CAIRO -- When it finally took place last week, the long-awaited anti-war demonstration at Cairo University turned out to be a 15-minute affair with about 30 well-groomed students chanting, "We will not fight. We will not die," as they marched through a sea of unperturbed classmates.
Despite the first faint signs of public discontent, Egypt appears to remain firmly in the allied coalition against Iraq. There is some anguish and a growing sense of unease over the allied bombing campaign against Iraq -- exacerbated this past week by the killing of scores of civilians in a Baghdad building. But there is little of the public turmoil that has plagued many other Arab countries since war broke out.
Egyptians appear far more concerned with their own country -- its struggling economy, its place in the Arab world -- than with the plight of either Iraq or Kuwait. One thing that might cause a dramatic shift, many analysts believe, would be a bloody land battle in which many soldiers from Egypt's 35,000-man contingent in the allied coalition came home in body bags.
"The intelligentsia is worried -- some are very unhappy to see the old Western colonial powers destroy an Arab state, even one led by a man like Saddam Hussein," said Mohammed Sayid Ahmed, a prominent newspaper columnist who is highly critical of the war. "But in the Egyptian street, there is nothing. Very few people are concerned for Iraq."
Many Egyptians blame the Iraqi president for the war. Some hold a personal grudge against Iraq because they or their relatives felt cheated out of paychecks or savings earned working in Iraq or Kuwait before the Aug. 2 Iraqi invasion. And while some approve of Iraq's missile attacks on Israel and admire the country's capacity so far to withstand the allied onslaught, few seem inclined to regard Saddam as a champion.
The Egyptian political opposition is itself deeply divided over which is the greater of perceived evils: Iraqi aggression against a brother Arab state or Western imperialism. So too is the country's powerful Islamic movement.
All of which leaves President Hosni Mubarak's government with a relatively free hand, although one it has played with Mubarak's customary sense of caution.
The Egyptian leader waited two weeks after the war began to make his first public statement on the fighting. He and his aides have taken pains to insist publicly that allied war aims are confined to the liberation of Kuwait, that Egyptian troops are deployed under Arab League auspices and that Egypt has no desire to overthrow Saddam -- even though many officials say they are delighted to see the Iraqi army being destroyed.
But the government is keeping a close eye on anti-war activists and pro-Iraq groups here. According to the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, more than a dozen doctors, students, journalists and politicians have been rounded up and held without charge since war broke out Jan. 17.
Among the detainees are three of the organization's members, including Magdi Hussein, deputy editor of Ash Shaab, a fiery opposition weekly that has been trying, without much visible success, to incite anti-American feeling here.
They join an estimated 1,500 people rounded up after last October's assassination of Rifaat Mahgoub, speaker of the People's Assembly, and at least 17 foreigners accused of plotting terrorist attacks in support of Iraq.
Universities were kept closed for two extra weeks after the winter holiday for fear of student demonstrations. Such protests remain banned under emergency laws imposed after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat nearly 10 years ago.
One that was attempted two weeks ago by about 60 students was broken up by riot police, who outnumbered the demonstrators by at least 10 to 1.
"A governor who says he is supported by his people must not be frightened by them," said Mohammed Maamoun Hodaiby, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, the main Islamic opposition group, which is divided over the conflict.
Wary of public reaction, state-controlled newspapers played down news of last week's civilian deaths in Baghdad and emphasized U.S. claims that the building hit in the bombing also served as an Iraqi command center.
Opposition groups were far more vocal -- the leftist Unionist Progressive Party condemned the bombing as a "Hitler-like massacre" -- but pointedly limited their criticism to the United States, avoiding a direct attack on the government here.
While regretting the deaths, Mubarak himself was unapologetic for the raid. "I heard they have put tanks in schools," he told reporters, referring to the Iraqis. "They are using Iraqi citizens as human shields."
Egyptian officials say they would like the war to end as quickly as possible to stave off any rise in popular dissent. But they insist they are prepared to withstand public pressure.
"Obviously the more destruction that takes place in Iraq, the more upset people in the streets will be," said Osama Baz, a senior presidential adviser. "This is only natural. But nobody can question the judgment of the military people who are in charge."
For Egypt, the Persian Gulf War is a time of opportunity as well as danger. Ever since the heady days of presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Sadat, Egypt, by far the largest and most pivotal of Arab states, has struggled to find its proper role in this volatile region.
Egypt is one of the Middle East's most stable states, yet also one of its poorest, with a per capita income of only $700 per year. It struggles with what Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami calls the constant "imbalance between her material resources and her psychological esteem of herself."
The gulf conflict has reawakened some of Egypt's dreams of Arab leadership, particularly considering Egypt's large contribution of manpower to the allied coalition. While Western troops could quickly return home after the war ends, Egyptian officials have already agreed to keep ground forces in the gulf to help enforce regional security arrangements.
The Egyptians have a major stake in the postwar regional order. They plan to provide the manpower -- both troops and workers -- to guard and rebuild devastated Kuwait and perhaps even Iraq. In return, they expect new commitments of financial aid from the gulf states and a recognition of Egypt's ascendant role in the region.
"This is our resurgence," said presidential press secretary Mohamed Abdul Moneim. "In reshaping the Middle East, Egypt is indispensable."
Saddam, who lived in Cairo for four years during the Nasser period, apparently recognized that Egypt could be pivotal in helping him achieve his own goals. After the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Saddam began openly courting Egyptian intellectuals and politicians.
A dozen newspaper editors received new Mercedes-Benz cars, according to Makram Mohammed Ahmed, editor of Massawar, a pro-government news weekly. "Every week we were receiving seven invitations to conferences in Baghdad," he said.
Mubarak has said Saddam offered him $50 million in cash, money the Iraqis said was to buy wheat during a bread shortage but that Mubarak interpreted as a personal bribe. And shortly after the Kuwait invasion, Yemeni President Ali Abdallah Salih, visiting Cairo, suggested to Mubarak that Saddam would cancel Egypt's $20 billion debt to Kuwait in return for acquiescence to the Iraqi action.
A leader who has argued that public corruption is the cancer of the Arab world, Mubarak said he rejected the offers and required the editors to pay customs duties of 100 percent on the gift cars and to register them as newspaper rather than personal property.
"They thought they could buy us," said Abdul Moneim. "Mubarak was amazed -- and very angry."
But while wooing the elite, Saddam seemed to have neglected the Egyptian masses. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptian expatriate workers were evicted from jobs in Iraq and Kuwait, and returned to Egypt penniless but full of stories of Iraqi brutality.
But some critics believe Mubarak has overstepped by placing Egypt so squarely on the side of the allied coalition. Some are also convinced that Egypt's hopes to lead a new and more equitable Arab order will be smashed by Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states, which have traditionally sought to limit Egyptian power.
But for now, it appears that Mubarak has the support of his people.
"With every week that goes by, Egyptians become a bit more sympathetic toward Iraq," said Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a sociologist at the American University in Cairo. "There's even some grudging admiration for Saddam Hussein in some quarters. But Saddam has misread us. Unless things go badly wrong, the bulk of Egyptian public opinion will continue to back its president."