Middle East

Egypt

Plowshares into Swords

In mid-October, Israeli military incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank further hardened already negative Egyptian popular opinion against Israel. That Israel’s actions were in response to the Oct. 17 assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi mattered little on the streets of Cairo, where Ze’evi is remembered as a racist who advocated a policy of ethnic cleansing against Palestinians. Sympathies in the Egyptian street and in the press rest more with the Palestinian radicals assassinated by Israeli forces before and after Ze’evi’s murder.

On Oct. 29, Egypt’s largest opposition party, the Muslim Brotherhood, released a statement urging Arab governments to supply arms to the Palestinians. Newspaper columnists asked how long the United States would give “political cover” to Sharon “and his group of murderers,” as Mahmoud al-Tohami put it in the Oct. 27 Al-Alam al-Yom. And in an Oct. 29 broadcast, Hamdy Qandil—whose weekly current-affairs review is the most-watched TV program in Egypt—predicted that Israeli forces would eventually withdraw from the areas it reoccupied, “but only after they completely humiliate the Palestinians.”

Print journalists voiced similar views. “It is obvious that the
government of [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon has no peace
agenda, since it has rejected all the opportunities made available by the international community to end the Arab-Israeli conflict,” an editorial in Al-Akhbar said on Oct. 30.

On Oct. 29, Salama Ahmed Salama, a senior columnist for Al-Ahram, argued: “When the United States stands inert, unable to take action, while Israeli Prime Minister Sharon defies President Bush’s demand to stop military action against the Palestinians and to withdraw from the occupied territories, neither the American president nor his partners Blair, Schröder, and others should be surprised to see demonstrators chanting pro-Bin Laden slogans in Arab streets.”

Despite the prevailing cynicism about a perceived U.S. double standard toward Israel and the Arab world, some Egyptian officials voiced a cautious optimism for improvement of the Palestinians’ plight that has been absent since the beginning of the current Intifada in October 2000. Speaking with foreign journalists on Oct. 27, Osama al-Baz, chief political adviser to President Hosni Mubarak, indicated that the Egyptian government thinks the Bush administration is coming to see Sharon as a liability and that eventually internal Israeli pressures will force Sharon out of power.

In the press, too, certain commentators suggested that the winds of international diplomacy were finally blowing the Arabs’ way. “Now, more than ever before, the American president possesses the means to offset pressure exerted by Israel and by its supporters in Congress. President Bush can, if he wishes, do this. Others have done it and were able to rein Israel in,” Atef al-Ghamri wrote in the Oct. 24 Al-Ahram.

The Oct. 28 Al-Arabi carried a front-page photograph doctored to show George Bush holding an infant Ariel Sharon, who was urinating into Bush’s face. The gadfly opposition paper—which earlier this year depicted Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, a longtime advocate of the Oslo peace process, in Nazi uniform and sporting a Hitler moustache—has a history of causing offense.

But as October came to a close, many Egyptian commentators reverted to a pessimistic perspective about the region’s balance of power. On Oct. 30, Al-Ahram’s editorial lamented: “The United States continues to turn a blind eye to Israel’s fascist behavior in the occupied territories, while American weapons and American funds are being used against unarmed Palestinian civilians.” It continued, “Moreover, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan has turned millions of Afghans into refugees facing increasingly difficult conditions now that winter is upon them. Given the international scene at present, there is a fear that the world will see more acts of terrorism.”

And in its Oct. 30 editorial, Al-Akhbar struck a similar note: “As long as solving the Palestinian question depends on the United States, peace may never be possible. Although the United States has recently declared its support for a Palestinian state, it has yet to define the nature of this proposed entity.” Whereas Al-Akhbar blamed the United States for the floundering peace process, Ibrahim Nafie, editor of Al-Ahram, argued on Nov. 1 that “the brutality of the occupation forces, rampaging settlers, and the hawkish mood in Israel as a whole make clear that the obstacle to peace is Israel, not the Arabs.”
Mustafa al-Tawil, writing in Al-Wafd (Nov. 1), extended the blame to all Zionists. “The United States as well as the Arab world now talk about the ‘Green Peril’ [the color green represents Islam]....In so doing, many equate Islam with terrorism. But Islam is not about terrorism, ” Al-Tawil wrote. “The real danger is the ‘Blue Peril’ [blue for the Israeli flag] of global Zionism, because it has been able to colonize Western countries, especially the United States, economically, politically, and in the media. The West should understand how Israeli views manipulate and control Westerners.”

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