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Who is Egypt’s ‘Enemy’ Today? How Egyptians See Relations with Israel

Who is Egypt’s ‘Enemy’ Today? How Egyptians See Relations with Israel

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By Menna Zaki, Aswat Masriya

Diplomatic ties have been restored, bilateral coordination is “better than ever” as an Israeli minister said in April, and political relations continue to strengthen. So can Egypt and Israel have a “friendly” football match between their national teams, for instance?

The idea was humoured in February by the Israeli embassy when it asked users to share their views and feelings about such a hypothetical sports game.

Although the Israeli suggestion was met with rejection from the head of the Egyptian Football Association, who told Alarabiya TV station that the idea is “impossible,” the issue passed with no loud uproar from Egyptian public opinion.

Analysts believe that the Egyptian people were once more zealous in their opposition to Israeli policies and to normalisation of bilateral relations. They sympathised with the Palestinians and the Palestinian cause vis-à-vis Israel, with which they engaged in three wars in the past century, in addition to the 1948 war. During the time of the second Intifada, which erupted in 2000, Egyptian youth were seen protesting against Israel on the streets and on university campuses amid calls for political and economic boycotts, notwithstanding the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty, which became the first of its kind between Israel and an Arab country when it was signed in 1979.

But more recently, Egyptians’ reaction to the signs of warming ties between the two governments has grown less intense, and the level of their defiance to their rulers’ relations with Israel has waned.

Hamas demonised

Ahmed Abd Rabou, an Egyptian political scientist and a visiting scholar at the University of Denver, agrees that the popular reaction to normalisation is not “as intense” as it was 10 years ago, attributing this to a number of reasons including that some Egyptians “under the pressure, phobia and the trauma of Egyptian media” believe that the real threat to the national security in Egypt is Hamas and the Palestinians.

“Some new enemies have replaced Israel on the minds of many Egyptians, including but not limited to Muslim Brothers,” he added.

Since the ouster of then-President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood in July 2013, Egyptian authorities have led a crackdown on the Islamist group.

An offshoot of the Brotherhood, the Palestinian movement Hamas has been under attack by Egyptian politicians and by pundits who support the government. Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which borders Egypt’s Sinai and Israel, and it is often accused of infiltrating “terrorists” into Sinai and targeting Egyptian security personnel.

An Egypt-based Palestinian in his late twenties told Aswat Masriya that in the past two years Egyptians have been more inclined to believe that Palestinians are responsible for all the turmoil going on inside Egypt, especially in North Sinai, “thanks to the Egyptian media.”

Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath believes that blaming Hamas and the Palestinians is part of “an intensified campaign aiming to distort the image of Palestinians in Egyptians’ mindset.”

Though it managed to do so, the campaign “didn’t succeed in making Egyptians feel inclined towards the Zionist entity,” said Shaath, who is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) spokesman in Egypt.

In fact, when they could, tens of thousands of Egyptians gathered in Tahrir Square waving Egyptian and Palestinian flags in May 2011, in the wake of the January 25 Uprising that toppled former president Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled the country for 30 years.

But protests, including those for the Palestine cause, have become scarcer after a post-Mursi interim government imposed an assembly law that practically bans protests, since it stipulates that protests’ organisers must obtain permission from the security authorities beforehand.

Egyptians’ own “catastrophes”

A Palestinian based in the West Bank, who requested anonymity, told Aswat Masriya in an online conversation that though she is not big on politics, she believes there are a lot of “catastrophes” going on around the world, especially in Egypt, which makes it too hard for people to care about anything but their own problems.

For one young Egyptian, who also preferred not to be identified, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has rather become “a given” in later years, even if Egyptians have not lost their sympathy for the Palestinian cause.

Egyptians have become consumed with their own day-to-day issues and problems, he added.

He and others no longer march in furious protests against Israel while a third “intifada” is raging in Jerusalem.

Due to the current security crackdown and the protest law, the best Egyptian youth can do now is share a post on Facebook or write a status to vent their frustration, he said.

Government pushing towards normalisation

Both BDS’ Shaath and Abd Rabou, the political scientist, believe that the Egyptian government is pushing towards normalisation. Shaath listed several incidents that took place over the past few months signaling warming ties between Egypt and Israel.

Most prominently, there is the meeting between former parliamentarian Tawfiq Okasha and Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren in February, which eventually cost Okasha his position as a lawmaker.

Also, in October Egypt voted for Israel’s membership at the United Nation’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space for the first time since 1948.

Another key incident was the visit of Egypt’s Coptic Orthodox Pope Tawadros II to Jerusalem in November to lead the funeral prayers for Metropolitan Archbishop Abraham of Jerusalem and the Near East. The visit drew heavy criticism as it was the first since a 1980 decision by the Holy Synod banned Copts from visiting Jerusalem. The Pope however described his visit as a “humane duty”.

Finally, Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic relations have been fully restored in 2016 after a three-year gap, which started in 2012 when Mursi recalled the Egyptian ambassador in protest against an Israeli attack on Gaza.

Today, the two countries have unprecedented intelligence coordination, as a senior IDF official recently said.

Abd Rabou believes that the government is “doing it gradually and with a very low-profile policy given that the support given to [Egyptian President Abdel Fattah] al-Sisi is stacked at opposing Israel and Zionism.”

Shaath, however, expressed skepticism that attempts to normalise relations will succeed in bringing the two peoples closer in the future.

Abd Rabou thinks it may happen, even though “it will never happen without difficulties or resistance from the Egyptian public,” given that Egyptians are moody and may swing at any moment.

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Aswat Masriya is a Thomson Reuters Foundation-sponsored website that covers Egypt's transition to democracy. en.aswatmasriya.com

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