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Their Eyes on Iraq, Egyptian Villagers Mourn Loss of Old World Order

September 14, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

MIT YAEESH, Egypt — With night approaching, the farmers squatted against their barns in the shade of grape arbors, drinking black tea and complaining about the occupation of Iraq.

They're hundreds of miles from Baghdad, but the people of this tiny village have tracked every wrinkle of the war in Iraq with keen attention. And as their water buffaloes gnawed on corn husks and the air flickered with dragonflies, their talk turned yet again to politics.

How would the scandal over weapons expert David Kelly's suicide play out in Britain, one of them wondered. Might it tarnish Prime Minister Tony Blair, and could George W. Bush face a similar political threat?

"Now, really, I want to know -- are the sons of Saddam Hussein really dead? We hear different stories, so what's the truth?" 18-year-old farmer Sadik Mohammed pressed an American. "We didn't expect this occupation. So what's the real reason? Where's Saddam Hussein? Where are the weapons? What's going on?"

It's a languid summer on the ancient farmlands of the Nile Delta. The mangoes are ripe in the grove near the old cemetery. The heat of day is thick and soft as butter in the fields. On the banks of the canal, men loiter with fishing poles, indifferent to the trash and sewage afloat in the green waters.

The Times first visited Mit Yaeesh in February, during the long months of anxiety that led up to the invasion. Then, the villagers dreaded an attack on Iraq, and fretted especially about the economic damage it might unleash. Now the panic is gone, and the village is calmer, because a threat that was looming has at least taken form. But helplessness and anger are deeper than ever, for the villagers sense that their fears have come true. These impoverished families dread what may come next in what many interpret as the loss of their old world order.

Hunched in the hot shadows of his family's sitting room and picking his words carefully, Mohammed Sezziq, a recent engineering school graduate, said it was not the American people or culture he deplored, but the U.S. government.

His mother nodded in agreement. "They're a bunch of fundamentalists," his father called from across the sitting room.

In this poor, proud land, as in much of the Arab world, the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq have played out as a personal affront. In Mit Yaeesh, a primitive farming village less than two hours by car from Cairo, the outrage and bewilderment are palpable. Anti-American anger has swelled. The people see Arabs fighting occupation on two fronts: Iraq and the Palestinian territories. There is more talk of pan-Arab nationalism.

"There is anger, genuine anger, and hatred for the Americans and the British," said Ahmed Lachine, head of the village. "Even in private gatherings, even in weddings, we talk only about the war. It is a very bad feeling."

Before the invasion, the farmers predicted that war would deepen their poverty and raise prices. Indeed, since the bombs began falling in Iraq in late March, costs have swelled throughout Egypt. The price of fertilizer and farming supplies has more than doubled since February; foodstuffs also are more expensive. Economists say the price hikes have more to do with the Egyptian government's decision to float the pound than with the war, but in Mit Yaeesh the events are mingled in popular interpretation.

"From the first day of the war, the prices have gone up and up some more," farmer Alaa Himdan said. "Rice, flour, even the cost of gold has gone up."

On a dusky August evening in Mit Yaeesh, the old women sat on stone stoops to cool themselves. With a glass of sweet boiled milk, Lachine rested from a day in the fields, and complained about the Americans. They're like the Roman Empire, he said angrily, conquering land from Afghanistan to Iraq.

"The Americans know what they're doing," he said. "And we know what they want -- they want the entire world to follow their rules and obey them."

Villager after villager spoke the same phrase: The United States wants to "redraw the map of the Middle East," they said. They believe Americans want to build an empire, protect Israel and win oil. It is hard to find a single villager who believes anything else, even though Saddam Hussein is reviled here.

"Everybody is angry," said Magda Lachine, the mother of two grown children and an administrator at one of the village schools. "Everybody is saying it's an invasion, and the country is falling to pieces. People are sad and upset, like there's this nightmare, and for what?"

America has long been unpopular around here, particularly because of its political and financial support for Israel, a nation many of the men here were sent to fight in the 1960s and 1970s. But when the United States bombed Baghdad, fear and resentment found a new vessel. "It's solidified, it's taken form," Ahmed Lachine, the village chief, said.

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