Two years into the messy aftermath of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, there is
one surprising topic that nearly all the activists ignore:
Egyptians from every side feel the same way toward Israel now as
they did when the revolution started – mostly indifferent. We have so many
internal problems, let’s deal with those first, we don’t even need to talk about
Israel, many protesters said.
One small group of activists, however, is
not ignoring the Israel issue. No to Compulsory Military Service is a pacifist
group started by Maikel Nabil Sanaad in 2009 aimed at encouraging Egyptians to
exercise their right to refuse to serve while promoting the value of
Emad el Dafrawi is one of the central activists in the No to
Compulsory Military Service and an avowed pacifist.
For el Dafrawi,
pacifism means advocating for peace with all countries – including
“If there was no conflict and no wars between Egypt and Israel, I
believe that we would have been closer to democracy,” el Dafrawi said in
downtown Cairo, days after the second anniversary of the January 25
“This is an issue that they always use to try to distract
people’s attention from the internal issues or real issues that affect
El Dafrawi, 25, grew up in a Muslim home and was apolitical as a
teenager. But when he studied mass communications at university, he started
reading international news as a way to improve his English and check the bias of
the state media.
“[Egyptians] are not really aware of how much, with the
Israel issue, they’re really manipulated and they’re really lied to,” said el
“Normal Egyptians don’t hate Jews or Israelis. And if they do it
is because of propaganda of the media, because they were taught that
Small in stature, El Dafrawi speaks
softly and deliberately.
It’s clear that he has carefully thought through
each one of these arguments.
He refuses my request to refer to Israel as
“Canada” throughout the interview in Groppi’s, a Cairene institution famous for
“To me, being silent is as subjugating to racism and
bigotry,” he wrote in an email afterward, assuring me that he wants his name
published in full.
El Dafrawi also lives his opinions with a fierce and
quiet determination. By refusing to serve in the military – as is required of
all Egyptian males – he cannot work and cannot travel until the military gives
him an exemption. He has been waiting for more than a year, living with his
family and subsisting on freelance translating.
His family does not
support his decision, though for now they do not talk about it. He could be
stuck in this limbo until age 30, when he will age out of his required military
El Dafrawi doesn’t consider himself “pro-Israel,” realizing the
label has many connotations.
He is critical of some of Israel’s policies,
and believes that the Israeli army acts with too much force against Palestinians
in Gaza. But he is still interested in advocating for normalization with Israel
and encouraging Egyptians to at least get the full story in order to form their
opinions from a neutral standpoint.
El Dafrawi cited the 2011 terrorist
attack near Eilat as an example of the local media’s incitement. On August 18,
2011, terrorists from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Israel from Sinai and killed
eight Israelis, including the driver of an Egged bus and a number of soldiers
before slipping back over the border int`o Sinai. When Israel retaliated and
shot at the fleeing terrorists, up to five Egyptian soldiers were killed,
sparking violent anti-Israel protests in Cairo where protesters stormed the
“People were violently protesting, because they didn’t understand the story from
the beginning,” el Dafrawi said. The local media only covered the Israeli
soldiers shooting at Egyptian soldiers, and nothing about the terrorist attack.
Even if Egyptians wanted to form an informed opinion, they couldn’t, he
Instead, the incident reinforced anti-Israel beliefs.
already have a presumption that Israel is always an aggressor, that Israel is
always an attacker, that they attack any person and any place without reason
because they feel like it,” el Dafrawi said.
News media in Arabic
reinforces these opinions by using explosive language to describe Israeli
“They handpick words which play on peoples’ emotions,” el
Halfway through the interview, Groppi’s is rocked by a
loud explosion down the street.
The bustling crowds outside stop for a
moment to look around, before quickly resuming their activities.
sure what that was.
But you know, it’s kind of business as usual,” el
Dafrawi said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. “Maybe it’s a tire of a car
that exploded. People are much less concerned when they hear any loud noise.
El Dafrawi also blames Israel for the lack of reliable
information about the country in Egypt.
He accused Israel of not
following through with the normalization promised in the 1979 peace treaty,
claiming it should have created lasting relationships with Egyptian citizens
rather than relying solely on the dictatorship.
“The regime won’t stay
forever,” he said. “This is how it is all over history, all the regimes can rule
as much as they can, but eventually they fall.”
El Dafrawi also knows
that his opinions put him in a dangerous position in Egypt, where he insists on
speaking openly about Israel in public places and wants his full name and
picture to be published, even in so-called “enemy publications.”
few moments maybe I say what I want [about Israel] and I know they may harm me,”
he said, matter-of-factly.
“They may claim that it is a conspiracy
theory, they might make people believe that he is a collaborator with a Zionist
entity and these stupid things, but why should I care? If you are afraid, you
are not going to do anything.”
El Dafrawi oscillates between hope and
fatalism. When speaking about the dangers of being pro-peace with Israel, he
“Our lives are wasted anyway, our lives are ruined, so it
is better to try at least. Maybe the generations after us will have a better
life,” he said.
But then he strikes a hopeful note.
situation] has to improve, and I’ll tell you why.
They can’t control the
information as much as they could.
Even if they tried to control it, you
would see that people would get the information from somewhere else. People are
starting to question what they believe,” he said.
El Dafrawi noted that
after World War II it took years after the propaganda stopped before Germans
began changing their own views toward Jews.
“My peaceful views aren’t
representative of the youth, because no one can represent all the youth of
Egypt,” he said.
“But they are representative of the people who want to
live in peace, who want development, who are sick of the hate climate, the
propaganda and the racism.”
As we finished the interview, el Dafrawi
cocked his head at a nearby table and said softly, “Looks like we had a friend
join us,” as a man in a suit, possibly from the secret security services, also
gets up to leave.
My stomach dropped 10 stories as el Dafrawi casually
mentioned that the man showed up halfway through the interview and has been
listening in. It is a chilling reminder that despite the determination of one
young activist to make sure he gets the full story about Israel, Egypt still has
a long way to go.
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