When the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978, the people of Egypt were not ready for it. However, his limited knowledge of governance and administration, as a former army officer, prompted him to say that the US holds 99 per cent of the cards in the Middle East. This mindset afflicted Egypt with many catastrophes, not least the political tyranny that his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser imposed on the country.
Sadat signed an agreement with Egypt’s enemy without popular support. More than 40 years later, the general public continue to reject everything related to the occupation state. Despite attempts to discredit the Palestinian people and the resistance movements, their cause remains in the hearts of the Egyptian masses. If the Egyptians had more political and civil society freedom, we would have seen more serious incidents at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo than that which happened in 2011.
This is the context of the opposition to the recent normalisation moves. Seeing the Gulf States normalising relations with Israel is very different to that which happened 40 years ago. I do not intend to whitewash Sadat’s mistakes, or even those of the Hosni Mubarak regime. Both were involved in normalisation with Israel, but neither could change the popular mood.
When the UAE signed its deal with Israel, the intention was to allow its citizens to normalise with the occupation state. Mutual congratulations appeared on social media sites, without shame. Waving the Israeli flag was suddenly the normal thing to do, and children were encouraged in this. Meanwhile, the security agencies cracked down on those opposed to the deal. Emirati writer Dhabiya Khamis fears for her life due to her anti-normalisation stance.
In Egypt, however, not a single Egyptian dared to raise the Israeli flag, nor did anyone speak warmly about Israel. The most anyone could do was talk about the feasibility of peace and the importance of ending the wars that had lasted for so long. Egyptian hesitation about growing close to the Israelis was matched by the trade unions organising events to denounce the occupation.
Any attempt to approach the Israeli Embassy raised suspicions, even if a Hebrew language student tried to ask about their studies. It was also known that anyone studying Hebrew, unless in a formal Hebrew Language Department, would attract the attention of the security services and face restrictions if necessary. Some of those who made such embassy visits were summoned to security headquarters and treated badly, as is the norm with such agencies. They were then usually asked not to visit or communicate with the Israeli mission again.
Businessmen were placed on blacklists for cooperating with Israel. Anyone seeking to normalise relations with the occupation state was shunned, regardless of their artistic, economic or social value. All of this was done under the eyes of the Egyptian regime and its security agencies, and no attempts were made to stop it.
Mubarak received visiting Israeli Prime Ministers in Sharm El-Sheikh, far from Cairo, because he knew that receiving them in the capital would mean public demonstrations against the usurper state. Such visits away from the capital also attracted little media attention, unlike other VIP visits during which the national flags of the guests would fly in Cairo’s streets.
In the Gulf, however, there are clear efforts to impose “coexistence” with those who survive by stealing Palestinian land. Rejection of normalisation is suppressed. There have been joint news reports, visits by those known as friends from the two countries, and a footballer with Israeli nationality and an international travel document has joined an Emirati team.
Arguably more despicable is that Imams have sought to use religion to justify what is happening. However, they are used to having to please their political masters, so their religious opinions shift according to the whims of those in charge.
This kind of religious discourse was not found in Egypt; there was a distinction between religious talk about peace after a war, and talk about popular normalisation and mutual relations. Nothing expresses the constant popular rejection of normalisation than the fact that Israeli tourists wouldn’t reveal their nationality outside of South Sinai in case they were abused, or worse.
As a conscript in the Egyptian army less than a decade ago, chanting against Israel was normal and not condemned; instructors in the camp would talk about the enemy being Israel. I do not think that this has changed, nor do I think that it was exceptional in what was a strict institution. The most that can be done under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi is the ongoing absence of such discourse rather than it being replaced by a warmer approach towards the occupation state.
When I started a journalism course, the name of that state was always written as “Israel”. I asked the teacher who taught (and still teaches) me why, and she answered, “Because we prefer to suffocate them between the quotations than to allow them to sit comfortably amongst the other words.”
Gulf normalisation, on the other hand, is a process to make the leaders’ masters in Washington and Tel Aviv as comfortable as possible in exchange for protection against the mutual enemy perceived to be Iran. That is why normalisation by the Gulf States is different.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.