Anwar Sadat’s decision to visit Jerusalem in 1977 was one of the most courageous
decisions in modern history. Despite public opinion in Egypt being hostile to
Israel, and a hostile Arab world, Sadat traveled to Jerusalem, breaking a
political sound barrier.
Thirty-four years later, the peace that emanated
from that historic journey is still alive. If we want to understand why peace
came alive in 1979, and is still holding strong, we have to comprehend why Sadat
came here in the first place.
Sadat understood that Egypt, given its
geography and demography, suffers from dramatic socioeconomic problems – from
over-populated cities and a vast arid land, to poverty of an almost sub-Saharan
If that economy is further burdened by high military expenditure,
the chances of economic well-being are nil.
This paradigm was well
understood by Sadat’s successor Hosni Mubarak – he stood by the strategy of
peace and a pro-American stance, even when Israel went to war in Lebanon and
Israel, for its part, had everything to gain from peace with the
Arab world’s largest country; militarily, our most dangerous front became
silent; politically, we gained enormous support from our main ally, the US; and
economically, our defense budget shrank significantly.
And then came the
Tahrir revolution – an outburst of rage against dictatorship, poverty and
corruption. Its root causes are linked to Egypt’s ailing economy – with one of
the world’s highest birthrates – the economic growth rate is barely 5 percent,
20% of the population live under the poverty line, inflation is around 15% and
GDP per capita is only $6,200.
Egypt after Tahrir will not be the same –
a prolonged political struggle, still latent, has formed between the armed
forces, the young democracy revolutionaries from Tahrir, the Muslim Brotherhood,
former Mubarak allies and others. It probably will result in a mosaic of
conflicting players with a strong army in the background – definitely not a
Jeffersonian democracy, but a much freer country than before, not falling into the arms of dictators or Muslim
In one sense, Egypt is to a large degree democratized –
the young Egyptian urban population (65% are under 30 years old) who brought
about the revolution will have to be at the very least listened to, whoever the
decision-makers will eventually be.
Egyptian attitudes towards the world
are a function of a mixture between strong patriotism and the desire to belong
to the globalized world, and are reflected in public opinion polls. The attitude
towards the United States before Barack Obama (according to BBC surveys) was 16%
positive and 73% negative.
Egypt’s pride was hurt by the Bush
administration. After Obama’s Cairo speech in June 2009, reaching out to
Egyptians, Arabs and Muslims – the attitude towards the US shifted – 45%
positive, 23% negative.
For Israel there are some critical conclusions
for our relations with Egypt: First and foremost, we must comprehend that Egypt
is the biggest and most important Arab country. Egypt saw and still sees itself
as the leader of the Arab world – when Egypt opted for war, so did others; when
Egypt opted for peace, a regional peace process became possible. This has not
been weakened by the Tahrir revolution, but rather strengthened. Tahrir is the
model for all Arab youth. In other words, we can say that peace and security for
Israel will above all emanate from our relations with Egypt.
since antiquity, has prided itself for its historical role and contribution to
civilization. Egyptians are a proud people, not unlike us.
balance of pride has to be maintained between the two nations, which both see
themselves as continuing an important historical chain of struggle, values and
We have to admit that we as a people are better at being
sensitive regarding our own pride than we are towards others’. With Egypt it has
to be different. Israeli comments that Egypt has no chance of developing into a
democratic society are harmful.
We must treat Egypt with respect and an
open mind, which should be reciprocated.
The Palestinian matter is not a
leadership issue in Egypt – Mubarak for instance had limited patience for Arafat
– it is a people’s issue. The Egyptian people see their Palestinian brethren
under Israeli occupation, an occupation that they see as Israel’s
This renders the equation quite simple – the better our relations
are with the Palestinians, the better our relations with Egypt. This is
especially true for the young people of Egypt. The young who were at the heart
of the revolution are at the heart of public opinion. It is up to us to find a
way to communicate with the young Egyptians.
The Egyptians, for instance,
developed empathy for the tent protests in Israel, even a sense of pride, as
they saw in them a “Made in Egypt” phenomenon.
Signs in our large
demonstrations proclaiming “Walk like an Egyptian” and “Rothschild, corner of
” were shown time and again in Egyptian media. Young Israelis and young
Egyptians can converse on the Internet, through Facebook – such as via a project
that I initiated, “YaLa – Young Leaders” – where 1,500 Egyptians and roughly the
same number of Israelis are engaged in dialogue, together with many others from
the Arab world.
One good example of the affinity between Cairo and Tel
Aviv – Itay Engel’s film Tahrir Square
was shown last Friday night on Rothschild
Young Egyptians spoke of freedom, democracy and social
justice, and Israelis applauded. Indeed Rothschild met Tahrir.
conclusion, we must stop being commentators on what the future holds for Egypt.
As a country and as government, we have to strike a new balance with Egypt – a
balance of mutual pride and mutual interests, a balance of a new generation and
a balance of peace based on an accommodation with the Palestinians. Egypt is key
to our regional security, and the answer to the critical question of whether the
peace treaty with it will survive depends mostly on our policy in the
region.Uri Savir is the president of the Peres Center for Peace, and
served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.