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June 20, 2000 Special Dispatch No. 104

Once We Started Fighting Israel We Lost Democracy; A Cultural Profile of an Egyptian Peace Activist

June 20, 2000
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 104

Author and publisher Amin Al-Mahdi is one of the most prominent figures in the Egyptian peace movement. In his book, The Arab-Israeli Conflict – the Crisis of Democracy and Peace and in a recent interview with the Israeli paper Ma'ariv,[1] Al-Mahdi argues that Arab regimes use the Arab-Israeli conflict to justify their authoritarian tendencies and that the growth of fundamentalist Islam is preventing Egypt from modernizing. Following are excerpts from the interview and Al-Mahdi's book:

Government Media Pressured Against Peace With Israel

The Egyptian government, states Al-Mahdi, encourages the Egyptian press to be hostile towards Israel: "This is schizophrenia. An editor who wants to have a pro-peace line finds it impossible. He is pressured by demagogic pressure by officials. This pressure may culminate in 'civil' murder. I have friends who support my opinions, but they work for the government press and their hands are tied... They will never say what I say. I understand them... We have a free trade treaty with the US but not a single liberal newspaper. This is a tragedy. We tried to get a license for a newspaper representing the peace activists, but [the authorities] refused. So where do I publish my articles? In London [in the Al-Hayat daily].

"Our media directs the public opinion against Israel in order to divert it from the real problems... After all, our economic situation is bad; we have Islamic extremism; our freedom is incomplete."

Arab-Israel Conflict an Excuse to Establish Dictatorships

"Arab regimes, including the Egyptian [regime], did not want to copy the Israeli democracy because they feared it would lead to their downfall. …The conflict with Israel served Arab regimes as a justification for their dictatorial policy. The policy of intimidation prevented a dialogue and the possibility of getting to know the enemy. This concept created an alliance [between Arab extremists] and warmongers in Israel and sent the entire region into many years of frost."

"The Egyptian mentality regarding peaceful relations with Israel is pathetic. We have a fascist regime. Such a regime needs wars in order to justify its centralization. It needs an external danger. This is how Ben Gurion was. He and Abd Al-Nasser cooperated [with each other] without [direct] coordination. The goals were different but the methods were the same. Abd Al-Nasser needed an external danger to build a fascist and dictatorial state. Ben Gurion said that Israel is a small state that needs additional land …the Atom bomb…military strength. He wanted more and more land."

"All domestic decisions [of Arab regimes] are security oriented," says Al-Mahdi, "There is no civil society. If you want to establish an NGO, even for art or literature, you must get a license. Everything is government controlled. Only religious people enjoy lack of control. You can always build mosques -- in the garden, in the town square, everywhere. 52 years ago there were seven centers for religious studies in Egypt, three institutions for high education, and four [religious] schools. Today there are six thousand. What is going on here?"

"We are not a democracy. They want to prevent people from knowing [the truth]. Since the days of Abd Al-Nasser there has been little progress in the realm of personal liberties. There is a little more freedom of expression in books but not in the electronic media."

Nasserism: Egypt's Debacle

Al-Mahdi was in Beirut in September 1982 and took pictures of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. His pictures were published in the Lebanese paper Al-Safir and worldwide. "Until then my thinking was shaped by Arab nationalism," he says, "a little bit of Nasserism, although I hated the dictatorship. After the massacre... I tried to think… Why is it difficult for us to say what we think?"

"In 1988 I began to understand the Rule of Synchronization in the Middle East. I realized that there is an alliance between extremists in Israel and undemocratic fascists here. Once we started fighting Israel, we lost democracy. Abd Al-Nasser was the number one defeatist. He was also a great dictator... Then, I saw peace with Israel as the key."

"In 1952 [the Egyptian regime] destroyed the political street. This is the worst damage [inflicted] on Egypt until now. Until Abd Al-Nasser showed up, there was lively political activity. There was a large middle class that wanted to be like Europe. Egypt was secular. Today, [there are] 240 thousand mosques in Egypt. In Iran there are only 88 thousand. All these mosques [serve] propaganda against modernism, [rights for] women, and globalization."

"When you are busy with writing fatwas [Islamic religious rulings], you forget democracy and modernism. You humiliate women and do not need freedom because you expect mercy from the heavens but nothing from humankind"

Al-Mahdi coined the term "seven sisters" to describe the Arab regimes that followed Abd Al-Nasser: Yemen, Libya, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, the Sudan, and the PLO. "They can make peace with any state, but not with their own people. Their slogan was: 'no voice should be higher than the voice of the battle.' There is a campaign against the culture of peace. Anyone who opposes the revolution is condemned. It can be seen in the press."

Normalization With Israel

The struggle against normalization is a fraud, says Al-Mahdi. "Israel and Egypt have trade relations. There is tourism. Israelis spend a million and a half nights a year in Egypt. 14 thousand Egyptians work in Israel. This is a whole village. The largest factory in Egypt for underwear is the Israeli Delta factory, which employs 3,000 workers. There are three agricultural villages here with Israeli experts. There are tight security relations. There is coordination between the armies. Who said there is no normalization? They say that the reason is the Palestinian problem. We have a war with the Sudan, but the bridges are open and there is normalization with Sudan, [while] with Israel, there is no war for 27 years, and yet the bridges are actually frozen."

"We want to sell them gas, we have security cooperation with them, we bring tourists, but we know nothing about them. The leaders can do everything, they can visit Israel, they can sign treaties, no one will hurt them. The same goes for security people and bankers. But artists and intellectuals are in danger [if they do the same]."

Zionism and Post-Zionism

In his book, Al-Mahdi shows to Arab readers that Zionism did not emerge from racism, but rather from anti-Semitism in Europe.

Al-Mahdi is very impressed with the kibbutzim phenomenon. "The kibbutz," he says, "has an important part in the fact that Israel is a very strong state... Today [however] it is becoming a memory. This is what happens to ideology. In the beginning, it needs dreamers, then warriors, and at the end, biographers."

"I think post-Zionist Israel is more ready for peace and sees the need in justice for all citizens. When you are a modern state, it is good for the entire region, not only for you."

Amin Al-Mahdi is optimistic. He is sure that at the end of the day, those who are for peace will win.


[1] Ma'ariv (Israel), June 8, 2000. Along with the interview, Al-Mahdi's book is excerpted in Ma'ariv.

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