The Russian’s Seat
The flight to from Cairo West to Aswan had shown me why the Egyptian population was concentrated along the Nile and its fertile basin. The rest of Egypt, or at least the portion I flew over, was stark desert, pocked with isolated oases ringed by dusty palms. When I got off the American C-130 I discovered the ruse of dressing in jeans and windbreaker had been counter-productive. Instead of landing at the Aswan airfield where I would have blended with the tourists, the crewmaster had pushed me out the door and they had flown off, leaving me at an Egyptian military airfield where a flight of F-4 Phantoms with Egyptian markings roared overhead. And now I had to explain why I was in civvies and trying to enter an Egyptian air defense complex. Finally my sponsor, a member of the American F-4 advisory team, appeared from the bowels of the complex, but made my situation worse by showing up in desert camouflage fatigues. I had laid out my military ID card on the counter, but the rapid exchange in Arabic made it clear that I was not welcome.
Except for curiosity, it was OK with me. Spending the next few days two hundred feet underground in an Egyptian air defense complex wasn’t high on my list of things to see in Egypt. The advisor finally shook hands with one guard; I shook hands with the other guard; and I followed the advisor, an Air Force lieutenant colonel, down an inclined corridor.
"They think you are CIA," the colonel finally told me when we were out of hearing of the guards. "But I convinced them that we needed you to operate the secure radios, regardless of who they think you are."
That was why I had come. As much as we relied on our Egyptian allies, we would never give them the latest communications security equipment. The Soviet MiG parked in the hanger beside the bunker entrance was a substantive reminder of whom the Egyptians had allied with for many years before the Americans showed up. I suspected that one of the reasons we were allowed any access to Egyptian facilities was that our Commander in Chief had been in the grandstand with Anwar el-Sadat when Sadat was assassinated by Egyptian fanatics in 1981. In fact, the CINC’s aide had been wounded in the gunfire. And of course this operation was more beneficial to the local government than the United States, a fact that I learned was the rule more than the exception in our middle-eastern operations.
It was a long night. Orange lines and waveforms tracked across the Russian-made radar screens. The Egyptian noncommissioned officer explained the range markers and how to change the sweep rates and which screen indicated altitude. His English was good, the typical British enunciation you would expect from an older generation Egyptian. On a break I wandered into the central control room. Apparently after midnight they didn’t care if the CIA came in or not. Two Egyptian Brigadier Generals, one Air Force and one Air Defense, shared the watch. Or maybe they were there just to see what the Americans were doing in their facility. They invited me to sit. Over tea they quizzed me about the military units I had belonged to; if I had seen combat, curious about Vietnam in the Sixties and Seventies; and all about the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force from MacDill. If anything, the fact that an US Army lieutenant colonel was at ease with them probably didn’t help my cause.
They had both been to war since I had, in their case against the Israelis in 1973. One of them pointed out that their air defense system generally faced their perennial enemy, to the east. But they both hastened to add that ever since United States president Jimmy Carter, Egyptian president Anwar al-Sadat, and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin had signed the Camp David Peace Accords in 1977, they, Egypt had become America’s staunchest ally in the region. This was my first exposure to middle-eastern soldiers with western education, albeit tainted by years of contact with the Soviet Union. It became clear that night that the two generals considered the Soviets had sold them a large amounts of war materials, the proverbial bill of goods, only to abandon them. The message was clear, I suppose for them to a messenger who would report directly back to Langley, that they expected better this time. Mention of my combat time in Vietnam as a soldier didn’t seem to sway their view; another mind-set of the middle-eastern, and perhaps much of the third world, that most of the United States involvement overseas was in some way run by the Central Intelligence Agency.
Back on the job, I sat on a plain wooden bench, shared with the old sergeant. Finally he stood and stretched, ready to leave after his all-night shift, leaving me with an insight that I believe was shared by many Egyptians.
"I watched a Russian sit there for ten years," he said. "I never thought I would see an American sitting in the same place."
He held out his hand. I think with approval.
I hope he wasn’t disappointed.