Arab World: A landmark of hope?

Thirty years after the opening of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, there may be a glimmer of improvement on normalization.

carter begin sadat 311 (photo credit: .)
carter begin sadat 311
(photo credit: .)
Thirty years ago almost to the day, the Israeli flag flew for the first time in an Arab capital. On February 17, 1980, the doors of the embassy of Israel opened in Cairo to great expectations. Peace with Egypt would usher a new era in the Middle East, and cooperation between the Jewish state and its southern neighbor would lead to a better understanding between the two peoples and, ultimately, with other Arab countries.
It did not quite happen that way.
True, without peace with Egypt, the Madrid Conference in 1991, the Oslo process that started in 1993 and the treaty signed with Jordan in 1994 might not have occurred. However, the hoped-for regional peace did not materialize. While relations based on mutual interests and a common understanding of security threats in the region exist between the Israeli and Egyptian governments, normalization never took off, and the peoples of both countries remain as estranged as ever.
There were those in Egypt who fought actively against any warming of what became a cold peace. Over the years they succeeded in extinguishing the genuine popular enthusiasm present at the beginning.
Earlier this month, the disciplinary council of the Journalists Union in Egypt demonstrated the extent to which anti-normalization forces are primed to fight. They condemned two respected journalists: Hala Mustapha, a senior researcher at the Al Ahram Center and editor of Democracy, and Hussein Sarag, deputy editor of October Weekly, and in charge of reporting on Israeli affairs for the magazine. Their crimes? Maintaining a working relationship with Israel as part of their jobs.
Among the transgressions cited by their accusers was a meeting held between Mustapha and then-Israeli ambassador Shalom Cohen at the former’s office, and for Sarag, his visits to Israel and the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.
For these acts the two veteran journalists were accused of violating the ban on normalization issued by their union. While Hala escaped without punishment, Sarag was forbidden to write for three months.
And here you have the heart of the problem.
Article 3 of the peace treaty stipulates that Egypt and Israel set up normal relations which include mutual recognition and full diplomatic, cultural and economic ties. Both countries were to put an end to the boycotts and to allow the free flow of people and goods across the border. Annex 3 of the treaty – an integral part of the agreement – details the steps to be taken to achieve Article 3, and states explicitely that through increased tolerance, hostility must end.
“The parties shall seek to foster mutual understanding and tolerance and will, accordingly, abstain from hostile propaganda against each other,” Article 5, paragraph 3 of Annex 3 reads.
INDEED, IN the years 1980-1981, 20 agreements were signed covering all spheres of activity – from commerce to aviation, culture to land travel, agriculture and more.
Unfortunately, while diplomats and lawyers were busy drafting these agreements, the professional associations of the Egyptian elite – such as for engineers, doctors, and writers – boycotted Israel and, under the threat of expulsion, forbade their members from any contact with the state “until such time as the occupation of the Palestinian territories is terminated.”
Thus, any hope of contact between the Egyptian elites and Israel was nipped in the bud. Two very different groups contributed to this result: Members of the Egyptian media and intellectual circles who still adhered to Arab nationalism as touted by former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which adopted anti-Semitism as one of its pillars. Both groups fostered hatred of Israel through whatever mediums they controlled, and their behavior remains unchanged to this day. As a result of 30 years of unending hatred and demonization of Israel, “normalization” has turned into a bad word.
Rather than tackling the issue, successive governments in Egypt have added their own restrictions to ongoing relations with Israel, which includes forbidding Egyptians from traveling to Israel without first explaining the purpose of the trip and receiving a special permit.
Egypt had paid dearly for making peace with Israel – as evidenced by the fact that it was expelled from the Arab League, which transferred its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis. But by turning a cold shoulder to Israel, it was able to gain back points with other Arab countries. And by 1989, the cold peace and Egypt’s pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinian issue had done their work. Egypt was back in the fold, and the Arab League headquarters had returned to its Cairo office.
During this time, nothing was done to further normalization. Egypt was – and maybe still is – walking a tightrope: Enjoying the fruits of peace with Israel, such as the generous help it receives from the United States on the one hand, and on the other, regaining and sustaining its central role in the Arab world.
THERE ARE a few sectors where the Egyptians – or more to the point, the Egyptian government – implemented normalization. The most important are in energy, aviation and agriculture. Egypt is selling crude oil to Israel according to Annex 3 of the treaty, and has signed a number of long-term contracts for the supply of natural gas. This is done through public utilities companies, and no professional association – and consequently, no opposition – is involved.
Regarding aviation, El Al has been flying to Cairo since 1980. The Egyptians, for their part, set up a separate airline – Air Sinai – to fly to Israel because they did not want Egyptair, the national carrier, to be subject to a boycott by Arab countries.
In the field of agriculture, President Sadat in 1981 asked then-agriculture minister Ariel Sharon for help in developing a solution to the problem of insufficient food supply for the growing Egyptian population. Thanks to Israeli assistance and expertise in modern irrigation techniques, and to the introduction of seeds specially adapted to desert soil, Egypt now covers most of its needs in fruits and vegetables. Furthermore, it even exports to Europe some of its produce – such as the strawberries which happen to compete with Israeli brands. However, this particular partnership did not go unopposed, with protests against what was seen as cooperation with the enemy resulting in former minister of agriculture Youssef Wali being accused of trying to poison Egyptian lands by using irrigation pipes and fertilizers from Israel.
Trade never developed in significant numbers, although there has been some change in recent years. Egypt asked for Israel’s help with salvaging its cotton exports to the United States, and in 2004 Israel, Egypt and the US signed an agreement whereby goods produced in certain areas could be exported to America with no custom tax, so long as a small percentage of the process was conducted in the Jewish state. The arrangement resulted in textiles exports growing fourfold – from $200 to $800 million – from Egypt to the US.
Israel never stopped trying to promote normalization. A number of projects were presented for joint ventures in the industrial and high-tech fields, but they were all turned down. Business exchanges have been kept to a minimum, and nothing has been done with regards to cultural, scientific, or athletic cooperation – forms of cooperation which, incidentally, are basic ingredients for two neighboring countries to live in peace.
Opposition groups in Egypt have set up committees to look for anything passing as normalization, and, upon  any discovery, denounce it in the press. Even such a respected figure as Sheikh El Azhar is not immune – he was vilified for having shaken hands with President Shimon Peres and was forced to apologize.
This strong opposition force has recently succeeded in permeating government ranks, resulting in a number of instances where Israeli representatives to international conferences held in Cairo were absent because the Egyptian authorities refused to give them visas.
THERE IS nevertheless something different about the case of the two journalists, Hala Mustapha and Hussein Sarag. Sarag has been in contact with the Israeli Embassy ever since it opened in 1980; he is fluent in Hebrew, is often invited to embassy receptions, has visited Israel a number of times and constantly reports on what is happening here.
While Mustapha has been dialoguing with Israeli ambassadors for a long time, she is not unique in that sense. Her superior, Dr. Abd el Moneim Said, who was recently appointed head of the Al Ahram institution, also used to receive Israeli ambassadors in his office in his capacity as head of the research institute. But he did not speak up in her defense.
The president of the Journalists Union, Makram Mohammed Ahmad, has been in Israel more than once; he has interviewed leading Israeli politicians and has been in touch with Israeli diplomats in Cairo. Yet he has never been on trial.
Despite the double-standards and the silence of some peers, what is of particular interest is that after the publication of the sentences, there was a great deal of uneasiness in the media. It would seem that persecuting journalists because they are doing their job is perceived as going too far.
As a result, the whole subject of normalization suddenly appears to be on trial in a low-key kind of way. The editor of October Weekly declared he rejected the punishment given to Sarag, because reporting on Israel was his job and he had been doing it for years. Sarag himself said that the position of the Journalists Union was illegal since the law of the country stipulates that Egyptian citizens are free to travel wherever they want.
For her part, Mustapha rejected the blame she received; she sees herself as a victim and is considering turning to the courts to have the sentence overturned. She told the media that the measures taken by her union were in direct contradiction to the freedom of the press that it should be defending, and added that the absence of normalization has brought nothing to the Palestinians; in her view, those who oppose normalization are drawing their inspiration from the 60s – that is, from Nasserism.
Veteran journalist Abdel Mohsen Salama wrote that though members of the union must respect its rules, there is a lack of clarity concerning normalization. One must distinguish between something which has a political significance regarding Israel, and normal professional activities requiring contacts with Israel and Jerusalem, he said. Those who judged Mustapha and Sarag had doubts on the subject and intend to discuss the issue again soon, he added.
Salah Issa, another well-known journalist, expressed his doubts about limiting or punishing colleagues who are doing their job. One has to remember, he said, that the Egyptian government is the principal agent of normalization.
This is the first time that the issue is out in the open in the Egyptian press. Will it lead to a wider discussion? It is far from clear. Opponents to normalization are many and powerful, and the Egyptian government does not appear disposed to confront them. This is a political hot potato, especially with the Arab world solidly against normalization, allegedly until Israel changes its ways.
The Journalists Union may have gone too far, thereby achieving the opposite of what it intended. Only time will tell.
More than 30 years have passed since an estimated two million ecstatic Egyptians lined the streets of Cairo to welcome President Sadat when he came back from his historic visit to Jerusalem. They were not easy years. And yet the peace has weathered events that could easily have been fatal. It could very well be that what Israel and Egypt share is neither love nor war, but a common understanding that both countries are fighting the same dark forces which threaten to overcome the Middle East.
Yet so much could have been done that was not. The fight against normalization did nothing to help the Palestinians, and may ultimately have prevented the emergence of a richer and stronger Egypt.
The writer is the former ambassador of Israel to Egypt, and current Fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.