Forty Years of Peace With Israel: The Egyptian Perspective

Complex emotions are being stirred as largest Arab nation enters fifth decade of US-brokered accord with Israel

[CAIRO] Just days before the 40th anniversary of the March 26, 1979, peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Egyptian lawmakers lashed out at Washington for new “assaults on the rights of the Arab world.”

In a statement issued by Egypt’s parliament on Sunday, legislators slammed US President Donald Trump’s apparent recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – captured from Syria during the 1967 war – and the State Department’s U-turn on a five-decade-long policy of referring to the West Bank as “occupied” territory.

“All tragedies begin in the field of language,” Yousef Al-Qa’id, a renowned Egyptian novelist and Nasserist parliamentarian, wrote in a blog post ahead of the statement’s release.

“The word normalization means…there was an existing relationship that then [changed],” according to Qa’id. “So, when [Egypt’s then-president and signatory to the 1979 peace agreement Anwar] Sadat decided to speak [in 1977] in the [Israeli parliament], and the flags of the Zionist enemy were raised in Cairo, all of us were consigned to captivity of a normalization [process] with the deadly terrorist, [Israel’s then-prime minister Menachem] Begin, whose hands were stained with the blood of the Palestinians.”

The Egypt-Israeli peace accord included billions of dollars in American economic and security assistance for both countries, and their defense ministries reap benefits from the agreement. Yet the accompanying 1978 “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which included stipulations for Palestinian self-rule, remains unfulfilled, thus fueling the rage of Egyptians like Qa’id.

Alexandria researcher and writer Amin El-Mahdy told The Media Line that the legacy of the 1979 pact is a twisted reality in which neither Egyptians nor Israelis fully believe in its long-term viability.

“For 30 years, Egyptians paid the price of war with Israel, and for the last 40 have suffered the cost of a militarized peace,” Mahdy said. “This all fits the racist orientation of the Israeli Right – while in Egypt, merely talking about coexistence and cooperation with the Israeli people or daring to ask for a visa to visit Tel Aviv became a type of social crime that leads to… the risk of assassination.”

The researcher/writer sees a of connection between what he claims is the way Israel has prolonged the conflict with its insistence on maintaining control over the Palestinians and that the Egyptian military dominate in matters of civil society.

“Begin preferred Israeli settlements to peace but was outflanked by the victorious generals Yigael Yadin and Ezer Weizman, plus the 1,500 [Israeli] army officers who signed a statement calling for peace,” Mahdy said.

“On the other hand, while Sadat believed peace was the key to Egypt’s progress, he headed a feudal military regime defeated in battle that viewed negotiations with suspicion. Internally, anti-Semitism and a rejection of peace are still the official policy fed to the Egyptian people,” he said.

Mahdy noted Sadat’s 1981 assassination during a military parade, saying, “thus, the peace process went sideways and the security and economic relations between the two states are purely a military arrangement.”

Abdel al-Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s current leader, has another view of the peace agreement. Since assuming power in 2014, he has stated on multiple occasions that resolving the Palestinian issue would eliminate one of the most important factors contributing to Middle East instability and one of the primary justifications for acts of extremism and terrorism. He also said that a Palestinian-Israeli deal would allow for a “warmer peace” between Egypt and the Jewish state.

Sisi’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukri, departed on Monday for Washington for talks with US officials as Egypt and the wider Arab world become increasingly anxious about the contours of Trump’s “deal of the century,” an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan expected to be released soon after Israel’s April 9 elections.

“I am waiting like the rest of us to see if it [comprises] political and economic plans… that aim to reach a settlement whereby there can be a Palestinian state along the [1967 borders, which was] accepted by former [Israeli] prime minister [Ehud] Olmert,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, secretary-general of the Arab League, told The Media Line.

“If we see a Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and a package that would generate enough activity and vitality in the Palestinian economy, we’ll [consider] it,” he affirmed. “But if it is limited to only an economic blanket for the Palestinians trying to cover the [absence] of a political settlement…it won’t work.”

One “economic blanket” that has kept the peace from evaporating was the establishment of Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZ) by US Congress in 1996. Since taking effect in February 2005, they have allowed products jointly manufactured by Egypt and Israel duty-free entry into the US.

QIZ products make up 46 percent of Egypt’s total exports to the US, and 52% of non-oil exports.

Egypt’s exports from QIZ rose by 17%, to $878 million, in 2018, up from $751 million in 2017, according to Egyptian Trade Ministry sources.

“QIZ is an excellent step toward consolidating the ideas of peace and building coexistence in the region,” Cairo entrepreneur Ramy Kamil told The Media Line. “Land is allocated to me in the industrial zone in Beni Suef Governorate, and I am hoping to build a factory for ready-made clothes that can directly employ 500 full-time workers and about 600 seasonal employees.”

Kamil noted that this opens up the US market, adding that “it’s a great gain for Egypt because exports within this framework reached nearly $1 billion and provided job opportunities for thousands of Egyptian workers who became more aware that the gains of peace are greater than the gains of wars and conflict.”

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