Pick up a phone and it doesn't work. Switch on the television to learn of a futile trip by an Egyptian diplomat in search of peace. Drive a car through the swarming streets -- a million more bodies every year to feed, to house, to school.
In Egypt, nothing seems to be going as it should. Not in politics: The momentum for peace is stalled, if not in retreat. Not in everyday life: Piles of rubble I first saw in the streets a decade ago have not yet been cleaned up, and the traffic jams and pollution are worse.
By comparison, midtown Manhattan seems tranquil, even lovely. An evening's stroll in Cairo is an assault on the senses and a risk to life: Potholes in the sidewalks, drivers who dismiss red lights and roar at you in the crosswalks, the relentless din of horns, horns, horns.
The people, notwithstanding, are charming. Even in steaming August, they nod politely as they brush against me in the midday rush. They do their best to help me find my way, though they may not understand a word I say. They know, I am sure, that I am staying in an air-conditioned hotel, while they go home to airless, overcrowded apartments, where the water or electricity may be cut off half the time. I would guess there is no limit to their tolerance, but I cannot be sure.
Sadat promised them they would have peace by now and, with it, prosperity. He said the Camp David treaty was only the opening step to end war between Israel and the Arabs, and out of the new atmosphere prosperity would inevitably emerge. Mubarak, true to Sadat, has kept Egypt out of war with Israel, but no one here would say Egypt has peace, much less prosperity.
I asked a hundred people I met during my visit whether they were sorry about the peace. Except for a few, they said they were not. Sadat was right to try to put an end to war, they said. They were sorry only that he had failed.
The feeling I detected toward the Israelis was not anger. It seemed to lie in another domain, more like exasperation and bewilderment. What do the Israelis want? they asked me, as if I had an answer. Why are the Israelis behaving as they do?
Their expressions seemed to say that they had extended to the Israelis the traditional courtesies of their culture, the hospitality of the home or the dinner table, the gestures of warm welcome, and were repaid with the back of the hand. They do not understand the Israeli reply. They are affronted, and they believe they deserve better.
I sat around a table one day in a seedy old cafe in Alexandria with a group of white- haired Egyptian intellectuals -- writers, professors, a senior journalist, a retired judge. Like most who have the means, they flee in summer from Cairo to the sea. For diversion, they meet in the cafe each morning to discuss philosophy or literature or the affairs of the day.
They graciously allowed me to place my questions on the agenda: Why did the egyptian people, the masses who exploded with grief on the death of Nasser, seem to mourn Sadat so little? I sought by the question to elicit from them, at least indirectly, some insight into the popular reaction to Sadat's peace campaign.
I said, in explaining myself, that I failed to understand the esteem in which Nasser continued to be held in Egypt, even by many intellectuals. Was he not the man, I asked, who led Egypt to the monumental military defeat of 1967, turned the country into a satellite of the Soviet Union, put thousands into prisons and concentration camps, created a bureaucracy that stifled initia-tive and stagnated the economy?
I had no need to add that Nasser, until his death in 1970, also stood firmly in the public mind against all compromise with Israel, or that Sadat, on becoming president, set out rather conspicuously to undo much of the damamge Nasser had left behind.
My intellectual friends agreed that my inquiry reached to the heart of Egypt today. They approached the answer cautiously at first, though I believe with candor, acknowledging the complexity of the issue. They agreed that Nasser was a master of Egypt's symbols, and that a people is influenced as much by symbols as by reality.
Whatever Nasser's faults, they said, he is remembered as the man who freed Egypt from the yoke of a decadent monarchy, who finally drove the English out of the country, who exalted Egypt's destiny as leader of the Arab world, who restored a sense of pride and power and grandeur to the Egyptian people. They also said he was admired as a man of personal austerity, strength and integrity.
Sadat, in contrast, was a man whose manipulation of symbols left Egyptians in confusion, whose character and policies tended to such subtlety, if not to contradiction, that the symbols blurred.
Sadat made much of his humble, peasant origins while wearing ostentatious uniforms and living in unconcealed luxury. He proclaimed a deep dedication to Islam but communicated a non-Islamic worldliness. He talked of liberty but suppressed dissent. Many Egyptians, even in applauding his move away from Nasser's personal rule, were uncomfortable with the indirectness -- hypocrisy, many called it -- of his personal style.
In their apparent ambiguity, Sadat's policies were even harder for most Egyptians to grasp. He gave Israel a beating on the battlefield, while calling for Egypt's abandonment of its deeply engrained hostility to a Jewish state. He reestablished Arab sovereignty over the Sinai, while surrendering Egypt's leadership of the Arabs. He drove out the Soviets to regain Egypt's freedom of action in the Middle East, while he embraced the Americans with the declaration that Egypt's foreign policy would henceforth depend on the United States.
Whatever the confusion created by these policies, my friends said, the popular responseeto Sadat's economic program was unanimous: It was considered a catastrophe. In liberalizing the economy from Nasser's socialist strictures, Sadat unleashed a raging inflation, particularly in food. For the poor, a deteriorating diet was the chief legacy of Sadat's rule.
It was this liberalization, by attracting Western investment, that was to bring prosperity. But Sadat was unable to master Egypt's intractable social problems -- exploding population, deteriorating infrastructure, suffocating bureaucracy -- and the investors did not come.
What came instead was rampant consumerism by a new class of privileged Egyptians. Nasser was remembered for suppressing privilege. Sadat was remembered for restoring it, and with the widespread conspicuous consumption came the popular feeling that the government was riddled with corruption. Some of this feeling focused on the family of Sadat himself.
After we had talked for an hour or so, I said to my friends I was surprised that no mention had been made of Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977 and the ensuing Camp David treaty. They replied with some force that Sadat's peace program was not at all at the root of his fall from public favor.
But they said it was probably a factor in his assassination last october. Sadat, in his search for allies to reverse Nasser's drift toward the communists, made the mistake of unleashing Egypt's Moslem fundamentalists. No doubt they helped him in suppressing communism, my friends noted, but once unleashed the fundamentalists could not be contained.
The fundamentalists demanded that ties be cut to the "satanic" West, which was precisely the opposite of what Sadat proposed to do. They called for an Islamic state, on the Khomeini model, which was foreign to Sadat's notion of Islam. They were outraged by the peace with Israel, which was probably the last straw in what they saw as Sadat's heresy.
As Western-oriented intellectuals, the men with whom I sat in the cafe acknowledged that the Egypt they envisage is democratic and secular. They admitted that Sadat lost them, too, by encouraging the Moslem extremists. The mistake cost him his life, but, more important, they added with some dismay, it may in the long run determine the shape and course of Egyptian society.
Butros Butros-Ghali received me in quite a different atmosphere from seaside Alexandria. It was in the old mansion on the east bank of the Nile that has served as the Egyptian foreign ministry for as long as I have been coming here. The walls are dingy and the crystal chandeliers apparently have not been dusted since the British left. Like Cairo itself, the mansion shows signs of having once been beautiful.
Butros-Ghali, minister of state for foreign affairs, is the grandson of one of Egypt's first prime ministers. The family is christian, which was the reason, according to many Egyptians, the grandfather was assassinated by Moslem extremists. When Sadat went to Jerusalem, Butros-Ghali was, by the same reasoning, charged by the extremists with being the "grey eminence" behind the sell-out to the foreigners.
Butros-Ghali shares the apprehension of my Alexandria friends over looming fundamentalism. But he held the Israelis more directly to blame than they did for the events that led to Sadat's death at fundamentalist hands.
"I think the key incident was the Israeli bombing of the reactor in Baghdad last summer, a few days after Sadat visited Begin in Israel," Butros-Ghali said. "Sadat came out of this looking as if he had been used, which humiliated Egyptian public opinion very much, and it encouraged the fundamentalists to think they had popular support in a move against him. It can't be proven but I think there is a direct linkage between the bombing and the assassination."
Butros-Ghali said that Sadat hung on to a conviction that the peace process would succeed long after others, including himself, had given up. "Sadat told me I understood nothing, that I was a little kid, when I warned him that Begin had no intention of dealing forthrightly on the Palestinians," Butros-Ghali said. Sadat finally faced up to the prospect of failure, he said, when Begin refused any concessions at the Aswan summit of January 1980 and, one by one, replaced the peace treaty supporters in his cabinet with men who had voted against it.
The peace process, Butros-Ghali said to me, is again at "square one." I asked him what he meant since, despite the war in Lebanon, Egypt had -- thanks to Camp David -- received back the Sinai and was at least still on speaking terms with Israel. He replied that they are at "square one" because the Egyptian people really believeed the peace process would continue until the problems of the Middle East were resolved, and now they have neither the will nor the hope to go on.
In these days of fading dreams, when Egyptians do not know quite where to turn for a vision of what is in store, Hosni Mubarak, successor to Sadat, has been a source of reassurance. He is not a crowd-pleaser like Nasser or a manipulator like Sadat. He is practical, self-effacing and apparently quite honest. He has promised to keep Egypt's Camp David commitments, and he has done so conscientiously. He has also been realistic enough to promise very little else.
But many Egyptians to whom I spoke are wondering whether these qualities are enough. From my own experience, I am reminded of Gerald Ford, who had the solid presence that America needed to restore its self-confidence after Watergate. But that is all he had.
Mubarak possesses no political base of his own, and, though he has made much of stamping out the corruption of the last regime, he has had to rely heavily on many of the very people who damaged the public image of Sadat. Egyptians, after nearly a year of Mubarak, have started to ask when the real changes will begin.
There is also said to be grumbling in the army, the institution most crucial to Egyptiannsocial stability. The grumbling is reportedly not over the peace with Israel but over the unfairness of the peace treaty, which has somehow left the Israeli army free to rampage where it chooses while Egyptian ftake cosorces are required to remain quietly at home.
What I have heard repeatedly expressed is that Mubarak has the spirit of a man who has worked his way up through the ranks of the armed forces, that at heart he is a good soldier, that he is a competent bureaucrat who should be somebody's chief-of-staff.
From a historical perspective, it might be said that if Nasser and Sadat were the Lenin and Stalin of the Egyptian revolution, then Mubarak is the Brezhnev. After the generation of revolution-makers, he seems to be of the generation of consolidators.
No doubt consolidators are necessary at a certain stage of a revolution, and the Egytian revolution is now 30 years old. But Egypt, whatever the changes the revolution brought, remains beset with problems the revolution never touched. The country is tempted by the prospect of calm after so many years of turbulence. But I detect a worry that if Egypt consolidates now, these problems will never be touched at all.