The khamseen, the fifty winds of change, had returned to plague the inhabitants of Egypt. Shortly after sunrise on a late March morning, the streets of Cairo remained dark, the windscreens of cars and the doorsteps of houses covered in whorls of thick yellow dust. Then the wind rose.

On the southern outskirts of the city, an American businessman scurried across a building site to the shelter of his office. ‘I’ve never seen the khamseen as bad as this,’ he said as two security guards patted him down and passed his briefcase through a metal detector. ‘Though you know, since devaluation of the currency, they’re calling it the arbaeen.’

War and money. Across the city, from the local staff standing listlessly in the corridors of half-empty hotels to the Western expatriates huddled in bars gloomily watching the first day of a new Gulf war unfold, there were only two topics of conversation. The atmosphere in executive boardrooms and the wealthier districts of Heliopolis and Zamalek was merely subdued. Downtown, anti-war protests spilled over from the universities and mosques into Garden City, where the British and American embassies are located. On 28 March, hours after US-led forces launched their first assault on Baghdad, a demonstration in nearby Tahrir square was broken up by security forces using batons and water cannons.

‘The atmosphere is really bad. I’ve never seen people so anti-American,’ says a local banker. ‘Egyptians like me used to look on America and the UK as the last bastions of democracy, but having both Tom and Jerry together in Iraq is not nice. What is amazing is that people really feel hatred for what is happening.’

At a time when the more optimistic analysts were forecasting an upturn in the economy, stagnant now for more than four years, the war in Iraq has come as yet another blow to Egyptians. The decision in January to float the currency, though broadly welcomed by foreign and local business communities as a long-term measure, has only added to the feeling of uncertainty in the short term. Having taken what many see as a courageous step to embrace the free market, a jittery government has subsequently stepped in to control the exchange rate mechanism, undoing much of its own good work (see Economy).

Cairenes swap information on where to get the best rates for their dollars on the black market, which is thriving due to the reluctance of local banks to dip into their depleted hard currency reserves. ‘Exchange rates are all over the place,’ says another local banker. ‘Where else in the world are you going to find the dollar trading at the equivalent of one and a half euros?’

The decline of dollars is allied to the decline of the tourist industry, which was making a brave recovery from the 1997 Luxor massacre when the attacks on the US in September 2001 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’ dealt it another body blow. The war in Iraq will only serve to kick the industry when it is down. In the months leading up to the invasion, hotels in Cairo were reported to be closing off entire floors, cutting back on running costs and artificially boosting their occupancy rates.

Beyond the immediate economic impact of the war, a commonly expressed fear in Cairo, as across most of the region, is that the US-led invasion of Iraq could set a disturbing precedent for other Arab countries. ‘Where will it all end?’ is a question on most lips. The war being waged in the name of ‘freedom and democracy’ will be entirely counterproductive in the long run, say local politicians, pointing to the self-perpetuating violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

‘Do you think democracy will come to Iraq on the wings of a B-52 or on the back of a tank?’ asked Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, shortly after the outbreak of war. As former Egyptian foreign minister, Moussa continues to reflect the views of the Egyptian establishment. ‘Normal development, especially after globalisation, would have led to democracy. But it shouldn’t have been done through war.’

Although it remains one of the US’ key political allies and economic beneficiaries, the Egyptian government has, to its surprise, found itself on the receiving end of American neo-conservative rhetoric. Former CIA director James Woolsey, a leading hawk in the Bush administration, launched a remarkable attack on President Mubarak and others on 3 April. ‘We want you nervous,’ he said. ‘We want you to realise now, for the fourth time in a 100 years, this country [the US] and its allies are on the march and that we are on the side of those whom you – the Mubaraks, the Saudi Royal family – most fear: We’re on the side of your own people.’

It is hard, if only because of the size and reach of its security forces, to see what the government might have to fear from its own people. A more troubling prospect is the unspoken threat to remove $1,900 million in American aid it receives every year, recently augmented by a $2,300 million pledge from Washington to offset possible economic repercussions from the war in Iraq.

A month into the conflict, as the US military endgame is played out on the streets of Baghdad, the anger of the Egyptian people has been intensified by television pictures of civilian casualties in Iraq. That anger is rarely overtly directed at the government, but it is certainly fomented by the restrictions placed on political expression.

‘It is not a matter of the government, it is a matter of the people,’ says a local businessman. ‘But a barrier has been built between these people and what they see on television, of the kids in hospital. Of course there is a big control here, but there are now big demonstrations as well. There is a very strong build-up here and the worry is there could be a very big explosion.’

President Mubarak has himself warned of the radicalising effects of US foreign policy in the region, claiming that the latest invasion would ‘create 100 Bin Ladens’. Some observers refer to the ‘Spanish civil war effect’, pointing to the radical volunteers heading off to fight in Iraq as others before them went to Afghanistan. A number of Egyptian citizens have been captured by US troops having joined the non-Iraqi feddayeen fighters, encouraged perhaps by the blessing of Egypt’s foremost cleric Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi. The imam of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque has frequently referred to Saddam Hussein as a terrorist. However, as far as the US-led coalition is concerned, ‘Whoever attacks others, spilling blood, harming the other’s honour and land, is a terrorist. Whoever wants to go to support the Iraqi people, I welcome that. I say go with peace and I wish you well.’

Amid such uncertainty, it came as little surprise that parliament voted on 23 February to extend by another three years the country’s national emergency laws, first introduced in the 1960s and reinstated following the assassination of President Sadat in 1981. The legislation, which according to Prime Minister Atef Obeid ‘aims to protect the country against its enemies and protect citizens against those that want to harm them’, has certainly been effective when dealing with groups like Gamaat al-Islamiya, which claimed involvement in both the killing of Sadat and the 1997 massacre of tourists in Luxor. Under the emergency laws, the authorities are able to detain people deemed a threat to national security for 45-day renewable periods without charge, and civilians can also be tried by military tribunals.

Political opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood claim the laws effectively quash any effective opposition to the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), which enjoys an overwhelming majority in the 454-seat parliament. ‘The regime renewed it so as to have the legal means by which to crack down on its opposition – especially the Muslim Brotherhood – when it needs to,’ the head of the Brotherhood’s 16-member parliamentary delegation, Mohammed Mursi, told the local Cairo Times in early March. With some prescience he added: ‘Any street activities without the authorities’ permission will lead to bloody clashes.’

The emergency laws nominally ban all public demonstrations, but in practice carefully monitored public protests are commonly allowed at mosques and university campuses. But the heavy-handed treatment of anti-war protesters by security forces in late March was not only condemned by civil rights groups, but also received considerable and unwanted attention from the international press after journalists and other bystanders were caught up in the fray.

International pressure has played its part in a number of civil rights cases, including that of the human rights activist Saed Eddin Ibrahim, who finally had a seven-year prison sentence quashed by the Court of Cassation in March after US diplomatic pressure persuaded Mubarak to order a review of his case. ‘Once the dust settles. other Arab leaders will not fail to read the writing on the wall, that their time is over and the only way to survive is to initiate reforms,’ Ibrahim said after his release. ‘If they don’t they will face both internal pressure and external pressure.’

For all the criticism, both internal and external, the slow march to reform continues and some old taboos have been broken by the authorities themselves. NDP policy secretariat chairman Gamal Mubarak, the 39-year-old son of the president, proposed in March the scrapping of a 1980 law on state security courts and abolishing the hard labour penalty enshrined in the penal code. The move would also entail setting up a ‘National Council for Human Rights.’ The proposals, which have yet to be submitted to parliament, are seen by most as pointing in the right direction, although some sceptics say that internal reform has yet to be properly inspired from within. The independent member of parliament Adel Aid said the initiatives were ‘a hesitant response to international pressure, and have to be followed by many others on the long road leading to a complete and authentic democracy in Egypt.’

The scenes of anarchy in Iraqi cities will cause more than a few sleepless nights for governments in the region. But despite its recent protests, Cairo remains a comparatively peaceful city with widespread tolerance of its foreign inhabitants. ‘There is huge anti-Americanism at the moment,’ says a local businessman. ‘But you find that Egyptians are very capable of distinguishing a people from its government – they are, after all, our clients as well as our friends.’ It is a view shared by many Americans, too. ‘I can’t think of anywhere else in the region I’d like to be at the moment,’ says a US businessman who has lived in the city for several years. ‘And there’s no way I’d consider going back to the States until I see regime change in Washington.’

Exchange rate: $1=£E 5.87 (average commercial rate as of 14 April)