Egypt activist advocates for better ties with Israel

Emad el Dafrawi braves secret police and explosion to meet with ‘Post’ in Cairo and explain why Egyptian media fuel hatred of Israel.

EMAD EL DAFRAWI, an Egyptian pacifist in Cairo 370 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
EMAD EL DAFRAWI, an Egyptian pacifist in Cairo 370
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Two years into the messy aftermath of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution, there is one surprising topic that nearly all the activists ignore: Israel.
Egyptians from every side feel the same way toward Israel now as they did when the revolution started – mostly indifferent. We have so many internal problems, let’s deal with those first, we don’t even need to talk about Israel, many protesters said.
One small group of activists, however, is not ignoring the Israel issue. No to Compulsory Military Service is a pacifist group started by Maikel Nabil Sanaad in 2009 aimed at encouraging Egyptians to exercise their right to refuse to serve while promoting the value of pacifism.
Emad el Dafrawi is one of the central activists in the No to Compulsory Military Service and an avowed pacifist.
For el Dafrawi, pacifism means advocating for peace with all countries – including Israel.
“If there was no conflict and no wars between Egypt and Israel, I believe that we would have been closer to democracy,” el Dafrawi said in downtown Cairo, days after the second anniversary of the January 25 Revolution.
“This is an issue that they always use to try to distract people’s attention from the internal issues or real issues that affect them.”
El Dafrawi, 25, grew up in a Muslim home and was apolitical as a teenager. But when he studied mass communications at university, he started reading international news as a way to improve his English and check the bias of the state media.
“[Egyptians] are not really aware of how much, with the Israel issue, they’re really manipulated and they’re really lied to,” said el Dafrawi.
“Normal Egyptians don’t hate Jews or Israelis. And if they do it is because of propaganda of the media, because they were taught that Israel...shouldn’t exist.”
Small in stature, El Dafrawi speaks softly and deliberately.
It’s clear that he has carefully thought through each one of these arguments.
He refuses my request to refer to Israel as “Canada” throughout the interview in Groppi’s, a Cairene institution famous for its desserts.
“To me, being silent is as subjugating to racism and bigotry,” he wrote in an email afterward, assuring me that he wants his name published in full.
El Dafrawi also lives his opinions with a fierce and quiet determination. By refusing to serve in the military – as is required of all Egyptian males – he cannot work and cannot travel until the military gives him an exemption. He has been waiting for more than a year, living with his family and subsisting on freelance translating.
His family does not support his decision, though for now they do not talk about it. He could be stuck in this limbo until age 30, when he will age out of his required military service.
El Dafrawi doesn’t consider himself “pro-Israel,” realizing the label has many connotations.
He is critical of some of Israel’s policies, and believes that the Israeli army acts with too much force against Palestinians in Gaza. But he is still interested in advocating for normalization with Israel and encouraging Egyptians to at least get the full story in order to form their opinions from a neutral standpoint.
El Dafrawi cited the 2011 terrorist attack near Eilat as an example of the local media’s incitement. On August 18, 2011, terrorists from the Gaza Strip infiltrated Israel from Sinai and killed eight Israelis, including the driver of an Egged bus and a number of soldiers before slipping back over the border int`o Sinai. When Israel retaliated and shot at the fleeing terrorists, up to five Egyptian soldiers were killed, sparking violent anti-Israel protests in Cairo where protesters stormed the Israeli Embassy.
“People were violently protesting, because they didn’t understand the story from the beginning,” el Dafrawi said. The local media only covered the Israeli soldiers shooting at Egyptian soldiers, and nothing about the terrorist attack. Even if Egyptians wanted to form an informed opinion, they couldn’t, he said.
Instead, the incident reinforced anti-Israel beliefs.
“They already have a presumption that Israel is always an aggressor, that Israel is always an attacker, that they attack any person and any place without reason because they feel like it,” el Dafrawi said.
News media in Arabic reinforces these opinions by using explosive language to describe Israeli activity.
“They handpick words which play on peoples’ emotions,” el Dafrawi explained.
Halfway through the interview, Groppi’s is rocked by a loud explosion down the street.
The bustling crowds outside stop for a moment to look around, before quickly resuming their activities.
“I’m not sure what that was.
But you know, it’s kind of business as usual,” el Dafrawi said, dismissing it with a wave of his hand. “Maybe it’s a tire of a car that exploded. People are much less concerned when they hear any loud noise. Let’s continue.”
El Dafrawi also blames Israel for the lack of reliable information about the country in Egypt.
He accused Israel of not following through with the normalization promised in the 1979 peace treaty, claiming it should have created lasting relationships with Egyptian citizens rather than relying solely on the dictatorship.
“The regime won’t stay forever,” he said. “This is how it is all over history, all the regimes can rule as much as they can, but eventually they fall.”
El Dafrawi also knows that his opinions put him in a dangerous position in Egypt, where he insists on speaking openly about Israel in public places and wants his full name and picture to be published, even in so-called “enemy publications.”
“For a few moments maybe I say what I want [about Israel] and I know they may harm me,” he said, matter-of-factly.
“They may claim that it is a conspiracy theory, they might make people believe that he is a collaborator with a Zionist entity and these stupid things, but why should I care? If you are afraid, you are not going to do anything.”
El Dafrawi oscillates between hope and fatalism. When speaking about the dangers of being pro-peace with Israel, he becomes bleak.
“Our lives are wasted anyway, our lives are ruined, so it is better to try at least. Maybe the generations after us will have a better life,” he said.
But then he strikes a hopeful note.
“[The situation] has to improve, and I’ll tell you why.
They can’t control the information as much as they could.
Even if they tried to control it, you would see that people would get the information from somewhere else. People are starting to question what they believe,” he said.
El Dafrawi noted that after World War II it took years after the propaganda stopped before Germans began changing their own views toward Jews.
“My peaceful views aren’t representative of the youth, because no one can represent all the youth of Egypt,” he said.
“But they are representative of the people who want to live in peace, who want development, who are sick of the hate climate, the propaganda and the racism.”
As we finished the interview, el Dafrawi cocked his head at a nearby table and said softly, “Looks like we had a friend join us,” as a man in a suit, possibly from the secret security services, also gets up to leave.
My stomach dropped 10 stories as el Dafrawi casually mentioned that the man showed up halfway through the interview and has been listening in. It is a chilling reminder that despite the determination of one young activist to make sure he gets the full story about Israel, Egypt still has a long way to go.