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 “Witness to History”


The very nature of their calling — long stretches of service abroad — makes it likely that members of the U.S. Foreign Service sooner or later witness history being made, and over a long career, probably more than once. Especially in the twentieth century, given the rapid pace of events and their global spread, the opportunities have abounded for all nations’ overseas contingents of diplomatic and consular representatives to find themselves present at a coronation or inauguration, a coup d’état, the outbreak of a war, an important peace initiative, an assassination, a crucial election or legislative vote, a significant signing ceremony, the kidnapping of an ambassador, the collapse of a major nation.

The list could be extended at length. Indeed, personnel of the Foreign Service of recent decades with any substantial number of years abroad must have had difficulty not being a witness to or participant in a happening that merited at least a footnote to the historical record.

Below I offer a recountal of one of my several experiences along those lines drawn from twenty-four years in the Foreign Service — a footnote in this case to the modern history of Egypt.

And I extend an invitation to all readers of this journal to send in the story of a memorable encounter with history that they might have had. We will present those of the most general interest in the “pages” of forthcoming issues, inaugurating a
newAmerican Diplomacy feature called

“Witness to History.”  


Now for mine. At the beginning of 1977 I had been assigned to the U.S. Embassy at Cairo as an economic reporting officer for a year and a half. My professional interest shows up in this private letter from my files, untouched by human hands since its composition more than twenty years ago, repeated here exactly as mailed. The events described refer to the bloody January “Bread Riots” in Egypt, centered in Cairo, serious disturbances that came almost exactly twenty-five years after the mob violence that forced King Farouk into exile. (The Egyptians mount large-scale riots only at intervals of twenty-five years, but they make up for their restraint as to frequency with signal ferocity.) Writing from the Embassy, here’s what I had to say to the folks back home while the events were fresh on my mind:


Cairo, January 27, 1977

Dear Folks,

Well, we certainly had a hot time in the old town for a while there. Tear gas wafting into my office, the mobs whooping and hollering (there’s a peculiar, savage roar associated with street riots), glass strewn in the streets for block after block, dozens dead, hundreds wounded and millions in damage. It was touch and go until the army was called in and a curfew imposed. Gradually and tentatively calm returned to this city of eight million souls, many of whom were up in arms – literally – for a wild, violent period of several days.

Hoooweee! Don’t that paragraph read good! Just like the newspapers, or the beginning of an adventure story. And just like the press, this particular little account above exaggerates the hell out of what really was the situation as far as far as any one observer could see or know — even though every single line of my first paragraph is accurate. Tear gas did get into my office at the Embassy (a rowdy group of demonstrators in the street out front was run off by the police with the use of tear gas grenades – the only mob I actually saw), dozens were killed (the Egyptian govt admits to three dozen, others say as many as 200 or more – no one knows for sure) and it was touch and go until the army was called in from the desert (I myself counted 50 trucks loaded with troops arriving the afternoon of the 18th, the second day of the troubles). Nonetheless, no foreigners of any sort were harmed, other than very slightly by splintered glass, and the city very definitely was not in flames, nor were the mobs anywhere near taking over in the manner of the Huns descending on Rome. The curfew from 4 6 a.m., plus the use of troops, put the quietus on things; the violence, scattered as it was, lasted essentially over a period of three days, off and on.


Pg. 2

The root cause of the recent unpleasantness was what we in the economics racket call in technical terms an effort to extract blood from the corpus of a turnip. The Egyptian govt has over the past few years painted itself into an uncomfortable financial corner by subsidizing the cost to consumers of a variety of basic foodstuffs and other useful items. I won’t try your patience, or distend my analytical powers, by going into detail, but the subsidy lashup has come to cost the govt more than one billion dollars a year. Yes, billion (I’m fairly reliably informed that one billion dollar bills laid end to end would reach to the Big Dipper, or some such). Lots and lots of Egyptians – in fact the great majority – exist just at the edge of subsistence. To them the artificially low price of their daily loaf of bread is important to the point of surviving or not. So, when the govt tried to bring a bit of economic sanity into its budget exercise for 1977 by cutting a number (not all) of those subsidies, the balloon went up, something hit the fan, and politics prevailed over economics, not for the first time in world history. The govt is now re-examining its position, which is located right between the rock and the hard place. The sanctity of low consumer prices on bread, tea, sugar, beans, etc. has been preserved, and the natives are quiet again.



I believe chroniclers generally accept a figure of 200 for the number of deaths in Cairo during the few days of that January 1977 riot. I could have written more at the time than I did about the enormous, angry mobs milling about in the streets and the dramatic arrival of troops in the capital, but I chose not to then, not wishing to cause family and friends to be disquieted unnecessarily, and so am not embellishing the story now.

–Henry E. Mattox, Editor 

Do you have a historical vignette or a fuller account of a world event that involved your presence? If so, let us hear from you.

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