An Egyptian soldier stands near the Egyptian national flag and the Israeli flag at the Taba crossing between Egypt and Israel.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The cold peace that has characterized Israel’s relations with Egypt since the signing of the 1979 peace treaty is warming up on the diplomatic and military levels. But it remains to be seen whether popular opposition among Egyptians to such warming – not to mention outright hostility and antisemitism – will roll back progress.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi rightly sees in Israel an important ally in the fight against political Islamism.
Working together, Israeli and Egyptian forces have taken on Islamist terrorist groups operating in the Sinai Peninsula, and have reined in Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
The ratcheting up of cooperation in the intelligence and military fields has also had an impact on other aspects of Egyptian-Israeli ties. A number of high-profile visits and meetings have taken place since Sisi ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-ruled government and took control in 2013.
Former Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold visited Egypt in June 2015; the Israel Embassy in Cairo was reopened, and a new Egyptian ambassador was dispatched to Tel Aviv.
In April, Israel approved the Egyptian transfer of two Red Sea islands to Saudi Arabia, a move that entailed reopening the security annex of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.
Perhaps the most impressive showing of improved relations between Cairo and Jerusalem, however, was Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry’s July visit to Israel, which included a long meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unfortunately, these gestures by high-ranking officials on the diplomatic and military level have not trickled down to the Egyptian people.
This was apparent from the reactions to rumors that Israel intended to reopen its consulate in Alexandria, as reported by The Jerusalem Post’s
Arab Affairs Correspondent Ben Lynfield.
According to the London-based Al-Araby al-Jadeed website, Israel’s ambassador in Cairo, David Govrin, visited Alexandria under heavy security, met with the city’s tiny Jewish community, visited the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue, and met with the governor of Alexandria.
The website also quoted activists who were angered by the visit, seeing it as a “provocation.” A parliament member from Alexandria was quoted as saying there is “no justification” for closer relations with Israel.
A September 2015 poll by the Egyptian Center for Public Opinion Research indicates that most of the Egyptian public view Israel as hostile. The survey assigned countries a rating ranging from 100 to -100, with the negative figures indicating hostility and the positive figures friendliness.
Israel received -88 points in the survey, and is thus considered by Egyptians to be its most hostile nation. The US was ranked a distant second with a -37. China was ranked 41, thus receiving the highest “friendly” rank of any non-Muslim country.
According to a report by the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a number of Egyptian books were on sale at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest, with blatantly antisemitic themes. A number of books claim that the Egyptian revolution of 2011 was part of a larger plot instigated by Israel to destabilize Egypt and other Arab countries, and relocate the Palestinian in Gaza to Sinai.
Earlier this month, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture honored novelist Sherif Shaban for “enriching Egyptian cultural life” with his novel Daughter of Zion
, which revisits claims made in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion
. The miniseries “Horseman Without a Horse
,” which is based on the Protocols, has regularly aired on Egyptian television channels in recent years.
Anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli sentiments clearly run deep in Egyptian society. This state of affairs generates dissonance.
Egypt’s high-ranking officials have advanced policies and made gestures that signal a warming of relations with Israel. The Egyptian people, meanwhile, are largely antagonistic toward Israel and Jews.
As long as Egypt’s leaders do not take steps to prepare their people for improved relations with Israel, this dissonance will remain. Egypt and Israel share many common interests, but Egypt will be limited in its ability to take advantage of cooperation with Israel as long as popular opinion views this cooperation as a form of betrayal.
As leaders, Sisi, Shoukry and others have an obligation to fight prejudice and hatred, not just because it is the right thing to do but because it will facilitate the cooperation which Egypt so desperately needs.