|Israel’s raid on the Gaza aid flotilla angered many Egyptians [EPA]|
Egypt and Israel are technically at peace – one of the few diplomatic relationships that exist between the Jewish state and an Arab country – but you would not know it from talking to Egyptians.
The word on the Cairo street regarding Israel is anything but amicable, and incidents like last week’s attack on the international aid flotilla serve to further ingrain Egyptians’ distrust of and anger toward their northern neighbour.
When asked about the relationship between Egypt and Israel, Magdi Ahmed, a hotel employee, quickly spurted out an expletive while pretending to wipe his hands clean of dirt.
Ahmed’s friend, Ismad Shahin, chipped in, referring to the flotilla incident: “Every time our relationship moves closer, Israel does something to divide us.”
|Egypt must balance its relations with Israel and more popular pro-Palestinian gestures [EPA]
Such sentiment is the norm, and the Egyptian government has to walk a fine line in maintaining peaceful relations with Israel – an implied stipulation of US aid money – and quelling resentment of its disgruntled population by occasionally making seemingly pro-Palestinian gestures like the recent decision to open its border with Gaza at Rafah and to strip Egyptian men who are married to Israelis of their citizenship.
“The opening of the Rafah crossing was a reaction to the tragedies that happened on the Mediterranean, and also to deal with the public relations dynamic of politics,” said Gamal Gawad Soltan, a director of the semi-official Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.
“… Israel has a major image problem in the Middle East due to its policies, and the Egyptian population is not [an] exception of that.”
Egyptians are particularly unhappy that their country is perceived as an extension of US support for Israel at a time when much of the world appears united in condemning the attack on the aid flotilla, Soltan explained.
But, he stresses that there is a difference between how Egyptians feel about Israel and how they feel about the peace treaty between the two countries.
“The majority of Egyptians believe that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is good for Egypt. Egypt has benefited from peace with Israel … war is not something that Egyptians want.”
Mostafa Faruq, who works for the national bank, is not quite so positive.
“The peace treaty between Egypt and Israel? I am sorry, I am sorry,” he said, shaking his head while buying flowers in downtown Cairo.
“Yes, it was good, but it only benefited one side.
“If Israel wanted peace, it wouldn’t have killed innocent people. It is against humanity, against Christians, against Jews and against Muslims.”
There have been apprehensions regarding normalised relations between the two countries ever since Menachem Begin, the then Israeli prime minister, and Anwar al-Sadat, the then Egyptian president, shook hands on the White House lawn in Washington on March 26, 1979 – making Egypt the first Arab state to declare peace with Israel, albeit a precarious one.
The step cost al-Sadat his life – just two years later he was assassinated.
The Egyptian government has since gone to great lengths to limit the capacity for violent anti-Israeli sentiment to grow by clamping down on freedom of speech.
According to Moataz Fattah, an associate professor of political science at Cairo University, this clamp down is applied particularly strongly to popular anti-Israeli figures.
And while Egyptians are dissatisfied with the status quo vis-à-vis their leadership’s relationship with Israel, Fattah says they are too focused upon the concerns of daily life to take any real political action.
“Egyptians do not have the capacity to change their reality, so they resign from politics. Of course they fear Israel, and think that the 1973 war will not be the last war, but the problem is they don’t know what to do.”
|Egyptians worry about how their relationship with Israel is viewed elsewhere [AFP]|
According to Hala Mostafa, the editor of the Arabic-language weekly Democracy, the main dilemma confronting Egypt’s relationship with Israel is that it is two-faced.
“The regime manages to keep this relationship on the official level. It’s very good at this. The number of officials between the two sides are growing all the time.
“At the same time, for political reasons, the regime is not willing to defend the concept of peace and to admit the fact that we are at peace with Israel. Political discourse, even by the minister of foreign affairs is the same type of speech as if we don’t find peace at all.”
That somewhat schizophrenic approach to relations with Israel appears to have filtered down from the politicians to the general public.
Magdi Ahmed, the hotel employee, told me with a smirk: “I never trust an Israeli. Even if you were Israeli, I wouldn’t trust you.”
But just a few minutes later he explained: “If Israel wants peace, we’ll walk with them, straight away.”