestige on the issue.
PUBLIC SAFETY: According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, more than 20 states and 87 localities in the U.S. have mandatory bike-helmet laws, as well as all of Australia, and parts of Canada.
In Cairo, people jump into and off of buses while they’re moving. People ride in the backs of trucks, in the scoop parts of bulldozers and earthmovers, and on every other not-so-stable spot that an American cop would probably write you a ticket for.
Some cabs have seatbelts, some don’t. Those that do often have them attached to the roof with a safety pin. If a door doesn’t seem to be shut, the cab driver will open it and slam it shut again — while accelerating into an onramp. On the Nile, young boys climb across the outer spans of a bridge like Spider-Man.
Egyptian concepts of risk and safety appear to be planets apart from Americans’. According to an American who had spent two years in Cairo, this is a reflection of Arabic fatalism — whatever happens was meant to happen, as it was willed by Allah.
Contrast this with our local news, endlessly and breathlessly warning about the public’s health being endangered by trans fats in Oreos, biotech corn, road rage, Internet addiction, dodge ball, tree climbing, child-abduction epidemics, excessively heavy backpacks, or static electricity at gas pumps — or policy decisions of the Bush administration. Other societies deal with much greater risks all the time, and daily disasters don’t befall them.
DRIVING: These days, Americans and Europeans have bigger differences, but back in 2000, an ABC News report asked, “Are Americans just bad drivers?”
“Experts say American drivers break road rules, are frequently distracted and aren’t often trained to handle emergency situations,” the correspondent wrote. “In European countries with faster, safer roads, people wonder: Are Americans just bad drivers?
After three weeks surviving the streets in Cairo, one wonders, “Are ABC News reporters just smoking crack?” American drivers look like absolute road-masters after watching Egyptian buses, with half their passengers hanging on the outside, swerve back and forth through lanes of traffic in a manner that makes the chase scenes in the Matrix sequel look like a 1950s driver’s ed filmstrip.
Americans just off the plane are about to experience a local tradition for newcomers called the ENDE — Egypt Near Death Experience. Lane lines and speed limits are really just suggestions. They have few lights or crosswalks, so crossing the street resembles the video-game Frogger — forward one lane, then a carefully timed pause, then back one lane, then advance two, then squeeze between a truck and a bus more packed than the last helicopter out of Saigon. Cars careen through at unheard of speeds, only sporadically turning on their headlights at night.
It’s worth noting that despite the high speeds, extraordinarily crowded streets, symphony of car horns, constant lane changes, merges, and labyrinthine street layout, there don’t seem to be that many big pileups in the Cairo avenues. (Americans living in Cairo say that some drivers don’t even bother to stop and inspect the damage after a mild fender-bender.) Perhaps this is the side effect of living in a country with few trial lawyers.
ANTIWAR VIEWS: Cairo’s antiwar protests looked pretty frightening on CNN and MSNBC, but according to Americans in the city at the time, the protestors only numbered about 15,000 in a city of more than 15 million. In other words, at least 14,985,000 Cairenes had something better to do than burn U.S. and British flags, demand boycotts of goods from both countries and call for jihad “to deter the oppressive American aggression.”
Despite all the flag burners, there are plenty of ordinary Egyptians trying to scrape together a living, who grimly recall the 1997 Luxor massacre, when machine-gun-wielding Islamic fundamentalists killed 58 tourists. The effect on tourism — Egypt’s biggest foreign currency earner, ahead of oil and Suez Canal receipts — was catastrophic, with visitor numbers falling more than 40 percent over the next year.
Tourism represents about 60 percent of Egypt’s economy, and they took a $2 billion hit this winter because of the Iraq war. (President Hosni Mubarak’s government says unemployment among Egypt’s almost 70 million people is about nine percent, but regional economists estimate it is probably much higher.) While the country may get more European, Middle Eastern, or Russian tourists, Americans are perceived to be the big spenders.
How much of the average Egyptian’s opposition to the Iraq war was driven by fears of economic disruption? While experts can debate what thoughts lie behind their broken English phrases, the public posture of many Cairenes is clear: They will always love our dollars more than they hate our policies.
— Jim Geraghty, an NRO contributor, is a reporter for States News Service.