A few years ago, I contacted a lady involved in an animal-protection organization in Egypt, asking to interview her for a feature about animal welfare in the Middle East.
When she heard the story was regional, she asked whether an Israeli would also be interviewed in the article.
I said it was likely.
“In that case, I don’t want to be interviewed,” she responded. “As it is, we’re an NGO and the government doesn’t approve of us. I don’t want to be associated with Israelis. I don’t want trouble.”
Some would call her paranoid but her fear was quite genuine and possibly justified.
Though Egypt has had a peace agreement with Israel since 1979, Egyptians are still reluctant to forge any kind of ties with their neighbors to the north even when it involves a matter as innocuous as animal rights.
A similar situation prevails in Jordan despite the signing of a peace agreement with Israel in 1994.
In both countries, the most fervent voices against normalization are heard among professional unions.
“The Zionist entity signed a so-called peace treaty with Jordan, but it poses a threat to Jordan’s security,” Maisara Malass, a member of the Jordanian Engineers Union and secretary of the Jordanian Unions Committee to Fight Normalization told The Media Line.
While some Jordanians say the relationship can thaw when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved, others, like Malass, oppose the state of Israel altogether.
“Labor unions oppose normalizing relations between Jordan and Israel,” Samer Libdeh, Senior Fellow at the Center for Liberty in the Middle East, and Director of Interaction Forum in Jordan told The Media Line. “This is enshrined in their by-law.”
“All members of the labor unions are obliged to comply with these by-laws,” he said. “As a consequence, if an employee engages in any activities that are deemed contrary to the labor union by-laws, for example, by promoting peace or advocating for an improvement in relations between Israel and Jordan, then that employee may lose his labor union membership and ultimately, his job.”
In the Jordanian case, Libdeh explained, the strength of the labor unions is derived from the fact that any person who wishes to practice a profession is legally required to join a labor union, even though this violates Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “no one may be compelled to belong to an association.”
“Jordan signed the treaty with Israel in 1994 predominantly for economic and strategic reasons,” he continued. “For example, it sought to obtain international recognition of its key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, as well as enhancing its chances of obtaining economic aid from the United States and elsewhere.”
“However, the ultra-nationalists wings of the security establishment are opposed to ‘normalizing relations’ between Israeli citizens and Jordanian citizens, at the individual and civil society level, fearing that this could ‘adversely’ affect the conservative identity of the Kingdom in the long run and potentially pose a challenge to the delicate balancing act that the government is playing,” Libdeh explained. “On this basis, the establishment allows and actually encourages labor unions, mainly led by conservative Islamists and Pan-Arabists, to oppose and directly protest against Jordan’s ties with Israel.”
The benefits of the agreement are huge, he said, “but unfortunately they are restricted to the establishment and its elites, as the Jordanian government actively discourages the development of positive relations between Jordanian and Israeli citizens.”
Members of these labor unions have not directly benefited from the peace agreement, Libdeh said, as they are prohibited from developing professional or personal relationships with Israelis.
In the Egyptian case, perhaps the most vocal union in this respect is the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate.
The recent experience of esteemed Egyptian journalist Hala Mustafa is a case in point.
Mustafa, editor of Al-Ahram’s Egyptian Democracy Review and a member of the journalists syndicate, invited then Israeli ambassador Shalom Cohen to her office last September, not anticipating the anger this would fuel among members of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, to which she belongs.
She was helping organize a conference that would bring together Israelis, Egyptians and Americans to discuss the peace process in the light of U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo.
“I’m an academic and my job was to discuss this at the conference, to draft the topics of discussion and the names of the participants,” she told The Media Line. “The ambassador was supposed to meet with the chairman of Al-Ahram to get the authorizations needed for the conference. He came to my office to discuss this but the chairman of Al-Ahram suddenly said he wouldn’t see him and he gave a statement to the press that he rejected the visit. That was shocking and completely unexpected.”
When word of the meeting reached the Journalists Syndicate, they saw this as a sign of normalization with Israel and threatened to expel Mustafa.
“I was under attack from the media and the press but it seemed to me that it was an orchestrated campaign against me,” she said. “They investigated me and I attended several hearings and in the end they took their decision which was a warning not to repeat this again.”
Mustafa believes the syndicate’s policies against normalization with Israel are outdated and irrelevant and her recent standoff with the union only reinforced this view.
“I demand they remove this resolution that was taken 25 years ago,” Mustafa said. “It’s become obsolete because it says that Israel is a Zionist entity – there’s no recognition of the state of Israel - and it bans all types of relationship with the Israelis on all levels – syndicate level, professional level or even on a personal level. Even if you meet with an Israel by coincidence you can be investigated.”
“This could fit a state of war but it doesn’t fit in with the current situation of peace,” she added. “Israel is recognized not only by the international community but also by the state of Egypt, since we exchanged ambassadors. Nothing in the public law or the constitution can ban or forbid anyone from meeting another person from any nationality, including Israelis.”
Similar to the Jordanian case, Mustafa explained there was a gap between the policy of the government and what happens on the ground.
“After the late president Sadat, the Egyptian polity didn’t take any steps to encourage normal relations or peace among the people,” she explained. “It limits this to the official level.”
And even among the top official echelons, Israel is not exactly embraced.
In nearly 30 years of rule, Egypt’s President Mubarak visited Israel only once – for the funeral of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“That gives you a big indication,” Mustafa says. “The whole issue of foreign policy and the peace process is in the hands of the security establishment, not in the hands of a political institution.”
But this seemingly strange duality of the government is calculated, not haphazard.
“It’s a well arranged policy with the blessing of the authorities, because when you talk about the press union or other professional syndicates, you’re not talking about fully independent associations,” Mustafa explained. “They are, in a way, connected to the state or the state has some say over them.”
“The state is comfortable with this situation because the state itself believes that we should not go further in the peace process unless the Palestinian cause is finally resolved and settled,” she concluded. “The [Egyptian] government thinks the anti-normalization situation can be used as a way to pressure the Israeli party during the negotiations.”
Whatever happens on the Israeli-Palestinian track has an impact on Israel’s diplomatic relations with its Arab neighbors. The relations have waxed and waned over the years, often in harmony with setbacks or progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, be it the Oslo agreements, the Palestinian uprisings, the withdrawal from Gaza or operation Cast Lead.
A solution to the conflict is also the main premise of the Saudi Initiative. Under the initiative, the Arab world would normalize relations with Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from post-1967 territories, including eastern Jerusalem and settling the Palestinian refugee issue.
The Palestinian link is also apparent among the Jordanian population, more than half of whom are of Palestinian origin.
“They want to see a material difference in their lives and the lives of the Palestinian people,” Libdeh said. “There is clearly a feeling amongst Jordanians that the peace treaty did not deliver the ‘peace dividends’ that were expected.”
Mustafa said that the bulk of criticism she got came from the unions, not from friends or colleagues who were mostly indifferent about the whole affair.
“The Egyptian people have different priorities that go beyond the limits of the Palestinian cause and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute,” she said. “Probably the unemployment and lack of jobs and lack of public services have become the priority for the masses.”
For the current situation and climate of anti-normalization to change, one of two things should happen, Mustafa believes.
“Either the Palestinian cause is completely solved or the policy of the states changes,” she said.
Yoram Meital, Director of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, and author of Egypt’s Struggle for Peace, 1967-1977 said the professional unions have become prominent in Egypt and Jordan because of the internal political systems in these countries.
“My research showed that over the course of several decades, the party system in Jordan and in Egypt was emptied of any meaning,” he said. “I maintain that this political vacuum was filled by non-party movements, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood.”
“Because the parties were hardly felt in the political sphere, the professional unions became a framework that provided both a professional space to operate and also became a political framework,” Meital explained. “The political forces that wanted to be involved didn’t find what they wanted in the parties but they did find this in the professional unions. The unions became a very important platform for expressing political opinions and not just for maintaining the rights of the workers in that profession.”
In addition, he said, most of the unions were taken-over by opposition forces.
“The ruling parties in both Jordan and Egypt are relatively unpopular,” he continued. “In the context of this lack of popularity, almost the only venue where you have real political activists is the professional unions, and that’s why they’re so dominant.”
Because of this situation, the unions have a large impact on public opinion, where the parties are lacking.
Paradoxically, the professional unions in both Egypt and Jordan have a lot to gain from their respective peace deals with Israel. In both countries, agreements were forged to ensure that both the states and the professional unions would benefit economically.
An example is the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ), special free trade zones established in Jordan and Egypt in collaboration with Israel that benefit from free trade agreements between the United States and Israel.
“But this didn’t stop the political criticism,” Meital explained. “The political position of the Muslim Brotherhood and the opposition parties in Jordan and Egypt is that the employment situation might now be better after the peace agreements, but the political price is more costly.”
Given the current climate, the question is whether Israel can contain the animosity towards the Jewish state on the streets of Cairo in Amman, or draw any conclusion for future peace deals.
“Every time Israel tries to do something, it causes more damage than good,” Meital said. “We’re justifiably protesting against incitement but if we protest against every criticism, that will be a double edged sword. It amounts to silencing and then we’d be doing exactly what we’re accusing the unions of doing. Israel often condemns people for criticizing Israeli policies and we mustn’t do that. When there is incitement or anti-Semitism, that’s a different story and we should protest against that.”
Even though there are anti-incitement clauses in deals that Israel signed with Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority, to a large extent these have not been honored and mainstream newspapers still feature cartoons which draw on anti-Semitic stereotypes, depicting Israelis as blood-thirsty killers or Nazis.
The introduction of new media and the increase in media platforms is playing a crucial role in molding public opinion in Egypt and Jordan.
Satellite television, blogs and Internet websites are used extensively by the professional unions, who have ample means to disseminate their views.
“All the professional unions are very known,” Meital said. “They appear a lot in the public eye on channels like Al-Jazeera.”
“In both Jordan and Egypt, journalists will be punished if they don’t
toe the union’s line,” he added. “But I should point out that there’s a
very heated public debate about this and there is criticism of these
Libdeh said that in Jordan, the position
of the press union against normalization has a huge impact on the
Jordanian public perception of Israel and the peace process.
journalists with ties to the monarchy and security apparatus faithfully
convey the position of the King,” Libdeh said. “The King’s official and
public position is that normalization between Jordan and Israel can
only be achieved after the establishment of a Palestinian state. This
approach is adopted across media outlets generally.”