EGYPT AFTER SADAT; VOICES OF HOPE, MURMURS OF DOUBT IN CAIRO
''You Americans made Sadat into a great hero. But what good did he ever do for us?'' ''Yeah. What was the point of all his fine uniforms? And all the show and the parades?''Skip to next paragraph
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''And his flashy wife.''
''Right. Some hero! What about the fact I can't even feed my family?''
''Sadat always did well for other countries. But here, it was all poverty and chaos. . . .''
The six men hunched around a small cafe table (one of dozens spilling onto a dirt alleyway flanked by tenements) and sipped strong Arabic coffee. A large hubble-bubble gurgled at their feet, its tube full of tobacco smoke passed from mouth to mouth. At the next table an identical pipe drew hashish instead. Backgammon pieces clacked sharply against worn wooden boards. The children, except for a few chasing a tiny puppy to and fro, were long since asleep. The women were home. Arabic music wailed from radios somewhere.
''Mubarak,'' said the oldest of the men, ''we don't know much about. But so far he seems good.''
''He is tough,'' another broke in. ''He will pay more attention to Egypt, to his own people.''
''He is simple, and honest,'' said another.
''He won't tolerate corruption.''
''And he will go back to the Arabs. . . . Sure, there will be peace with Israel. A correct peace. What's the use of another war? But he will get back the rest of the Sinai next year, and then he'll make up with the Saudis, too.''
''The Americans give us money. But they always look at the accounts. The Arabs don't even bother.
''The Saudis have oil. . . . What do we have? Nile water?''
''The Americans support Mubarak,'' said the youngest of the men. ''That is good. But they haven't been able to trip him up like they did Sadat. They can't figure him out yet.''
A police jeep clanked into the alleyway. The men fell quiet as it passed. Arms waved and fingers pointed to guide it among the encroaching tables.
''We could get arrested, talking to a journalist like this,'' joked one of the men as the jeep turned up a side street.
''Yeah,'' another rebounded, chuckling. ''But nowadays, he could get arrested , too.'' He turned more serious: ''Sadat, you know, always used to talk about democracy. He tried to treat everyone the same, extremists or normal people. And look where it got him.''
''Those guys who killed him, they wanted to bring a Khomeini here. We can't allow that. Mubarak is right to make all these arrests. We know some of the extremists are still running around.''
''He has to arrest people even to keep men like us from fighting,'' ventured an older man. ''Look at what happened in Sharabia'' (a similar quarter nearby, where Muslims and Christians battled shortly before Sadat's murder).
''Especially now, one of us might say something that someone else doesn't like, and just like that, we'd be at each other.
''But now, we'd all get arrested. And that is how it should be.''
Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, weeks after taking over from the slain Anwar Sadat, is on a political honeymoon. He has also - partly because of, and partly in spite of, himself - raised a lot of expectations. His daunting challenge now, particularly on the chaotic economic front, is to fulfill them.
This, at the very least, will not be easy.
So far Mr. Mubarak is getting high marks from just abouteveryone, whether among Egyptians or Cairo's foreign diplomatic and business community. Even one determinedly cynical Egyptian intellectual gushed after a Mubarak state-of-the-nation address to parliament Nov. 8: ''It's been many years since Egypt has heard words like these . . . straightforward, talking to the needs of the people.''
The new President has moved quickly to assure a stable transition of power. He has created the impression of new direction, new possibilities in his country. Although at pains to avoid the grandiose promises of his predecessor - ''I will never make a pledge I cannot fulfill,'' he told parliament - he has cultivated a can-do image. There will be less talk, the implication is, but more action.