Cross Post

Egyptian attitudes to Israel

This is a cross-post from Just Journalism.

Just Journalism recently covered how editorial discussion on Egypt had begun addressing the repercussions of any change in government for the peace treaty with Israel. Much of the commentary portrayed the democratisation of Egypt as a positive move for the two states, since it would foster a more durable and genuine peace. For example, an editorial in the Financial Times stated that:

‘Israel should recognise that the blossoming of freedom in Egypt and Jordan would work to its long-term advantage. Trust and friendship are most solidly anchored among governments that do not oppress their own peoples.’

Similarly, writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland concluded:

‘Sure, the peace accord with Anwar Sadat and then Mubarak brought great benefits – but how much bigger a prize would be an Israeli peace with the Egyptian people, one underpinned by their genuine consent? That, and that alone, would be a treaty to last.’

However, an article in today’s Financial Times raises the possibility that such a prize might not be immediately forthcoming. In ‘Israel watches with fearful déjà vu’, Buck explains that Israelis fear that their peace treaty with Egypt, maintained by the Mubarak regime, might be under threat if the country becomes more democratic:

‘They know that Arab hostility to the Jewish state is far more virulent in the streets than in the palaces. They also know that Islamist political parties are certain to play a meaningful role in any Arab parliament that is freely and fairly elected. Seen from this angle, almost any democratic opening in the Arab world is bad news for Israel.’

This hostility is widely documented, and has serious implications for the future of the peace treaty. Numerous polls confirm that Egyptians uniformly view both Israel and Jews in a negative light. Correspondingly, anti-Zionist and antisemitic themes are frequently deployed by the media. Not only has the thirty year peace accord failed to improve perceptions of Egypt’s neighbour, but several bodies actively oppose efforts to ‘normalise’ relations between the two states. These factors challenge the argument that the ‘blossoming of freedom’ would automatically benefit Israel.

Attitudes across the country

Writing from Cairo in 2009, Christian Fraser’s ‘Egyptians nervous of Israeli culture’ for the BBC News website provided a broad overview of the issue. He summarised the antipathy while describing the secret renovation of a disused synagogue:

‘It’s recently undergone some much needed restoration but the secrecy that surrounds projects like this reveals that in reality there is still enormous mistrust, even hatred, that exists for anything connected to Israel – and that includes Jewish culture.’

A recently reported comment by a protestor conformed to this depiction. Richard Spencer, writing in The Daily Telegraph on January 30, included the following opinion from a protester on Israel:

‘It cannot survive. Sure, I don’t want to terminate the Jews, but this is not their country.’

Several recent polls shore up this anecdotal evidence. For example, in 2006 the Israeli Ynet reported that a survey by an Egyptian state institute ‘showed that 92 percent of respondents see Israel as an enemy’, while only 2 percent saw it as a ‘friend to Egypt’.

Ronald Brownstein, writing in the National Journal yesterday on the outlook of a post-Mubarak government, cites a 2007 Pew poll on attitudes towards the two-state solution:

‘In a 2007 Pew survey, a stunning 80 percent of Egyptians said that the needs of the Palestinian people could never be met as long as Israel exists; just 18 percent said that the two societies could coexist fairly.’

Most recently, the Jerusalem Post reported in 2010 that a Pew Poll found that 95% of Egypt held an ‘unfavourable view’ of Jews. By way of contrast, ‘only 35% of Israeli Arabs expressed a negative opinion of Jews, while 56% voiced a favorable opinion.’

Hostile public statements

Israel and Jews are frequently vilified in public, including both in official statements and in the media. The most recent example of this comes from the anti-Mubarak riots, with several sources noting that the state-sanctioned media is inciting crowds to attack foreign journalists by accusing them of being ‘Israeli spies’. Lindsey Hilsum, writing on the Channel 4 news World news blog, commented:

‘Last night and today, Egyptian state TV had been broadcasting of Israeli spies disguised as western journalists roaming the country. It’s a wicked rumour to spread because it puts any westerner – or any Egyptian working with westerners – at risk of a beating or worse.’

This rumour is part of a wider pattern, whereby any occurrence can be blamed on Israel, no matter how outlandish the claim. A recent example of this phenomenon was the statement by the governor of South Sinai, who suggested that Israel might have orchestrated shark attacks in the region. From the BBC News website:

‘What is being said about the Mossad throwing the deadly shark [in the sea] to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question, but it needs time to confirm’.

Conspiratorial accusations of this kind include not only Israel, but often target Jews as well. In perhaps the most notorious example, an Egyptian television channel began airing ‘A Knight Without a Horse’ in 2002, based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. According to MEMRI:

‘The series was viewed and approved for broadcast by a committee appointed by the Egyptian Censor. A committee from the Egyptian Radio and Television Association declared the series “a landmark in the history of Arab drama.” The Egyptian Information Minister stated that “the dramatic views expressed by the series contain nothing that can be considered antisemitic.”’

Combating ‘normalisation’

Alongside statements and broadcasts like these in the public domain, there is also a concerted effort by numerous bodies to actively dissuade ‘normalisation’ with Israel.

One of the most outspoken advocates of this approach was Farouk Hosny, the former Egyptian Minister of Culture. According to the Washington Post, which reported on his 2009 bid to become head of UNESCO:

‘Over his career, Hosni…accumulated a long record of opposing exchanges with Israel, repeatedly saying normalization must await resolution of the Palestinian issue and warning that opening up to Jewish culture would be dangerous for Egypt. But his most notorious sally came in May last year, when he told an Islamist member of the Egyptian parliament that he would personally burn any Israeli books found in Egyptian libraries.’

Christian Fraser’s BBC News article contains further details of this problem. He cites the case of Ali Salem, a playwright who wrote a book based on a visit to Israel:

‘Mr Salem was later expelled from the Writers’ Union. In Egypt no-one will touch his work. Today his plays and movie scripts gather dust amid his tattered reputation.’

Alongside the Writer’s Union, a similar stance was taken by the al-Ahram Media Group:

‘The group’s journalists are no longer allowed to interview Israelis, while the organisation refuses invitations to events where Israelis are participating.’

Perhaps most worrying, even the removal of cultural barriers does not necessarily imply an improvement. Fraser quotes Gaber Asfour, then director of Egypt’s National Centre for Translation, on his motives for increasing the number of Israeli novels published in Arabic:

‘We have to know our enemy…Israel acts with injustice and inhumanity, we have to learn more about them. More than we already know. We have to translate everything.’