CAIRO — THE predawn hours here yesterday reverberated with the sound of exiled Kuwaitis celebrating the launch of the United States-led airstrike against Iraq. In the heart of the Egyptian capital, young exiles drove through the streets, honking their car horns and waving Kuwaiti flags. The sentiment among ordinary Egyptians was not much different, though it was expressed more quietly. ``Saddam is finished,'' said Salah, a young grocer. ``Thanks be to God.''
There was no official reaction to the start of the war by midday yesterday. Foreign Ministry spokesmen referred reporters and diplomats to the national radio and television stations.
Cairo has been home to more than 25,000 Kuwaitis since the Aug. 2 invasion of their nation. The city also has served as an important base for resistance efforts, including publication of the Kuwaiti daily newspaper, Al Anba, and regular radio broadcasts over Radio Cairo.
``There's been a lot of jubilation around here,'' said Kuwait University Vice-Rector Rasha al-Sabah early yesterday, adding, ``But my sense of joy, after five and a half months of nightmare, is tempered by a feeling of anxiety about the fate of my countrymen and women, the old and the young children back home.''
Dr. Sabah referred to the many thousands of Kuwaitis believed held by the Iraqi Army in internment camps and as human shields at military installations inside Iraq.
``Once those places have been bombed, we don't know what will have happened to the people there,'' she said.
She also said that Kuwaitis in exile were ``very proud'' to learn that Kuwait Air Force planes had been used in the first wave of bombing against Iraqi positions.
Like the exiled Kuwaitis, the Egyptian public will be waiting anxiously for news of the safety of relatives and friends still in Iraq and Kuwait.
Throughout the morning Egyptians were tuned to Cable News Network transmissions and local radio and television for updates on the Gulf situation.
Earlier this week the government showed a heightened, albeit belated concern over the fate of more than 1 million Egyptians still living in Iraq. Tens of thousands more are believed stranded in Kuwait. Official committees have been directed to plan for their evacuation.
But there is little optimism that Egypt could in fact provide its nationals with the means to flee what is soon expected to become a major theater of war. Egypt's Red Sea ports, described as overwhelmed, have received more than 25,000 returning Egyptians in the past month alone.
Egypt has been at the forefront of Arab support for the US-initiated military buildup. Up to 30,000 Egyptian troops are in Saudi Arabia as part of operation Desert Storm. The Egyptian force, including two divisions and more than 400 tanks, is expected to be used inside Kuwait once the Western forces establish some control over the country.
There was no visible change in security precautions here, though the Egyptian government has said it is on high alert for terrorism attempts. In recent months official sources have reported the arrest of dozens of suspected terrorist agents, including Iraqis and Palestinians.