The first thing you need for an old-fashioned Fourth of July flag burning is an American flag, which isn't easy to come by in a land where there's no love of America, no surplus of American flags and occasional flag burnings. Cotton is king here in Egypt, where a fine, breathable, thick-weave cotton shirt costs only 20 bucks or so. But perhaps out of respect for the nation's famous luxury export, when they torch flags, they use some kind of nylon blend, which ignites quickly and burns with a thick, acrid smoke. It also leaves a gummy ash on the sidewalk, which is stomped and spread into a wide, black blotch in the last act of this little ritual.
The most curious thing about an American flag burning, for an American, is the embarrassingly warm welcome you get here. Yesterday, in front of the Lawyer's Syndicate building in Cairo, a small crowd, including men in suits and teenagers, burned both the U.S. and Israeli flags and chanted slogans condemning both countries. They may be yelling "America take your army back tomorrow" and "Arabs will stomp America," but if you answer the friendly query "Where are you from?" honestly (rather than saying Canada, which is recommended), they are happy to strike up a conversation. For instance:
"I think all Arabs, when they see him in court, forget what he has done," says protester Abdelgwad Ahmad, of Saddam Hussein. It's widely thought that the former Iraqi president has been drugged while in American captivity, that he has damning secrets about U.S. collusion with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, and that, were his brain not addled with chemicals, he would reveal these secrets. But he'll be killed anyway before the good stuff gets out.
Hussein is still a figure of disgust and contempt, but in captivity he has taken on the pathetic aura of a fallen king -- from Richard III to Richard II in the blink of an eye.
Yesterday's Fourth of July protest would have been a small affair but for the presence of the police, who swarmed the streets and sidewalks around the building. Dark green security trucks, with small square windows, disgorged a small army of young men. They formed ranks four to eight deep, and made a box that moved in threateningly from three sides. Plainclothes officers videotaped the proceedings from above. But the crowd control wasn't all heavy-handed. When a small, grubby child, with grimy pants five sizes too big (held up with rope) planted himself front and center, a police officer tapped him gently on the shoulder. They smiled at each other, the boy moved off and a photographer took his place.
The authorities, who are jittery as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak recovers from back surgery, are not so warmly disposed to protesters. And to the surprise of some locals, this crowd broke an unwritten rule and directed its ire at the United States, Israel, feckless Arab leaders and Mubarak. "If we have freedom, we say no to Mubarak," is a rough paraphrase of one of the Arabic chants.
Mubarak is an old man and he has ruled this country for more than 20 years. If anyone likes him, they're not speaking up. It's best not to criticize him publicly, so criticism is limited to the home, taxicabs and other public conveyances, cafes, restaurants, street corners, gardens, queues, elevators and building lobbies. Residents of this city complain about him, the miserable economy, all manner of daily frustrations and the restive state of social affairs in this vast, bustling, crowded capital, rather like New Yorkers used to complain about crime and real estate prices in the 1980s. It's reflexive discontent, but unlike malaise in the Big Apple, there's an angry edge to it here.
Anti-Americanism has a reflexive formula to it as well -- which is not to say it's irrational or unjustified from the local perspective. One of its most predictable patterns is a distinction between hating American policy (and the prosecutor of those policies, President Bush) and hating Americans. You hear this so often, you wonder if it's a cliche or truth.
But, in fact, everyone is welcome (except perhaps the plainclothes surveillance guys) at this American flag burning. The protesters came with several flags, making a rug with some of them and burning two others. Move in close to get a good feel for the moment and you realize that you're walking on the American flag on the Fourth of July, a queer feeling, doubly so when you realize that the photographer photographing you photographing the flag burning now has an image of you walking on Old Glory.
The chanting takes up about three-quarters of the time. A bullhorn is passed around and the chants take on a rhythmic eight-count, with the last beat silent. Both men and women chant, sometimes facing toward the police and sometimes to a hand-painted banner hung on the syndicate building. The banner is mostly a list of moments in U.S. military history that have not earned us universal world admiration (Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Korea, Somalia, Lebanon, Libya, Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq, Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, among others) with the following kicker: "This is a witness of American Civilization."
In a moment the chanting is all over. The cigarette lighters come out and the flags take flame. Burning molten nylon, plus testosterone, spells potential trouble for a half a minute as the flags, in flaming tatters, are waved around. "There'll be tears before bedtime," Mother used to say, warning us kids when we played with fireworks on the Fourth of July. But fortunately, no one gets so much as a scratch.
There is, in fact, genuine rage underneath all this. One local theory, again heard so often it seems a cliche, is that these highly contained, highly ritualized, highly scrutinized protests are a safety valve. Just blowing off steam. Perhaps it's true. As the sun begins to set, invisible through the smog and soot of a hot, dusty city, people wander off in apparently good spirits.
And it's hard not to feel, as an American, both chastened and impressed that somebody remembered. If we were to decide to burn an Egyptian flag on an Egyptian holiday, would anyone have a clue what day to pick? We never so much as bother to send a card, yet the world knows our holidays and marks them. That says a lot about life as the last superpower.