Monday, March 22, 2010

Where does Egypt draw the line?

A restorer working on the Maimonides synagogue (Photo: Shawn Baldwin)

Michael Slackman puts his finger on the paradox that is Egypt: on the one hand, formally at peace with Israel and flaunting its Jewish heritage - on the other, trying to make a bargaining chip out of 'normalisation'. Article in the New York Times:

The restoration project, and its muted unveiling, exposed a conundrum Egyptian society has struggled with since its leadership made peace with Israel three decades ago: How to balance the demands of Western capitals and a peace process that relies on Egypt to work with Israel with a public antipathy for Israel.

The efforts to restore the synagogue but keep it quiet illustrate the contortions of a government that often tries to satisfy both demands simultaneously.

“This is an Egyptian monument; if you do not restore a part of your history you lose everything,” said Zahi Hawass, the general secretary of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, which approved and oversaw the project. “I love the Jews, they are our cousins! But the Israelis, what they are doing against the Palestinians is insane. I will do anything to restore and preserve the synagogue, but celebration, I cannot accept.”

Israel opened its embassy in Cairo just over 30 years ago. In that time, the debate over how to deal with Israel has grown more complicated, at times more nuanced, as the government and intellectuals try to navigate between a desire to preserve a cold peace while also bending to pragmatic economic, social and political realities, political analysts said.

There is no appetite in Egypt for normalization of relations. But there has never been a firm definition of where the line should be drawn, and that is where the debate often falls.

Are Egyptian reporters to be barred from interviewing Israeli officials?

Can artists show their works at a show that also showcases Israeli work?

“With regards to relations with Israel, Egyptians generally and Arabs specifically fall in the deep abyss of confusion and doubt and stagger around the boundaries of this relation, where it starts and where it ends,” wrote Salama Ahmed Salama, in the independent daily newspaper Shorouk.

The problem arose when Anwar Sadat decided to strike peace with Israel without also resolving all the other Arab issues. Egyptian intellectuals felt obligated to take a stand in support of Palestinians, so they called for boycotting normalization.

But over the years, the picture has become clouded as Egypt has made economic deals with Israel, sold it natural gas, welcomed Israeli officials and sent Egyptian officials to Israel. It also has become complicated by Al Jazeera, the popular satellite news channel that regularly covers events in Israel and the occupied territories.

Recently, two cases crystallized the public debate. Hala Mustafa, the editor of one of Egypt’s premier political journals, Democracy, was formally censured last month for having met the Israeli ambassador in her office. It was first time the journalists’ syndicate punished a member for defying a ban on normalization since the group was founded in 1941, according to the independent daily newspaper Al Masry Al Youm.

Even some of her critics, who strongly disagree with Ms. Mustafa’s politics, said they were surprised at the selective nature of the condemnation. Singling out Ms. Mustafa said as much about the way the state and state-aligned institutions apply laws and rules, critics said, as it did about widespread hostility to Israel.

“Accountability here is very selective because the law does not prevail over society,” said Magdy el-Gallad, chief editor of Al Masry Al Youm. “The law is there but its enforcement is subject to personal criteria and political settlements and accounts. And this is what we saw in Hala Mustafa’s case.”

No one can say where to draw the line.

Read article in full

Barry Rubin's analysis

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