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November 2, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2624

'Roz Al-Yousuf' Special Supplement: Normalization with Israel – For and Against

November 2, 2009
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 2624

To mark the 30th anniversary of the Camp David Peace Accords, the Egyptian weekly Roz Al-Yousuf published a special supplement on the political, economic, and cultural aspects of normalization with Israel.

Following is an overview of the articles and interviews in the supplement: [1]

Normalization - Crime or Complex?

The editorial in the supplement states: "Although much water has flowed under the bridge of Egyptian-Israeli relations since the signing of the Camp David Accords, we still haven't developed a clear position on normalization [with Israel]. This issue has been manipulated for political purposes to such an extent that it has lost its meaning and possibly its value, so that we can no longer tell whether normalization with Israel is a crime or a complex…

"Is rejecting normalization still a useful weapon, which should be used… to cause Israel to make genuine concessions, or is it a weapon that has lost all its effectiveness?...

"Taken literally, normalization does exist; it is embodied in the [Camp David] Peace Accords, in the QIZ agreement, [2] in the export of [natural] gas to Israel, and in dozens of Egyptians who maintain ties with Israel or even are married to Israelis. However, as far as the public and the ideological [climate] are concerned, the Egyptian people has not overcome the psychological barrier of establishing relations with a country that still occupies some Arab land, and still sees Israel as an enemy in [the Arabs'] midst…"

Yes to Peace, No to Normalization

Roz Al-Yousuf editor Karam Gaber states that the publication of the supplement was motivated by several recent events pertinent to the Egyptian-Israeli relations, including the controversy over translating books by Israeli authors into Arabic, [3] the commotion over letting Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim perform in the Cairo Opera House, a ruling by Egypt's Administrative Court to revoke the Egyptian citizenship of Egyptians married to Israeli women, [4] and others - issues that had sparked dispute between two opposing camps in Egyptian society.

Gaber writes: "While most Egyptians want peace and aren't seeking a substitute for it, they nevertheless oppose normalization… However, the Arab countries are proposing to Israel a peace initiative that includes normalization. Such a peace, as well as full normalization, seems farfetched, but that does not obviate the need for the Egyptian public, and for the Arab people in general, to consolidate a position on this issue.

"It has been 32 years since [Egyptian president Anwar] Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, and 30 years since the signing of the [Camp David] Peace Accords - yet the issue [of normalization] is still up in the air… Discussing the matter is imperative, but opening a door for such a discussion is not tantamount to calling for normalization. This is a call to extricating [ourselves] from the schizophrenic state in which [Egyptian] society has wallowed these past three decades."

A New Debate on 'Ali Salem's Visit to Jerusalem

A substantial part of the supplement is devoted to Egyptian intellectual, journalist, writer, and playwright 'Ali Salem, referred to as "the most famous among those singed by the flames of normalization." [5] In an interview, Salem speaks again of his trip to Israel 15 years ago, of his support for normalization and peace with Israel, and of the heavy price he has paid for his views. Salem - who is still boycotted by the Egyptian media and theaters - says that he has no regrets, since "there should be no regrets for a good deed."

The supplement reassesses Salem's case, with prominent Egyptian intellectuals commenting on normalization and debating whether 'Ali Salem had become a scapegoat or was ostracized for good reason. Egyptian philosopher and researcher Dr. Yousuf Zeidan, director of the Centre for Arabic Manuscripts at the Alexandria library, states that the reaction to Salem's visit to Israel was overly extreme and aggressive. He reports that Salem was not given a chance to defend his position at the meeting that preceded his expulsion from the Egyptian Writers Association. While calling Salem's excursion "an unjustifiable escapade," Zeidan says that the Egyptian intellectuals' reaction to it was irrational, and they should have found a better solution than to expel him from the writers' association.

Egyptian author Muhammad 'Abd Al-Mun'im contends that the main losers in this episode were Salem's detractors, who revealed their true faces by rejecting freedom and democracy. It is inconceivable, he says, that professional associations should impose their will on their members and deprive them of freedom. Al-Mun'im argues that it is wrong for such associations to reject a peace agreement that has been endorsed by the Egyptian People's Council and the entire nation. "Do they live in some other country?" he asks.

Egyptian Writers Association director Muhammad Salmawy refuses to comment specifically on 'Ali Salem, but says: "The Writers Association's position on normalization is clear and steadfast, and we have already made decisions in this regard, [to the effect that] serious steps will be taken against [any] member who maintains ties [with Israel in the framework of] normalization."

Prominent Egyptian author Youssef Al-Qaid states that he "adamantly rejects normalization, since Israeli society is not a normal society; it is nothing but a gang."

For the Egyptian Peasant, Israel is the Root of All Evil

The renowned Egyptian poet 'Abed Al-Rahman Al-Abnodi, who writes for the government daily Al-Akhbar, states that the attitude of the Egyptian fellah (peasant) towards Israel shows that normalization is impossible. He states that in the Egyptian peasantry's collective consciousness Israel is justifiably associated with evil and destruction, while the Arabs in general perceive it as a country imposed on them by force, and therefore consider any relations with it illegitimate.

The Egyptian fellah, Al-Abnodi explains, blames Israel for the rising prices of fertilizer and for the substandard pesticides that have damaged his land and crops. In fact, the peasants attribute all of Egypt's troubles to Israel's ongoing war against Egypt, even though Egypt has declared that the 1973 war was its last with Israel.

In his characteristic lyrical language, Al-Abnodi adds: "The illiterate fellah, who knows only his hoe, his bent back, and his cup of tea, is well aware that Israel has found its way into Egypt's arteries and is [poisoning its blood]… The Egyptians have witnessed the inhumanity with which [Israel] destroyed Gaza and thereby weakened us Egyptians. Anyone who weakens part of the Muslim nation also weakens Egypt, and its government's position vis-à-vis Israel makes no difference at all. I do not like the peace dove, and I do not like it when Egypt takes on the role [of peace dove]…"

Egyptians Marrying Israeli Women - A Demographic Advantage for the Arabs

Egyptian journalist Iqbal Baraka argues that marriages between Egyptian men and Israeli women actually benefit the Arabs, since they boost the Arab population of Israel. She condemns the Egyptian Administrative Court decision to revoke the citizenship of these Egyptian men, calling it tantamount to an ideological death sentence and more extreme and severe than physical execution. She also wonders why there should be legal measures against young people who work in or marry citizens of a country in which Egypt has an embassy and an ambassador.

Baraka also speaks against "those who abuse the religion" by arguing that marriage between Egyptians and Israelis contravenes shari'a but fail to support their view with evidence from the Koran or the hadith. Muslim law, she adds, permits a Muslim to marry a woman from among "the People of the Book," i.e. a Jew or a Christian. Besides, she says, these marriages are usually not between Egyptians and Jewish women, but between Egyptians and Arab Israeli women, which is certainly not problematic from a religious point of view.

Baraka concludes by saying: "If I were one of the decision makers, I would encourage young people to marry Palestinians who have Israeli citizenship so as to increase the number of Arabs in Israel and to expedite the [demographic] explosion which Israel so dreads. [Such marriages] can help mix Arab and Israeli blood, and thereby end the myth of the 'the Jewish state.'"

The Egyptian Stock Exchange Opposes Trade with Israel

An article on economic relations states that the Cairo Stock Exchange strictly opposes normalization with Israel, and that the companies that deal with Israel can be counted on the fingers of one hand. These companies, the article says, deal with Israel in secret for fear of losing investments, and when their ties with Israel do come to light, the value of their shares invariably plummets.

As an example, the article mentions a large and established Egyptian plastics plant headed by well-known businessman 'Imad As'ad, whose stock dropped steeply following rumors that it had signed an export deal with an Israeli company. Despite this company's denials, its stock recovered only marginally.

The article also mentions two large textile companies, which, together with three others, are responsible for 25 percent of export within the framework of the QIZ. It reports that despite their size and influence, their stock is extremely low, since they cooperate with Israel.

Normalization in the Media: "A Journalist Who Goes To Israel Is Like a Plumber Who Descends Into a Sewer... It's His Job"

The debate over normalization is especially heated in the field of the media, where the line between normalization and the journalist's professional duties can be very fine, even nonexistent. Egyptian Journalists Association head Makram Muhammad Ahmad emphasizes this problem. He states that when Egypt's foreign minister visits Israel, for example, he is routinely accompanied by Egyptian news editors; some extremists perceive this as normalization, while other Egyptians see it differently.

Hussein Sarag, deputy editor of the Egyptian government weekly October, states that he made his first trip to Israel right after Sadat's assassination, and has since visited Israel 25 times. He writes that visiting Israel is important for a journalist, because it is vital to know one's enemy: "Observing Israeli society from within helps the journalist specializing in Israeli affairs to refine his judgments… It is imperative to know one's enemy, and it is a mistake to think that this can be done by sitting in an editorial office or by citing [passages from] the Israeli press and websites… We are not promoting normalization, but fulfilling our professional duties…"

Yahya Ghanem, deputy editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, has met with prominent Israeli journalists in Israel and outside it, and has interviewed Israeli ministers, including Israeli President Shimon Peres. However, he objects to normalization and supports the 1987 Egyptian Journalists Association's resolution prohibiting normalization between the association, or any of its members, and Israel. This resolution, he says, is widely misunderstood. He emphasizes that it holds on all levels: At the organizational level, the association may not maintain ties with its Israeli counterpart; at the professional level, an Egyptian journalist may not work for an Israeli paper, and an Egyptian paper may not collaborate with an Israeli paper; and at the personal level, there must be no ties with Israelis.

Dr. Wahid 'Abd Al-Magid, deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, contends that every trip to Israel by a journalist should be judged on its merits, taking into account the journalist's ideological orientation and the content of his writings. A journalist, he explains, does not usually visit Israel in order to engage in public relations on Israel's behalf or to take part in events, but to expose Israel's negative aspects. Therefore, "a journalist who travels to Israel is… like a plumber who descends into a sewer: he has to, because it is his job."

Normalization in Sports: "It's Not Sports - It's War"

When Egyptian athletes face Israeli rivals in international competitions, they face a dilemma; they must choose between refusing to compete and accepting a technical defeat, or competing and facing harsh criticism and condemnation from the Egyptian and Arab public, which interprets such a move as a step towards normalization.

In one of the supplement articles, an unnamed Egyptian racecar driver, described as a winner of numerous rally championships, tells of the uproar during the January 2008 Paris-Dakar Rally, when it was discovered that Israelis were also competing. He says that many urged him to drop out of the rally, lest he be accused of promoting normalization, and that the same thing happened at the Pharaohs Rally in Egypt.

The driver declares that he is categorically opposed to normalization but cannot accept the idea of dropping out of a race for this reason. "How can I quit," he asks, "when the Pharaohs Rally is organized by Egypt itself? And what about all the exhausting training that I did? Is it right to expect me to give up my dream to win [merely] because an Israeli [happens] to be competing [as well]?"

The article also mentions another sports affair that greatly preoccupied the Egyptians: the case of Egyptian soccer player 'Amro Zaki who was invited to join the Liverpool Football Club, one of whose members is the Israeli player Yossi Benayoun. Zaki states that the presence of an Israeli player would never have stopped him from joining such a reputable club, adding: "Why should I refuse such a [great] offer? Why can't the Israeli player quit Liverpool [instead]?"

Other Egyptian athletes see things differently. Thus, Egyptian soccer team captain Ahmad Hassan, who is currently on the Belgian team Anderlecht, refused to participate in a UEFA match against the Israeli team. "I would never take part in such a match, regardless of the consequences," the article quotes him as saying.

The article also mentions the match between the Egyptian and Israeli national teams in the 1992 World Handball Championship in Spain, during which Egyptian goalkeeper Ayman Salah struck an Israeli fan, snatched his Israeli flag from his hands, and trampled it. In 1996, the two teams met again in Holland for a friendly match; in it, Egyptian players injured five Israeli players. The article recounts that one of the Egyptian players held onto the ball with one hand while hitting an Israeli opponent with the other as he shouted "Allah Akbar."

Goalkeeper Ayman Salah concludes by saying: "Those who withdraw from a match do so because they dread the reaction of the Egyptian public, and perhaps of the entire Arab public, if they lose. This is not a sports competition but a war, and if they lose, the defeat will haunt them forever."

"Does [Normalization] Mean Getting to Know an Israeli... What If You Do Know One But You Hate His Guts?"

Columnist Wael Lutfi qualifies the prevailing view of normalization and the dichotomy between the government, which supports it, and the opposition, which rejects it. He says that the opposition is not categorically opposed to normalization; it is more accurate to say that it echoes the opinion of a broad sector of the Egyptian public that considers Israel undeserving of normalization.

Nor does the government promote normalization as enthusiastically as is sometimes claimed. Lutfi mentions that an appendix to the Camp David Accords includes 30 bilateral agreements between Egypt and Israel involving normalization in the areas of education, health, culture, and so on. In practice, he says, normalization is implemented only in agriculture -and this was chosen by the Egyptians as a necessary minimum. Lutfi contends that it is sufficient if normalization is promoted by only some of the government institutions; if one government office promotes normalization, others need not do so.

Lutfi deplores the fact that accusations of promoting normalization with Israel have become a tool for political and personal assaults and for an idiotic game between the opposition and the government. He says that the rejection of normalization has been transformed from a lofty goal into a "dirty weapon."

Lastly, he asserts that the concept of normalization has become vague: "Does [normalization] mean traveling to Israel for personal or for professional reasons? Does it mean getting to know an Israeli? And what if you do know one but you hate his guts?"

Endnotes:

[1] Roz Al-Yousuf (Egypt), July 18, 2009.

[2] The Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) agreement, signed between Egypt and Israel in 2005, sets up business parks recognized as free trade zones, that house joint Egyptian-Israeli manufacturing plants whose products are exported to the U.S. duty free.

[3] See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 548 "Debate in Egypt over the Egyptian Cultural Ministry's Project to Translate Israeli Literature into Arabic," September 18, 2009, Debate in Egypt over the Egyptian Cultural Ministry's Project to Translate Israeli Literature into Arabic.

[4] The Egyptian daily Al-Masri Al-Yawm reported May 20, 2009 that Egypt's Administrative Court had obligated the Interior Minister to present for discussion in the government a proposal to revoke the citizenship of any Egyptian married to an Israeli citizen. According to newspapers and websites outside Egypt, the Administrative Court has already ruled that Egyptians married to Israelis should have their citizenship revoked, on the grounds that they, and especially their children, pose a danger to Egypt's national security. Al-Quds Al-'Arabi (London), May 20, 2009.

[5] In 1994, Salem visited Israel and subsequently wrote a book describing his impressions, called A Drive to Israel. For excerpts from an interview on this issue given by Salem in an April 2009 to the Kuwaiti daily Al-Nahar, see MEMRI Special Dispatch Series No. 2555, "Egyptian Intellectual and Playwright 'Ali Salem: My Trip to Israel Was an Attempt to Rid Myself of Hatred," September 22, 2009, Egyptian Intellectual and Playwright 'Ali Salem: My Trip to Israel Was an Attempt to Rid Myself of Hatred.

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