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History Lessons

In the Middle East, millions of young people are clueless about their region's true history.

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At the turn of the last century, Harvard professor George Santayana observed: "Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them." Yet as the prospect of war with Iraq draws closer, we see fresh efforts to hijack history or, even worse, to dismiss its value.

Some of this qualifies as propagandistic claptrap. In 1991, the junkyard of Iraqi tanks left smoldering in the desert put the lie to Saddam Hussein's current assertion that his army withdrew in good order to end Gulf War I.

But as Gulf War II looms, millions of young people remain without a clue as to what went before. Nowhere is the problem more acute than in the volatile arc that stretches from Morocco to Indonesia, an area where half the people are under 20 years of age.

We know about the U.N. Security Council debate over Saddam's failure to comply with the disarmament deal his generals signed in 1991 to secure a truce. But we hear less about the U.N.'s success in eradicating chronic disease in such Third World places as Egypt, the Sudan, Yemen, and Gaza. Those efforts, combined with high fertility rates, have spawned a human surge that has changed the dynamics of the region.

Egypt is a case in point. From 1250 onward, it's been dependent, politically or economically, on the Mamluks, the Ottoman Turks, the French, the British, the Soviets, and now the Americans. Ever since Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel, the nation has steadily received about $2 billion a year in U.S. aid.

Shortly before he was murdered in 1981, Sadat told me that "Egypt remained the heart and soul of the Arab world, despite the hatred of our Arab brothers for what we have done," which he viewed as a temporary phenomenon. Two decades later, Egyptian schoolchildren learn little about the circumstances of Sadat's death and nothing about his approach to the Jewish state.

A squad of soldiers gunned down Sadat during a military parade that marked the 1973 assault on Israeli lines across the Suez Canal. Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt's vice president and its president ever since, was seated to his immediate right. He escaped unscathed.

Today, a Star of David flies from the window of the high-rise in downtown Cairo that houses the Israeli Embassy. El Al schedules two flights a week between Cairo and Tel Aviv. (While it's less than a half-hour hop, you need to check in at least three hours before the departure time.)

But many young Cairenes -- the "Arab street" whose mood U.S. analysts eagerly seek to fathom -- find themselves in quite a different place.

Mubarak recently sanctioned an anti-war rally that drew huge throngs. Pop-singer Shaaban Abdel-Rehim's theme song, "Ana Bakrah Israel" ("I Hate Israel") ranks as Egypt's best-selling single, while Shaaban's popularity has spread across the Arab world.

The song also includes such politically correct lines as "I love Hosni Mubarak because of his broad mind." But Shaaban gives away the game with his second refrain: "I hate Israel, I don't even care if you arrest me, I'm not afraid." It's not hard to fathom what else you might write or sing in Cairo that could truly get you tossed in the clink.

Egyptian friends say that Shaaban reflects the pulse of "Arab street," especially among the young. I'm also told that another one of his popular songs "Habatal el-sagayaer" ("I'll Quit Smoking") has made more of an impact on smokers than the government's extensive anti-smoking drives.

Exhibiting his strong survival instincts, Mubarak encourages Shaaban even as he tells U.S. presidents what they want to hear. ("You have to treat [Yasser] Arafat like a spoiled child," he told me in his presidential office a few years ago.)

In July 1990, when Saddam began massing his tanks on the Kuwaiti border, the first President Bush received a CIA briefing that foresaw a high risk of an invasion. At that point, there was time enough to land a U.S. "trip-wire" force at the airport, which might have dissuaded the Iraqis from invading.

Bush called Mubarak and asked him to get involved. Mubarak thereupon called Saddam and subsequently relayed to Bush what Saddam had told him in the strictest confidence: "Not to worry -- it's all a bluff." Such are the ironic uses of history.

Andy Glass is managing editor of The Hill, a weekly Washington-based newspaper that covers Congress. Previously, he served for 28 years as a reporter, bureau chief, and senior correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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