CAIRO, Egypt -- With Kurdish and Shiite Muslim rebels inching their way toward Baghdad and pundits predicting the imminent ouster of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime, speculation in the Middle East has shifted from when the Iraqi leader will be ousted to where he might seek political asylum.
North African states which were sympathetic to Saddam's cause during the Gulf War were considered possible candidates, as was Mauritania. But they have all denied offering Saddam asylum.
Cairo, despite Egypt's staunch support for the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq, was another possibility.
An Egyptian columnist suggested this week that Egypt might want to grant Saddam asylum, since Cairo sheltered Saddam as a young revolutionary in the early 1960's and has often granted asylum to deposed Middle East leaders -- from the Shah of Iran to exiled leaders of Libya, Sudan and Algeria.
'We could give Saddam shelter in Cairo,' suggested the columnist for Egypt's leading daily, Al Ahram. 'Then we could send him back to Baghdad, where they would string him to horses and drag him through the streets.'
Such fervent anti-Saddam sentiment is still strong in Cairo, even among those who befriended the young Baathist activist during his political exile here from 1959 to 1963.
Interviews with former acquaintances from his days in Cairo reveal aspects ofSaddam's personality, but none of those interviewed would like to see Saddam return to Cairo for a second period in exile.
'He was what you might call an undesirable person, a loner of sorts, ' recalled Hussein Abdel-Meguid, owner of the Andiana Restaurant and Coffee Shop on Dokki Street, Saddam's favorite stomping ground. 'He was a bit of a bully, always picking fights with my customers.'
Saddam was exiled in Cairo in 1959 after becoming involved in a Baathist plot to seize power by machine-gunning the car carrying Iraq's then-leader, Gen. Abdul Karim Qassim.
The assassination attempt was a failure, but Saddam reportedly disguised himself as a Bedouin tribesman and fled to Damascus and then to Cairo, where then-President Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser granted him political asylum.
Saddam received a stipend from the Egyptian government and a full scholarship to attend Cairo University Law School, but those who remember him say he rarely attended classes or studied.
'He would arrive in the morning and spend all day here, either smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee or reading the paper,' said Abdel- Meguid. 'He may have gone to class once a week but I never once saw him study.'
A Cairo University official said they had no record of Saddam graduating and they could not release his transcript. After Saddam became vice president of Iraq, he received an honorary law degree from Baghdad University in 1970.
'He rarely studied,' recalled a former classmate. 'But he read outside his subjects all the time, especially the writings of Michel Aflaq (one of the founders of the Baathist party.) He was infatuated with Aflaq. For him, Aflaq was a prophet.'
Saddam's devotion to Baathist party ideals bordered on the religious. 'He was extremely serious and devoted to the party,' said the former classmate. 'We both shared similar dreams for the Baathists, but his dreams went much deeper. It was like he was spending 24 hours a day plotting the party's future.'
On one occasion, 'I remember my brother and I took a trip with him . .. and he kept trying to draw him to the party and its principles,' he said.
The Andiana restaurant became a recruiting station for Saddam. When students from nearby Cairo University campus spilled into the cafe after class each day, Saddam often expounded on the righteousness of Baathist thinking or attempted to drag students into fiery political debates which frequently developed into altercations.
Saddam was arrested during one such dispute with a fellow Iraqi, who he threatened to kill with the knife he often strapped to his belt. The police pulled the two apart and took Saddam to the station, where he was identified as a political refugee under government protection.
'We tried to prevent him from coming back after that incident,' said Abdel-Meguid. 'But the police said he was under Nasser's protection.'
According to accounts, Saddam was arrested a second time in Cairo, when he chased a fellow Baathist through the streets with a knife.
Saddam often became violent with anyone who challenged his political assumptions. 'Hehated Communists especially,' said a former Baathist colleague. 'He was never afraid to use his knife in a fight against them.'
'He was crazy,' said Sami Hussein, who lived on Dokki Street and knew him at the time. 'He would do anything to pick a fight.'
One afternoon at the Andiana, the restaurant's janitor accidentally splashed water on Saddam's trousers while mopping the floor.
'He was enraged,' Hussein recalls. 'He actually called the police and said his trousers had been ruined and asked that the man be punished. He was so indignant about it.'