Make money, not war

transaction deal 88 (photo credit: )
transaction deal 88
(photo credit: )
Cairo has been my home for the last six months now. It is a city of contrasts: rich and poor, Muslim and non-Muslim, capitalist, Islamist and socialist. So what has this experience taught me about cross-communal relations in the Arab world's largest metropolis? Cross-communal relations exist in three languages: religious, political and neither. Religious dialogue is when we talk to each other as representatives of our religious traditions. Political dialogue is when we talk to each other as representatives of our political entities. And, the "neither"? Let's leave that till later. Many here view Egypt as the center of the three monotheistic religions. The patriarchs fled here. Moses was born here. Jesus fled here. And Muhammad? He might not have visited… but Egypt is a majority Muslim country, which covers that base. I celebrated Rosh Hashana in the Adlee Street Synagogue in downtown Cairo, a huge building, lavishly decorated, with a ladies gallery so high that any woman with vertigo would have found an excuse to stay at home. It was heavily guarded by Egyptian police. I was saddened by the need for such protection in the 21st century, but gladdened that the Egyptian government took the safety of Jews, and the preservation of the Egyptian Jewish heritage, so seriously. WHEN WE read the Akeida, the story of the binding of Isaac, I quietly wondered what the police outside would have thought had they known they were protecting the reading of a text that contradicted the Islamic version of the story - in which Ishmael, not Isaac, was taken up and then saved from slaughter. But, hey, this is the Middle East, the cradle of contradictions. My most memorable moment came after the service, when I went into the adjoining library to find Ibrahim, the Muslim librarian, prostrated in prayer - on a talit. This fusion of Islamic and Jewish ritual in a place of Jewish study was so powerful that the image remains embedded in my mind. Ibrahim was so very apologetic. But I was delighted. He felt no inhibition about using a Jewish object as part of his Islamic prayers. Happily, Ibrahim and I now study together - Arabic and Hebrew. This is not to imply that all is rosy. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion are widely available in leading book shops, as well as on street corners. And conspiracy theories about Jews ruling the world are never far away. Yet relations between Jews and Muslims do not exist solely on the religious level. The Israeli disengagement from Gaza has done much to improve the image of Israel and Jews. Here it was called the insihab (withdrawal), reflecting the prevailing Egyptian view that Israel was forced out. But the move has been welcomed by most here as a step in the right direction and has enabled the Egyptian government to openly praise Jews and host Israeli leaders in public. BUT ULTIMATELY it is neither religious nor political dialogue that will bridge the gap between the religions. This will come only through a third, neutral language that knows no borders and has no favourites: the language of business. Happily, Egypt has adopted a similar path to Jordan in setting an example of cooperation to the rest of the world. The Egypt-Israel-USA Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ) trade agreement, which permits Egyptian companies duty- and quota-free access to the US market providing they use some Israeli content, holds much promise for all our futures. The 1998 Israel-Jordan QIZ agreement has already reaped great benefits for hundreds of Israeli and Jordanian companies, with Jordanian QIZ-related exports growing from $25.1 million in 2000 to $1.1 billion in 2004. The Egyptian-Israeli QIZ offers even greater opportunities. Israeli exports to Egypt have already increased by over 134% since the signing of the QIZ agreement in December 2004. And in addition to preventing the much-feared collapse of the Egyptian textile industry, Egyptian exports to the USA via the QIZ doubled from the first to the second quarter of 2005. Egypt and Israel have complimentary competitive advantages, which produces a powerful combination. Remarkably, last month 250 businessmen - Egyptian, Israeli and others - mingled, strategized and built alliances at the QIZ conference in Cairo. While export to the US remains the strategic aim, these contacts are also encouraging, allowing both sides to explore opportunities in each other's domestic markets. CROSS-BORDER (religious or national) business creates mutual interests, meaning all sides are winners. It changes the nature of the game from zero-sum to win-win. It solidifies relationships and adds flesh and sinew to the fragile bones of existing interreligious and political relationships. Money talks. And it needs to talk the right language. It is the most effective means of allowing all the population - including those who cannot afford higher education or cross-border travel - to benefit from peace and cooperation. And it is the people, not the leaders, who hold the key to our future. Today's challenge is to bring the virtues of cooperation and peace down from the lofty heights of governments to the hearts, pockets (and in Egypt, stomachs) of the people. The key to this is business. The writer, based in Egypt, works as a cross-border business consultant for QIZ-registered companies.