LOOK TO THE PAST HELPS EXPLAIN EGYPT'S CURRENT CHAOS

Georgie Anne Geyer

You remember your first breathtaking view of the Nile River, taking its royal time as it flows through the cities of the pharaohs, and if you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of one of those Egyptian long-distance swimmers taking a ride on the tides. You will never forget the trip down the Nile to Luxor or Abu Simbel, when you seem to be drifting luxuriantly backward into ancient times.

But above all, it is the memory of the Egyptians -- the charming, humorous, inventive people who came down through history as a mixture of the pharaohs, the Nubians, the Hittites, and various traveling salesmen, circa 2,000 B.C., from across the Mediterranean -- that leaves you with questions.

How could these delightful people, chuckling at the amusing situations they encounter in everyday life, kindly in their exchanges with foreigners and proud of their great heritage (which, in truth, they probably don't know a lot about), arrive at this point where it appears there is no longer hope for a way out? How could they have become as cruel as they have become?

For those who know the Egyptians only superficially, their capacity for cruelty may well not show. But in the Middle East, it is common currency to say, nodding knowingly, "There is no mob like an Egyptian mob." One has only to remember American TV correspondent Lara Logan, covering the first demonstrations for democracy two years ago, who was taken by a group of men that suddenly turned into a ravenous mob and disrobed, beaten and raped until she was hospitalized in serious condition.

If one looks back at Egyptian history, perhaps one gets some clues. Egypt was a great civilization when the distant ancestors of today's Germans, Swedes and Dutch were dancing naked around the fire; and so it hurts that once-barbaric European nations now rule the world while Egypt reigns over tourist shops. Throughout its history since its imperium, Egypt has been overrun from every direction, leaving its people, not unnaturally, with deep-seated complexes and neuroses.

But these complexes do not show when proud Egyptian guides are taking you through the glories of the Egyptian Museum, of Luxor, of the Valley of the Kings, or the Red Sea coral reefs or the Aswan Dam. They come out, ugly small serpents coiled in the resentful corners of the Egyptian's heart, when he is humiliated, either by outsiders or by fellow Egyptians.

Don't believe it when someone tells you that what poor Third World people want most is wealth or even power. Yes, of course, they want food and water and shelter for their families. But above all, they want respect and dignity. And this is where the disastrous one-year presidency of Mohammed Morsi played into the people's anger: He was humiliating them by ignoring what their vote dictated (a multi-party government). So they fell back on the Egyptian military who, despite everything, most Egyptian people look to as a respected last hope.

When the United States enters the saga, Americans start asking, "Why won't the Egyptians listen to us?" And, "Don't they care if our aid is cut off?"

The answer is that the Egyptians do listen, but they don't like to be treated like the children of the Nile. They do care, but not if it means that the dignity they have fought for over so many eons -- since the men of the Kingdom of Punt, and the Mamelukes, and the Ottoman Turks, and Monsieur Napoleon and his minions, and then the British, and now the Americans, barged in, uninvited, for one thing or another -- is once again on the slab.

It's an old story that when a people is in trouble, there are not enough riches in the Valley of the Kings to pay for their dignity.

Yet, perhaps it is only right and natural that America should have been fussing and fuming these last few months about what it can do about Egypt. It is only to be expected that, with all the world constantly telling Washington how powerful, potent and indispensable it is to everybody, everywhere, every hour of every day, America might get the idea that somebody, somewhere might listen to us.

But the money we offer -- roughly $1.3 billion, mostly in military aid -- is peanuts when your national ego is involved. Besides, Egypt already gets many times that much from the bottomless pockets of the Gulf monarchs.

So, yes, many of our top leaders have traveled to Cairo, but we have nothing in this crisis that the Egyptians want. We can't bring needles to inject them with dignity, and there are no kinds of funds to force the Muslim Brotherhood, the democratic secularists and the military to sit down and reconcile.

We'll just have to wait until the Egyptians return to being their old charming selves, and then, believe me, we'll all be rushing back. It couldn't happen too soon.


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