September 24, 2015 Special Dispatch No. 6164

Egyptian Playwright Ali Salem, 1936-2015 – In Memoriam

September 24, 2015
Special Dispatch No. 6164

The Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) mourns the passing of renowned Egyptian playwright, author, and political critic Ali Salem, courageous champion of peace, freedom, and humanism.

Ali Salem (b.1936) was one of Egypt's most prominent playwrights in recent decades. He is renowned for his satirical plays, which criticize various aspects of Egyptian society and politics, with his characteristic humor and irony. His plays, not surprisingly, are imbued with allegory and fantasy. Written in spoken Egyptian dialect, Ali Salem's plays are highly accessible to the public. He leaves a literary legacy of 25 plays and 15 books.

Salem gained publicity throughout the Arab world with his play "The School of Troublemakers," which debuted very shortly after the October 1973 war. Films of the play aired on TV channels across the Arab world. The play employs allegory to criticize the tyranny of the regime and shows that order and progress can be achieved through amiability and empathy.

He was one of the few Egyptian intellectuals who, along with Tawfik Al-Hakim, Hussein Fawzi, and Naguib Mahfouz, openly supported President Anwar Sadat's peace initiative. In 1994, he decided to visit Israel, and he published his mainly positive impressions in a book, "A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors." The book sold over 60,000 copies in Egypt alone. He subsequently visited Israel again, including in 2005 for an academic conference.

For his support of peace and normalization of ties with Israel, he paid a heavy price, both personally and on the professional level. Since the publication of "A Drive to Israel," not a single Egyptian producer was willing to take on his new plays. Salem did not give in to pressure and never backed down from his support of normalized ties with Israel. He was also a harsh critic of political Islam and of the violence perpetrated in the name of religion in the Arab world in general, and in Egypt in particular.

Following are excerpts from MEMRI translations of articles by Salem and of interviews and debates with him since 2004, in Arab media and on Arab and Iranian television.

Israel Has No Intention Of Occupying Sinai; Cooperation Between Israeli And Egyptian Peoples Will Benefit The Region

On July 8, 2015, following the series of brutal attacks carried out in the Sinai by terrorist organizations, especially the Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis, the Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm published an article by Salem in which he criticized the Egyptian government's neglect of the peninsula. According to Salem, the Egyptians had been refraining from developing the Sinai due to fears on the part of the country's elite that Israel would occupy it, leaving development projects there in Israeli hands. Salem argued that Israel would not undertake such a foolish act.

He also criticized Egypt's reluctance to normalize cultural relations with Israel, saying that this was out of fear that Israeli cultural influence would endanger the Egyptian regime. In fact, he argued, it was the Arab Spring revolutions that had toppled Arab regimes, not cultural ties with Israel which, he said, would benefit the region.

Salem further said that Egypt would defeat the terrorism in the Sinai and that Israel does not exploit Egyptian violations of the peace treaty to create tension between the countries because it looks forward to improving relations in the long term. He concluded that the situation in the region would improve once the Egyptian and Israeli peoples cooperated with each other. (Read excerpts from his article here.)

Hamas Is The Enemy, Not Israel

In a TV interview that aired December 17, 2014 on Al-Arabiya TV, Salem said that it was Hamas and ISIS, and not Israel, that were Egypt's enemy. "We have to wage war and die in order [to destroy the Hamas] tunnels," he said. With regard to Israel, Ali Salem said: "We must live in harmony with our neighbors, especially considering that we have a peace treaty with them."

"Egypt Does Not Face Any Danger From Israel"

Salem defended the Camp David Accords in an interview with the Egyptian Al-Kahera Wal-Nas TV channel that aired February 18, 2013, saying that he believed that Egypt faced no danger from Israel as there is "an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, protected by the whole world." He revealed that his younger brother had been killed in the Sinai during the 1967 war, and said that "there are people who are gambling with the lives of the Egyptian youth."

"There Is A Joint Battle Against Extremism"

In a debate that aired on the Egyptian Al-Hayat TV channel on September 6, 2011, Salem defended the Camp David Accords, arguing that "Israel wants a stable country across the border." He said: "There is a joint battle against extremism." He added, countering various conspiracy views prevalent in Egypt: "I exclude the possibility that Israel sends us dairy products that sexually stimulate women, or... belts that destroy the fertility of men... I exclude the possibility that Israel sent a shark to attack people in Egypt."

"Culture Of Denial" In Egypt's Government Press

Shortly after the outbreak of the January 25 Revolution in Egypt, Salem criticized the Egyptian media and intellectuals for serving the regime and expressing its views instead of presenting the real situation in the country.  This "culture of total denial," he wrote in a January 30, 2011 article in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, is the root cause of the mass protests in Egypt. Noting that this mentality is obsolete and out of tune with the modern information age, in which all news is available to the public in real time, he warned that Egypt must acquire a mature media and cultural leadership - or the country would be lost. (Read excerpts from his article here.)

Egyptians Marrying Israelis Pose No Danger To Egyptian Society

In a TV debate that aired June 20, 2010 on Al-Alam TV, Salem scathingly criticized an Egyptian court ruling revoking the citizenship of Egyptian men who marry Israeli women. "It sounds as if we are in a state of war," he said. Responding to Egyptian lawyer Nabih Al-Wahsh and to the interviewer, who said that this might lead to Israeli "infiltration," Ali Salem asked: "Why, what will he do to us? ... Will he reveal the secrets of the hotel in which he stays?  Will he walk down the promenade, see people eating corn, and report this to the Israeli Mossad?"


"Roz Al-Yousuf" Weekly Marks 30th Anniversary of Camp David Accords

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Camp David Peace Accords, the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousuf published, on July 18, 2009, a special supplement on the political, economic, and cultural aspects of normalization of ties with Israel. Salem featured prominently in it; he was referred to as "the most famous among those singed by the flames of normalization." In an interview, he discussed his 1994 trip to Israel, his support for normalized ties and peace with Israel, and the heavy price he has paid for his views. Although he was still boycotted by the Egyptian media and theaters, he stated that he had no regrets, since "there should be no regrets for a good deed." (Read excerpts from the supplement here.)

My Trip - An Attempt To Rid Myself Of Hatred

Salem spoke at length about his 1994 Israeli visit, and about his book on it, in an April 2009 interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al-Nahar. He told the paper that as a result of these, he had been ostracized by Egypt's intellectuals, because they had been forced to face the truth and to embark upon a new road of peace for which they were unprepared. Salem added that his desire to visit Israel had been inspired by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's courageous initiative of conciliation with Israel, as well as by a simple desire to get to know the other side and to "rid himself of hatred." Peace, he said, offered many benefits for Egypt and for the entire region. (Read excerpts from the interview here.)

Against The "Culture Of Death"

In a 2007 TV interview on Abu Dhabi TV, Salem talked about the need for political and economic freedom, saying: "Whoever tells you that bread is more important than freedom is a fraud and a thief." Peace, he said, "is not a beautiful garden, in which we and the Israelis will sit together. Peace is a venue for competition." He added that the "culture of death" - i.e. considering all "others" to be enemies - is "a culture of irresponsibility."

Running From Peace Indicates Weakness And Fear

On June 21, 2006, the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat published an interview with Salem, in which he discussed the boycott of his work by Egypt's intellectuals and the peace with Israel. (Read excerpts from the interview here.)

The Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty: A Noble Agreement

After returning from a 2005 visit to Israel during which he attended an academic conference, Salem participated in a May 2005 debate on Egypt's Dream 2 TV, in which he defended his views on normalization of ties with Israel, and called the Camp David Accords "one of the most noble agreements any Egyptian leader has ever signed." Also participating in the debate were Abd Al-Halim Qandil, editor-in-chief of the Egyptian Al-Arabi daily, and Egyptian journalists Shafiq Ahmad Ali and Said 'Oqasha.

Egypt Is Threatened By Terror Groups - Not The U.S. Or Israel

In an October 2004 interview on Iran's Al-Alam TV, Salem said that most Arab leaders had been using the Palestinian cause to divert attention from their abuse of human rights. It is terrorist groups, not America or Israel, that pose a threat to Egypt, he added.

Open Letter To The Arab League: "Light At The End Of The Tunnel"

Prior to the May 2004 Arab League summit in Tunis, the London-based Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat published an open letter by  Salem to the participants, in which he wrote: "Whether we want it or notÔǪ the Hebrew state will remain the neighbor of the Palestinian state for eternity." What is needed, he argued, was "a civilized framework that will enable us to live, keep the horror of destruction distant from us, and halt the region's fall into the quagmire of terrorism, poverty, ignorance, extremism, and loss." He concluded on a note of hope: "Today, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I can see now the train of history stopping in our region, at the station of peace, and waiting for us to get on board. If anyone does not see it, it is because the smoke of the gunpowder and explosives separates him from this sight." (Read excerpts from his letter here.)

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