Curse Or Cure?
If there is a strategy behind Egypt’s rejection of normalization of relations with Israel, it would reasonably follow to ask what underlies it and then whether the desired ends have been achieved after nearly three decades of relentless campaign against normalization. But whatever the reasons–to punish or isolate Israel, deny it recognition and acceptance, or that it is simply for domestic consumption, the strategy has been a dismal failure. A strategy’s continued failure would be enough to review it, but with the dramatic political and economic changes both regionally and globally during the past few years, it has become imperative for the Egyptian government to reassess what has now become an albatross, draining Egypt’s human resources and choking off its potential for unprecedented growth.
To better understand the reasons behind the failure of the anti-normalization policy, it is necessary to examine the original rationales and context for it as well as the thinking of the Egyptian leadership today. However absurd or outrageous these rationales may seem to others, they cannot be dismissed if we wish to effectively counter them to allow the possibilities for constructive change to surface. For the purpose of this discussion, I identify six different reasons for why this policy continues.
First, admission of failure: Although the Egyptian government has gradually concluded that its approach has not only been futile but counterproductive, it fears that changing course now would be seen as an admission of failure. And even if it did change course, the government which has poured tremendous political capital into cultivating anti-Israeli sentiments over the years, does not have the formula for reversing itself without losing face. These concerns are further aggravated by the government’s inability to deal with other pressing social and economic issues.
The problem with this thinking is that by not admitting failure, the authorities make it impossible for themselves to take corrective measures and so the vicious cycle continues. The Egyptian public today is not looking for someone to blame for their sorry economic, social, and political plight. They want change, and they want it now. Given this reality, the government should simply begin to alter its policy toward Israel by increasingly undertaking joint projects with it and make a public disclosure of these ventures so ordinary Egyptian can actually see and feel the benefits. An example of how this might work is at hand: with some American prodding, Israel and Egypt reached an agreement on the development of the Qualified Industrial Zone (QIZ). The agreement basically allows Egyptian textile products to enter the U.S. market without payment of any customs and duty on the condition that these goods include 11.7% of Israeli materials. Egypt has already benefited from this agreement: factories were built employing more than 162,000 laborers earning decent wages, and millions of dollars have flowed into Egypt’s treasury. The possibilities for such joint projects with Israel are endless; the Egyptian government must simply move deliberately and systematically in this direction.
Second, distracting public attention: It has been a time-honored practice to maintain a certain level of antagonism toward Israel by freely portraying it in the state-controlled media as the enemy, in order to divert, at least to some degree, the public’s attention from the real source of their malaise and rally them in support of the government. This has been, unfortunately, the practice of most Arab governments: living in the comfort of self-denial, playing for time, and hoping it will all somehow pay off.
This approach to Israel, even though Egypt had signed a peace treaty with it, has done nothing but stifle all forms of development, especially in the economic area, to the detriment of the Egyptian people. Still, not surprisingly, a survey conducted by the Egypt’s own ministry of education reveals that generally the most educated Egyptians are those most opposed to normalization with Israel. Many of these intellectuals, co-opted by the government, became its mouthpieces, and with the state-controlled media at their disposal, have spread the gospel of western and Israeli demons. As Tarek Heggy, a leading Egyptian businessman who writes extensively on the state of Arab and Egyptian affairs, observed in an essay: within the Egyptian intelligentsia, it is commonly believed that the West and Israel seek hegemony over Egypt by destroying its culture. Intellectual leaders therefore endeavor to limit Western cultural influences and virulently oppose normalization with Israel. After years of being engaged in this form of media warfare to win public support for itself, the Egyptian government must now shift gears starting, at a minimum, with reducing the level of anti-Israeli rhetoric and with discouraging public discourse on all the conspiracy theories that have been a media staple. Meanwhile, it is important to point out that not all Egyptian intellectuals are subservient to the government’s whims. On a recent trip to Egypt, I met with a group of scholars at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. I was gratified to learn that they were most receptive to my arguments for normalization with Israel. Indeed, Dr. Gamal Abdl Gawwad, the head of the Center’s public opinion department, recently wrote how Egypt, among other Arab countries, should accommodate itself to the new world system. What he means is the present world is unipolar and ruled by the market economy; thus, coping with today’s world includes making a real peace with Israel.
Third, waiting for a resolution to the Palestinian conflict: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been exploited by the Arab States, including Egypt, to justify certain domestic policies regardless of their relevance to the Palestinian plight. Many Arab secular intellectuals see the Israeli confrontation with the Palestinians as providing the fertile ground for radical Islamic movements that consider Cairo one of their main targets. Although in many Arab circles, there are open discussions about normalization, especially, after the Gaza withdrawal, scores of Egyptian academics counsel against it, insisting that it is premature to reward Israel. Better relations, they argue, must await Israeli withdrawal from all territories captured in 1967.
Certainly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has aggravated relations between Israel and Egypt and, for that matter, with the rest of the Arab world. There should be no question about the need to resolve the conflict equitably. The Palestinian people deserve to live in dignity in a democratic Palestinian state established on most of the West Bank and Gaza and to co-exist in peace with Israel. But the Egyptian government needs to recognize that Israel’s security concerns are also legitimate. Ending the violence and eventually disarming groups such as Hamas, which is sworn to liquidate Israel, are objectives Egypt must openly and unequivocally embrace. For it is the strengthening of economic, cultural, and political ties with Israel that will encourage any present or future Israeli government to withdraw from the West Bank just as was done in Gaza. To delay normalization until a final settlement with the Palestinians will actually prolong rather than shorten the Israeli-Palestinian struggle. Indeed, extremist Palestinians from the left and right view the cold Egyptian-Israeli relations as a clear signal that Egypt is not committed to real peace with Israel; hence, the Egyptian government deliberately prevents the development of any sector in its own society or the whole region with a vested interest in such a peace. The opportunity exists: in numerous conversations with moderate Palestinians, who constitute the majority of the public, I found that they believe that the better relations the rest of the Arab world has with Israel, the better it is for the Palestinians. In this context, the Egyptian government needs not be “holier than thou. ” In addition, if it wants to increase its influence and leverage with Israel, the government can do so only if by making relations with Jerusalem almost indispensable. How else will that happen without full normalization? Egypt, which took the courageous step to make peace with Israel when it was unthinkable, can, and must, now take the next leap forward to hasten the solution to the Palestinian plight.
Fourth, stiff Islamic opposition: the growing strength of Islamic institutions and teachings in Egypt make it much harder for the government to change its policy toward Israel without provoking Islamic wrath and condemnation. Members of the clergy, by and large, oppose normalization because they believe it defies Koranic teaching and promotes the notion of dealing with the ‘Infidels,’ which is not permissible.
It is true that Islamic groups inside and outside Egypt vehemently oppose normalization because Israel’s very existence undermines their dream of establishing an Islamic state extending from North Africa to Southeast Asia. But this pipe dream aside, we also see that leading members of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, including Essam Al-Aryan, object to normalization, arguing that it benefits only the Israelis. That religious objections are so dominant in such discussions shows how many Islamic radicals have freely perverted Islam and distorted its message to fit their political positions or agendas. These radicals have made serious inroads into many institutions and garnered increasingly wider public support. Their growing strength has added to the pressure on the government and, without admitting so, it is accommodating them, in the hopes of reducing public friction and the chances of potential unrest. It is most revealing, however, that in this atmosphere, one of the world’s most influential Islamic leaders, Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s Al-Azhar University, has spoken in favor of normalization with Israel. “Islam,” he said, “does not prohibit normalization with other countries, especially Israel, as long as this normalization does not affect religion.” It is up to the Egyptian government to decide whether to continue to use the cries of Islamic rejectionists, who have until now hijacked the political agenda, as an excuse not to move systematically toward full normalization, or to capitalize on voices like those of Al-Tantawi as support for beginning the process of normalization in earnest.
Fifth, concerns over Israel becoming economic regional hegemon: Although this is not something that Egyptian intellectuals and government officials openly speak of, it remains a genuine anxiety, especially since Israel’s military power is second to none in the region. As Refaat Al-Saeed, head of the opposition Tagammu Party, said: normalization will “allow the United States and Israel to influence the region. The implications, therefore, are a weakened Egyptian role in the region and the deterioration of Egyptian sovereignty.”
But with or without normalization, Israel is on its way to becoming a regional economic power. Israel’s Gross National Product (GDP) is 20 percent larger than that of Egypt and exceeds the combined GDP of Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Yet, in talking to Israelis on this issue, I have never received the impression that Israel is out to overwhelm Egypt economically in order to become the region’s economic hegemon. Israelis talk more about, and nostalgically, of freely trading with the Arab world, and they long for the day when they become integral part of the region that has thus far rejected them. The Israelis speak about normalization romantically; they know their potential to be first in the region, but they also understand they can prosper and live in peace only if the whole region prospers and is at peace. Unfortunately, Egypt has remained skeptical about such a vision, and although some progress has been made in tourism and trade, to this day the trade unions prohibit their members from attempting any kind of normalization with Israel or with Israelis. This explains why, although as part of the peace treaty between them, Israel and Egypt signed about 50 normalization agreements on a variety of issues, including economic and cultural matters, very few have come to fruition. In light of this, the question for the government today is: should Egypt work closely with Israel, and as a result of their combined power, become a formidable economic force, or should Egypt let globalization pass it by and thereby confer on one of the greatest and most ancient of civilizations the permanent status of a third-rate country languishing somewhere among the poor and underdeveloped nations?
Sixth, playing for time: Many people, both inside the government as well as intellectuals outside it, argue that Egypt is simply not ready to introduce revolutionary changes, with the potential to destabilize the country. They maintain that radical economic or political changes, including normalization, ought to be introduced gradually to avoid social and political upheaval.
Granted, revolutionary changes, however positive, may precipitate social and economic dislocations, and under the current internal conditions in Egypt, that may not be advisable. But then, we are not talking about revolutions, we are talking about a strategic choice of deliberate, purposeful, and gradual steps that will eventually lead to complete normalization. It should be noted that, from the perspective of the Egyptian people, peace with Israel has not improved their lot in any measurable way. Very few individuals, relative to the size of the Egyptian population, have actually reaped some benefit from the peace treaty and hence the people have developed no vested interest in the peace itself. Still, a gradual normalization strategy should not take decades to implement. As soon as the public begins to realize some of its benefits, and the anti-Israeli rhetoric is tempered, they will demand more rather than less normalization.
The Middle East will no doubt continue to experience considerable turmoil; the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may flare up again, and the outcome of the violence in Iraq and that country’s future prospects remain unclear. Iran’s ambitions to seek nuclear weapons will add to regional instability. Terrorism will continue to spread fear and uncertainty, and radical Islamic groups will instigate discontent to remain relevant. If Egypt does not demonstrate resolve to stay the course, it will be a question of how soon a lesser effort will collapse in the face of the first adversity.
Normalization should not be subject to the region’s ups and downs, and in due course it will transcend normal Egyptian-Israeli bilateral relations. Close collaboration between the two nations will provide the basis for a regional security agreement that other Arab states could sign on to. Strong and steady Israeli-Egyptian ties should send a clear message that the two nations are bent on peace, stability, and progress and will work tirelessly to secure those objectives.