Arab World: Israeli-Egyptian relations: Sweet or sour?

While ties between the two governments are undoubtedly pragmatic, ‘normalization’ is a different story

Israeli flag burning Cairo 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Israeli flag burning Cairo 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Given growing Israeli disenchantment with the absence of “normal” relations with Egypt – cultural, educational and other exchanges between the two nations – the Israeli mind-set has become accustomed to, and satisfied with, the minimalistic interpretation of the Egyptian-Israeli peace.
Israeli decision-makers now embrace the original Egyptian interpretation of “normalization,” settling on strong military cooperation and a strategic partnership.
With Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak currently hospitalized in Germany, rumors are rife throughout Israel. Most experts agree, however, that the Mubarak era is by no means over yet. There is little faith in the success of either Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, achieving presidential status. The Israeli establishment, enjoying the best strategic and security cooperation with Egyptian counterparts in years, is by no means keen to see the current leadership disappear. As for the future, most eyes are set upon Gamal Mubarak, the current president’s son, despite Egyptian denials that the “throne” shall not be passed on from father to son.
According to Israeli Middle East experts and decision-makers, particularly those from the security establishment, the evaluation is that the Egyptian public is not at all concerned with the Shi’ite “problem.” Nor is the Egyptian public in the least worried about numerous Iranian attempts to collect intelligence by sending “diplomats” to Cairo who were, in fact, members of the Iranian intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, one cannot ignore the Egyptian regime’s long-standing enmity with the Iranian leadership, both on account of the Shi’ite-Sunni chasm, and due to a continuation of historical clashes that go back to the naming of a main Teheran street after former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s assassin, Khalid Islambouli, and the burial of the Shah in the center of Cairo.
The present indifference of the Egyptian public toward the Iranian issues, including its quest for nuclear power, makes for obvious concern among Israeli decision-makers regarding a possible future leadership that may lay aside the concern both countries harbor vis-à-vis Iran. Although Egypt propagates for a demilitarized region, while Israel will not agree to that in the near future and in present circumstances, the current Egyptian administration undoubtedly perceives Iran as a security threat, lending Israel and Egypt a clear, mutual strategic interest.
Secular Egyptian experts point toward what they refer to as an unmistakable trend, visible over the past two decades, of “Islamisization” of Egyptian society and claim that the country is experiencing an unprecedented religious revival – particularly after the ’80s and ’90s, when millions of Egyptians who had been working in Saudi Arabia and in the Gulf Emirates were driven back to Egypt by the drop in oil prices and the economic crisis and reinforced the trend.
The Egyptian establishment often cannot provide basic needs in education and welfare. Such vacuums are readily filled by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups.
Interestingly, Israeli academics and experts are less concerned, and by and large do not foresee a significant change in the regime in the near future as a result of the aforementioned developments.
Nonetheless, all Israeli experts and decision-makers have become accustomed to the effects of the strengthening Islamist movement within Egypt on the public’s perception of Israel. The Egyptian media is viewed with care in Israel, and incitement and anti-Semitic messaging does not go unnoticed.
An issue that raises concern in Israeli circles is the infiltration of Islamic thought and influence in the Egyptian military and public educational systems, despite those two strongholds being very much in the hands of the current secular leadership. This is seen as a concession made by the leadership to appease the public and divert attention from internal problems, such as the economy.
Israeli decision-makers and experts also carefully watch the continued love-hate relationship between the Egyptian establishment and the Muslim Brotherhood. While making periodic concessions to the Islamists, the regime certainly does not hesitate to also show its iron fist. On the one hand, when Mubarak, pressured by the United States, let the Brothers run in the 2005 general election as “independents,” no fewer than 88 of them were elected to the parliament – a fifth of the total number. On the other hand, some 10,000 Brotherhood members were prosecuted over the last 20 years and approximately 5,000 are in administrative detentions.
The latest arrests took place barely a month after the organization elected a new supreme leader, veteran hardliner Muhammad Badie, and a new Guidance Council made of staunch conservatives. Egyptian authorities are trying to prevent the supreme leader and his team from asserting their authority and making their mark. They have forbidden Badie and the members of the Guidance Council to travel abroad to gather support and funds, and they closely monitor their movements inside the country.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Despite many attempts to mediate between the Palestinian factions, it is generally held that the Mubarak administration and the security agencies have little remaining effect on Hamas. Egyptian public sentiment is against the group, as it is perceived as belittling the strength and status of Egypt. Sensing this, Mubarak played on those sentiments when he stood against Hamas during the IDF incursion into Gaza in the summer of 2008. Likewise, the Egyptian leadership does not falter in building a metal barrier along its border with Gaza, to prevent Palestinians infiltrating its territory.
Nonetheless, there is a clear difference among the Egyptian public vis-à-vis Hamas on the one hand and the general suffering of the Palestinians on the other. Behind closed doors, while some Egyptian intellectuals, and particularly the regime, lay the blame for the stalemate in peace talks not solely on the Israeli government, but also on the Palestinian leadership, the government of course realizes that public sentiment lies with the Palestinian people. This, naturally, plays a significant role in forming the Egyptian leadership’s policies toward relations with the Jewish state.
Strategic partnership and security cooperation can fall under pragmatic maneuvering for the benefit of the Egyptian motherland. Normalization, on the other hand, is a completely different story. The current state of affairs is a continuation and, at times, an exacerbation of a long-brewing situation that frowns upon allowing any kind of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries.
One such recent example is the banning of Hussein Sarag, deputy editor of the Egyptian weekly October, from the journalism syndicate for the duration of three months, after he admitted to making several trips to Israel to conduct interviews and research. With alarming proximity to this incident, Hala Mustafa, a prominent researcher in one of Egypt’s leading think-tanks and editor of one of its more popular quarterlies, El Democracia, was chastised for meeting with the Israeli ambassador in Cairo, Shalom Cohen.Self censorship is another manifestation, given the blatant anti-Israeli sentiment fed, among other things, by the local and Arab media. One such example is the recent declaration by the director of Egyptian film Heliopolis that he was withdrawing his film’s participation in the Canadian film festival because of the inclusion of a program dealing with Israeli movies pertaining to Tel Aviv.
Economic Prospects
During a recent trip to Egypt, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu raised the idea of cooperation in a solar energy project. Israel would supply the technology, while Egypt would provide the land required for the project. The electricity produced would power both states, with excess energy being sold to other countries. Mubarak reportedly expressed his interest in the idea and agreed to explore the issue.
Nonetheless, this plan is yet in its conceptual stages.
A gas deal signed in August 2005 has also been of tremendous value to several Egyptian and Israeli tycoons, yet little of its fruit has been felt by the two peoples.
Currently, there is one working model of a mutually managed Egyptian-Israeli plant for textile manufacturing, built and nurtured by an Israeli peace-oriented philanthropist and entrepreneur, Dov Lautman. This plant, active for the past 15 years or so, has had a low profile in the local media, yet has weathered all political upheavals, including two intifadas, particularly given the unspoken support by the Egyptian leadership and security agencies. Such models are perhaps the only potential future for reconciliation between the two nations.
Rather than being “sweet” or “sour,” Egyptian-Israeli relations overthe past few decades, and now more than ever, have developed abitter-sweet flavor. While the ties between the two governments areundoubtedly pragmatic, security cooperation being at one of itsall-time peaks, it appears that this is the case despite – or perhapson account of – the nature of the peace between the two nations. Giventhe decade-long Israeli disenchantment with the prospects ofnormalization, it appears that Israeli decision-makers have long sinceput aside hope and endeavors to raise the temperature of the relations.
RuthWasserman Lande, a former adviser to President Shimon Peres, iscurrently on sabbatical from the Foreign Ministry and a candidate for aPhd from Oxford University in Middle Eastern affairs.