Egyptian-Israeli security relations are at their highest point since the signing of the peace treaty in 1979.
A couple of months ago, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi renewed the call for resumption of the peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis, and even called for closer normalization between the two countries. Moreover, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry became the highest- ranking Egyptian official to visit Israel in 10 years.
Amid the fanfare accorded Cairo’s recent closeness to Jerusalem, one issue that can really test Egypt’s intentions for closer normalization is the case of Egyptian citizens living in Israel, on whom the Egyptian authorities have long placed – and still place – heavy restrictions in terms of freedom of movement between the two countries.
Egyptian Muslims and Christians living in Israel are scattered all across the country, mostly in Arab villages and cities where they are married to Arab Israelis.
There are three groups of Egyptians living in Israel. The first group is the illegal ex-pats whose main objective to save as much money as they can before returning to Egypt. The second group consists of permanent residents that pay taxes and enjoy full rights and benefits such as health care, social security and participating in municipal elections. The only difference between them and Israeli citizens is that they cannot vote in Knesset elections. The third group is those who have Israeli citizenship.
Those that acquired Israeli citizenship were motivated to do so despite the stigma surrounding it, including a possible lifetime ban on returning to their native country, primarily due to the advantages of holding an Israeli passport compared to an Egyptian one. A secondary reason is the hardships they faced as non-citizens in returning to Israel after going to visit their families in Egypt.
The history of non-Jewish Egyptians living in Israel for work and family purposes dates back to the late 1960s. Some Egyptians who went to Israel looking for jobs ended up settling down and obtaining Israeli citizenship or permanent residency after marrying Arab Israeli women. Following the Yom Kippur War (1973), they were not able to return to Egypt until the peace agreement between the two countries was signed in 1979. After the treaty they were able to return to visit their families, but not without great difficulty.
As a consequence of the peace agreement, the Egyptian tourism industry began to experience a flood of Jewish and Arab Israeli tourists. This movement opened the door for some Egyptians who worked at tourist sites to get to know Arab Israelis and even marry them. Some of the couples decided to stay in Egypt, but after certain period of time, the Egyptian authorities asked some of those who held Israeli citizenship to leave, for unclear reasons.
As one Egyptian who has been living in Israel for more than 20 years put it, “I have thought about this matter many times. Every household leader is responsible for the people he takes care of. I look at what benefits my family; staying here is better for them. This includes advantages they have here in Israeli society such as social security and health insurance. It is enough when the individual gets older, he wouldn’t have to wait for any of his children or family to help him. So I live in Israel and my heart visits Egypt all the time.”
Egyptians in Israel are not separated from what is happening in Egypt politically.
One Egyptian resident of Nazareth said, “After the revolution of 2011, we used to walk proudly in the streets. Arab Israelis tend to brag about the democracy they are enjoying here, looking at other Arabs in the region as living in darkness and under dictatorships. The revolution restored our pride.”
Hence, in times of presidential elections, those registered with the embassy go and cast their votes. However, the number of these is few in comparison to the total number of Egyptians living in Israel. This is mainly due to mistrust between them and the Egyptian government. Due to the hardships they encountered in their native country due their association with Israel, some chose not to contact the embassy.
One of the Egyptians I met said, “The most important thing for them is to count our numbers since we exist here. But we don’t know them and they never tried to sit with us and hear about the issues we face when it comes to traveling to Egypt.”
Being be able to get back to Israel is one of the biggest struggles for Egyptians living in Israel. According to the Egyptian Immigration, Passports and Naturalization Authority, Israel is one of 16 countries Egyptians cannot travel to without a permit from national security authorities.
As I was told bitterly, “The obstacle is on our way back, when it comes to issuing travel permits. The authorities do not take into consideration that we have children, families, jobs that could be lost and monthly obligations that await us. It is very ironic that issuing a travel permit from the Palestinian Authority or Israel only takes half an hour from the [Palestinian] Interior Ministry, while in Egypt it takes a month or two and in some cases, you do not get it. Some of us found a pricey option that forced us to go to a country like Jordan or Europe and from there travel to Israel.”
This mistreatment and restrictions of movement by the authorities is mainly due to the deep, inherited belief that Israel is a continuing major threat to Egypt’s national security, regardless of the peace agreement.
In a TV interview, one former official stated his explanation regarding revoking Egyptian citizenship of those married to women with Israeli citizenship: “ It is not unknown between respectable countries to match their laws together. We do this with tax laws so there would be no duality on imposing taxes in two countries that are dealing with each other. The same thing exists with marriage laws. We’re trying to avoid this conflict between two marriage laws. So we’re trying to avoid a situation in which a son of a Jewish Israeli lady will have to serve in the Egyptian army.
He’ll be forced to serve or go to prison. So as a respectful country we avoided this by depriving this Egyptian of his citizenship so his son can be an Israeli or can be Jewish or whatever on Earth he chooses to be.”
Occasionally the Egyptian media launches smear campaigns against Egyptians living in Israel, designed to intimidate those living in Israel and prevent them demanding their rights. Moreover, it successfully suppresses any public sympathy toward them. This begins with the way they are depicted on talk shows that discuss their issues, and how newspapers outline their stories negatively.
There is no official census regarding the number of Egyptians living in Israel, however, the head of the community in Nazareth informed me that there are roughly between 3,000 and 7,000. Most of them are married to Arab Israelis, whether Muslims or Christians, and in no more than 12 cases, to Jews.
In light of the recent Egyptian overtures toward Israel, the issue of Egyptians living in Israel should be seen as a litmus test of how serious Cairo is about expanding the scope of normalization between the two countries. Cairo has been trying for many years to keep normalization to a bare minimum, as it discouraged any interactions between non-governmental officials and Israelis.
Normalization must not be limited to close security and trade ties; it must include people to be durable.
The writer is an Egyptian-American studying for an MA in Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University.