While the majority of Egyptians readily and vociferously back the Palestinian cause, few would opt to resume hostilities with Israel
By ALASDAIR SOUSSI CAIROExtract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
On the morning of October 6, 1981, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat left his presidential palace to attend a ceremony marking the eighth anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. It was Sadat's favorite holiday - a day with great military pomp and circumstance - a fitting tribute to the men who fought and died for the glory of Egypt and the Arab world in the war that he himself had launched in October 1973 to dislodge Israel from the Egyptian territory it had conquered in 1967.
Surrounded by eight bodyguards and seated in an open-topped black Cadillac, Sadat traveled to the graveside of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser, to pay homage to Egypt's Pan-Arabist hero, and laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier before making his way to the parade ground on the outskirts of Cairo.
Arriving on schedule at 10 a.m., Sadat took his place in the center of the front row of the reviewing stand, next to Hosni Mubarak, then Egypt's vice president.
As six jets thundered overhead, coloring the morning sky with brilliant trails of multi-colored smoke, a group of trucks veered off from the military parade and drew up in front of the president and his entourage. Four armed infiltrators, led by Lieut. Khalid al-Islambouli, dismounted and headed towards Sadat who, believing they were about to greet him, stood up and saluted. It would be his last official act as president. Moments later, Sadat and 11 others were cut down in a hail of bullets, tragically ending the life and 11-year reign of a man who was, and remains, the most controversial figure in Egyptian politics.
For Sadat had not only made war with Israel, but also peace, incurring the wrath of Egyptian Islamists and nationalists alike. Only two years earlier, on March 26, 1979, he had been on the White House lawn in Washington, signing one of the most significant documents in the history of the Middle East - the Egypt-Israel peace agreement. On that chilly spring day in March 1979, some 1,500 guests and millions more watching at home witnessed Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin put their names to Arabic, Hebrew and English versions of the peace accord, officially ending more than 30 years of war that had cost both sides much bloodshed and instability.
The man who brokered the peace agreement, U.S. president Jimmy Carter declared, "We have won, at last, the first step of peace - a first step on a long and difficult road." Begin, overwhelmed by the occasion, exclaimed, "No more war, no more bloodshed, no more bereavement, peace unto you, shalom, salaam, forever." Sadat, who, as the first Arab leader to make peace with Israel, perhaps appreciated the historical significance of this agreement more than both Begin and Carter, referred to the words of the Prophet Isaiah, when he said, "Let us work together until the day comes when they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks."
It was indeed a historic occasion for all concerned. But unbeknown to Sadat, who had jointly won the Nobel Peace Prize with Begin one year earlier, he had just signed his own death warrant. Yet in doing so, he also ushered in for Egypt an era of peace, which has lived on for the last 30 years, even after his own violent death threatened to tear it asunder.
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of peace with Israel has been the effect on the people of Egypt themselves.
While 30 years of official peace have made many Egyptians resigned to Israel's position as a major power in the Middle East - in contrast to the palpable outrage that exists in countries such as Lebanon, Syria and Iran, with whom Israel shares no diplomatic relations - the angry protests against Israel's recent actions in the Gaza Strip have shown that Egyptian public opinion is still firmly behind the Palestinian cause. Many opposition groups in Egypt - not least the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood - are still able to successfully harness the Palestinian issue and that of the Arab world's general hostility towards Israel for political gain.
"The shifts in the Egyptians' perceptions of Israel, especially those of the younger generations, as a result of the changes of Israel's image in the curricula and the official discourse, has been interesting," says Bassem Ahmed, a lecturer in political science at the British University in Egypt, El-Sherouk, on the outskirts of Cairo, in an interview with The Jerusalem Report.
"While the majority of Egyptians probably still don't consider Israel a friendly neighbor, many accept its existence as a fait accompli and do not contemplate liberating historical Palestine. The majority of those who still consider Israel an enemy base their position either on religious beliefs or Pan-Arabist principles, not so much on the Egyptian national interest." Dr. Ahmed warns, however, that "this might change in the near future, especially as a result of the Arab satellite channel's coverage of Israel's atrocities."
"We fought Israel in several wars and lost, but by signing the peace treaty with them we lost everything," says a 61-year-old Cairo-based surgeon, speaking to The Report on condition of anonymity. "Egypt is now sidelined and that is what Israel wanted. There will never be another war with Israel, but Egypt thought wrongly that what we couldn't achieve with war we could achieve with negotiation. That's why Egypt is so frantically playing the 'game of peace,' but Israel dictated the war before and is now dictating the peace!"
Yet there is little or no desire within Egypt to resume hostilities with Israel, however much public attitudes might suggest to the contrary, says Emma Murphy, a professor of Middle East Politics at Durham University, England. "I don't think many Egyptians would sincerely consider going back to war with Israelâ€¦ they want lots of loud rhetoric and lots of shouting against Israel but they really want America stepping in and doing the dirty work, because Egypt can't afford it - economically and politically they can't afford that type of destabilization," Murphy tells The Report.
For some, Anwar Sadat will be remembered as a visionary; for others a traitor who sold Egypt and the rest of the Arab world out. In Cairo, there will be no celebrations this March 26 to mark three decades of peace with Israel, even if political and economic stability have been Sadat's legacy. But while there's been little in the way of trade and tourism between the two countries, there is a strong sense in Egypt that Israel has derived far more than Egypt from the peace settlement that shook the Middle East to its core.
"Israel has undoubtedly benefited absolutely enormously from the treaty, compared to Egypt," says Murphy. "The taboo was broken and it showed that it was no longer impossible to make peace with Israel. And with that the Arab world was fractured - it was a real divide-and-rule success. And once the precedent with Egypt was set, it made it that much easier for Jordan."
What's more, adds Murphy, it became possible for the Israelis to "focus their military attentions on Syria and Lebanonâ€¦ because it didn't have to keep such a close eye on the boundary with Egypt - and that has been of enormous value to themâ€¦"
Indeed, many analysts think Israel signed the treaty with Egypt in order to marginalize Egypt's Arab role, and thus tip the balance of power in Israel's favor. One of the direct results of this, say many commentators, was the 1982 war in Lebanon.
For its part, Egypt got the energy-rich Sinai peninsula back and began receiving substantial American aid, but, in retrospect, Murphy believes that "1979 wasn't a great deal for Egypt, but the alternatives were probably worse."
The March 26, 1979 peace agreement was a watershed in Arab-Israeli politics, yet for Egypt, the journey towards peace with Israel and the journey after are shrouded in intrigue and unresolved tensions - an unsettled mix that still grips the land of the Pharaohs to this very day.
The Carter-backed peace initiative between Egypt and Israel began under the auspices of U.S. president Richard Nixon after the Yom Kippur War. Launching a surprise attack on Israel on October 6, 1973, Egypt and Syria had come close to recapturing those territories lost in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, but despite crossing the Suez Canal and making initial gains, Egyptian efforts to retake the energy-rich Sinai region fell short and the conflict ended with the Egyptian Third Army surrounded and Israeli forces poised 101 kilometers from Cairo.
The Yom Kippur War created a regional and global crisis and focused minds in Washington. Nixon, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, sent secretary of state Henry Kissinger to the region to seek a peaceful solution. Kissinger's shuttle diplomacy resulted in partial troop withdrawals and asserted American dominance over the negotiating process, but it wasn't until 1977 and the election of Jimmy Carter that real headway was made.
By this time, Sadat had become convinced of the need to pursue peace with Israel and after intense behind-the-scenes diplomatic activity, in November he traveled to Jerusalem to address the Knesset, thereby infuriating most of his countrymen and the entire Arab world. "Egypt didn't decide to pursue peace with Israel, Anwar Sadat did," says Murphy. "It was very much his own initiative and wasn't even approved of by his closest colleagues - it was a very dramatic and risky thing to do, which he paid for in the end."
Sadat's reasoning, says Murphy, was a pragmatic one, based on the poor state of the country's economy; the decline of the Soviet Union, whom Egypt had relied upon for economic and military assistance (Sadat abrogated the Soviet-Egyptian Treaty of Friendship in 1976); the growing realization that the United States was a dominant world power with whom Egypt could forge beneficial ties; and the failure of pan-Arab nationalism, which suffered greatly from the collapse of the United Arab Republic between Egypt and Syria in 1961 and Nasser's defeat in the 1967 Six Day War.
Extract from an article in Issue 24, March 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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