February 03, 2011
GSTAAD—Speaking in the House of Commons in 1940, Leo Amery rebuked Neville Chamberlain and his colleagues with the Oliver Cromwell quote, “In the name of God, go.” This was after the fall of France with England on the brink. Those telling Mubarak to go are on the street, not in parliament, which doesn’t exist in the way we know it.
I was in Damascus back in 1970 when Hearst correspondent John Harris burst into my room and announced Nasser’s death from a heart attack. We drove to the airport, got into a prop Electra compliments of the Syrian regime, and landed in Cairo in a jiffy. That’s when Harris put on a Groucho Marx mask and walked up to passport control, where he was waved through. I thought I was seeing things, but I write the absolute truth. Harris had been kicked out of Egypt the previous day and had bought a mask in Damascus of his favorite comedian in case he was ordered back to Egypt. Since the plane was full of hacks, Harris was scolded that he was being childish and counterproductive. One terrible bore whose name I simply don’t remember warned that the bunch of us might be refused entry because of Harris’s prank. “That’s how much you know,” said Harris once past Customs.
Nasser was no Mubarak. A great majority of Egyptians saw him as godlike despite the fact he had lost two wars against Israel. His sudden death paralyzed society to where even a man wearing a Groucho Marx mask could be waved through. Harris and I stayed friends but have lost touch. We covered the Yom Kippur War and the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974—it was Harris who went down to the hotel lobby at 6 a.m. in Nicosia and told a couple of sleeping Cypriot soldiers that those brown parachutes floating down were Turkish troops, but no one paid him much attention until the bang-bang started. But back to Egypt.
In central Cairo, we encountered a scene out of Dante. There were millions of people running around like crazy, weeping, beating themselves, and exhorting everyone to pray and cry for Nasser. I was scared because I hate crowds and had seen a couple lynchings as a boy during the Greek civil war. Harris, always in the center of things, was almost killed by some Egyptian who had thrown himself off a roof. “Don’t worry,” he told me when I lamented about missing the photo of a lifetime. “There will be hundreds more.” And there were. I remember thinking how ridiculous it would look were I to be killed by a flying Egyptian.