Over the years neither the Egyptian public, nor its various leaders, have exhibited much enthusiasm for a genuine friendship with Israel – this despite the peace treaty, signed way back in March 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Yet, through thick and thin, the treaty has held.
Among its main features, drawn up following Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, was normalization of relations. So ambassadors were exchanged, Egypt repealed its boycott laws, trade began to develop, regular airline flights were inaugurated, Egypt began supplying Israel with crude oil and, as part of the agreement, the US began a program of economic and military aid which over the years has subsidized Egypt’s armed forces by billions of dollars.
Egypt paid a price for the benefits it won through the treaty. The Arab world condemned it root and branch, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for ten years, and it led to Sadat’s assassination in 1981.
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The revolution in Egypt in 2011, which resulted in the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president, led influential voices within Egypt to call for the treaty with Israel to be revoked. The new government decided to abide by its international treaties, but the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during 2012-2013 was a golden age for Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. In preparation for its next conflict with Israel, missiles and massive quantities of ammunition moved through the tunnels dug between Egypt and Gaza, together with the materials needed to manufacture armaments.
Egypt’s second revolution a year later, which replaced Mohammed Morsi with Fattah al-Sisi as president, turned the situation on its head. Sisi declared total war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension its offshoot Hamas in Gaza. He designated both groups terrorist organizations, and was ruthless in rooting out their leaders and supporters. He shut down the crossing at Rafah through which armaments once flowed into Gaza, and destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border, Hamas’s secret conduit for supplies it could not obtain through Israel.
The Brotherhood responded to its overthrow by mounting a full-scale terrorist campaign, in conjunction with Hamas, both within Egypt proper and in the Sinai Peninsula, where terrorist groups roamed at will, committing atrocity after atrocity. These jihadi groups represented as great a threat to Israel as to Egypt, and the two countries began to cooperate more closely than ever before on military, security and intelligence issues.
It was in July-August 2014, during Operation Protective Edge – Israel’s response to Hamas’s rocket attacks – that realization began to dawn in Egypt’s media and élite that Egypt and Israel were fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy. Public figures began voicing support for Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.
“Thank you Netanyahu,” wrote Azza Sami of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas!” Addressing Gazan Palestinians, Egyptian actor Amr Mustafa told them not to expect any help from Egypt. “You must get rid of Hamas,” he said, “and then we will help you.” On a TV program Egyptian presenter Amany al-Khayat launched a scathing attack on Hamas. “Hamas is prepared to make all the residents of the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price,” she said. “We must not forget that Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist movement.” Egyptian ex-general Hamdi Bakhit actually expressed the hope that Israel would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.
On 28 May 2015, prominent Egyptian historian Maged Farag, appearing on the Mehwar TV channel, openly called for his country to normalize relations with Israel and to ditch support for the Palestinian cause which, he said, has caused “nothing but harm” for Egypt. Referring to the rampant anti-Semitism among the Egyptian population, he urged his fellow countrymen to leave “the old ideology and cultural heritage on which we were raised”, and to embrace Israel out of the national interest. The next day he made the headlines.
This softening of attitude towards Israel at opinion-forming level proved no flash in the pan.
For decades Egyptian TV soap operas, produced annually to entertain millions of Muslims breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, were platforms for vitriolic anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. For example the 2002 show Knight Without a Horse, based on the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, almost caused Israel to withdraw its ambassador from Cairo. The 2012 series Naji Atallah’s Team portrayed Israel as deeply racist in its tale of an Egyptian group attempting to rob a bank.
In Ramadan 2015, by contrast, a TV drama about the Jews of Egypt struck a significantly different note. The plot of Haret al-Yahood, or The Jewish Quarter, revolved around an historic love story between Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a young Jewish woman. The Muslim Brotherhood was portrayed as a greater threat to Egypt’s unity and security than the Jews, and the series was a roaring success.
In his last TV interview before his death in 2015, Ali Salem, the Egyptian writer, playwright and satirist, asserted – as he had done many times before – “Israel is not an enemy state, and poses no threat to Egypt’s national security. I hope Egypt’s political leadership will not be ashamed of the peace the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat established with Israel.”
If there has been a discernible shift in attitude towards Israel, at least among the intelligentsia, one figure in Egypt who deserves special credit is film-maker Amir Ramses. His recent two-part documentary The Jews of Egypt and End of a Journey explores the rise and demise of Egypt’s Jewish communities between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries. Ramses filmed the series during the Mubarak and Morsi eras, and was in constant conflict with the official censors. Yet last year, under the Sisi administration, Ramses’ films were screened in Egypt to critical acclaim.
Does all this presage the start of a genuine thaw in Egyptian-Israeli relations? Incidents at the 2016 Olympic games, when some Egyptian athletes refused – at least publicly – to acknowledge, or relate to, their Israeli counterparts, suggest that there is a long way to go in changing long-ingrained public antagonism. But perhaps green shoots are just beginning to show.