But this is not Egypt's official face. It's the face of Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president for the past 30 years and the most widely reviled man in the country.
It is the face of a dictator whose regime squeezes the people with an iron fist, stationing police on every street corner; imprisoning and torturing ordinary citizens without a trial; and censoring media that fail to meet its ever-changing and often mysterious criteria. He lives in palatial splendor while as many as half of Egypt's 80 million residents eke by on less than 25 cents per day.
We visited Egypt early this year to research my forthcoming novel, which takes place partly during the Crusades. During our two-week stay, we found the Egyptian people to be friendly, tolerant of cultural differences, and frustrated over Mubarak, the quintessential Guest Who Wouldn't Leave. To my surprise, no one seemed hostile toward Americans, despite the fact that the U.S. props up their government with $1.5 billion in aid every year.
With his Orwellian posters and ruthless rule, Mubarak has made an impression in the public consciousness -- but not in the way he hoped.
We heard from a bookstore owner that a censorship official declared my novel about the Prophet Muhammad's wives, "The Jewel of Medina," to be unsaleable in Egypt despite the fact that he had not read it. We also heard how an Egyptian filmmaker's feature film about striking factory workers was prohibited from being shown there for reasons that remain obscure.
We heard a man's angry tale of arrest on charges of espionage because he opened a -- legal -- bank account for a foreign supervisor. He was held in custody for 52 days without trial in a secret prison between Cairo and Alexandria, unable to contact family, friends, or a lawyer. He was interrogated constantly, kept in solitary confinement in an unfurnished cell, and tortured by guards who sprayed him and his cell floor with cold water whenever he nodded off, depriving him of sleep until he thought he might go mad.
We saw the splendid sultan's palace in an Alexandria park where Mubarak and his family, friends and dignitaries spend time in luxury -- while, throughout the Nile, wizened men in turbans and the long garment known as a galabeya insinuate themselves into tourists' photos and then beg for money; old women with bad teeth peddle toilet paper in the restrooms; young women wearing bunches of red bananas on their heads a là Carmen Miranda move among the stalled highway traffic, selling fruit; barefoot boys wipe down car windshields, hoping for money in return; and men wait everywhere to help drivers park their cars whether they need help or not, then watch to make sure the vehicle stays safe, all in the hope of earning something, anything, that day.
Considering Mubarak's "let them eat cake" mentality, it's not surprising that he is cracking down with increasing force on the protests against his authoritarian rule. He's had a pretty cushy gig in Egypt, and he's groomed his son, Gamal, to keep it all in the family once he's gone. Who can blame him for wanting to keep the party going?
But the gig is up, it seems. Friday's anti-Mubarak demonstrations were the biggest ever in spite of a nationwide Internet and SMS blackout and arrests through the week of more than 1,000 protesters. And the U.S. government is now said to be re-considering the $1.5 billion it had planned to give to Mubarak's regime this year.
What do the people want? According to my Egyptian friend Shereef, they want political reform, democracy, constitutional change, and the end of the Mubarak regime. "We want real elections," he wrote to me on Facebook.
It's time for the guest who wouldn't leave to go. You know what they say about fish and company. After three days, you start to stink -- but after three decades of Hosni Mubarak, the stench has become unbearable. It smells like garbage, like burning tires, like tears and blood, like frustration, anger, and fear. The party is clearly over.
Sherry Jones is the author of "The Jewel of Medina" and "The Sword of Medina," historical novels about A'isha, the youngest wife of the Prophet Muhammad, and the forthcoming "Four Sisters, All Queens," to be published in 2012. Read her blog on Red Room.