Savir's Corner: The Egyptian connection

As a country and as government, we have to strike a new balance with Egypt.

September 8, 2011 21:39
Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square

Protesters fill Egypt's Tahrir Square Cairo 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El-Ghany)


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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 level.

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 Gaza.

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 fundamentalists.

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.

Egypt, ever since antiquity, has prided itself for its historical role and contribution to civilization. Egyptians are a proud people, not unlike us.

Indeed a 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 achievements.

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 choice.

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 Tahrir” 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 Boulevard.

Young Egyptians spoke of freedom, democracy and social justice, and Israelis applauded. Indeed Rothschild met Tahrir.

In 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.

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