In September 2011 a group of young men climbed the façade of the Giza building that housed the Israeli embassy, removed the Israeli flag that was hanging from the balcony and replaced it with the flag of Egypt. The incident demonstrated the antipathy felt by the public towards normalisation with Israel, and though the protest was quickly contained, the Israeli delegation was forced to vacate the premises and relocate to a more anonymous building.
Last week Amira Oron, Israel’s 15th ambassador to Egypt since the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty in March 1979, woke to a similar show of resentment against normalisation, this time conducted not by protesters scaling buildings, but on social media and in the press.
The Egyptian actor and singer Mohamed Ramadan was the focus of the furore. Photographs of the actor taken at a rooftop party in Dubai to mark the inauguration of the Israeli branch of a United Arab Emirates company showed him alongside an Israeli singer and a footballer, provoking an outcry back home.
Ramadan came under attack on multiple fronts. Faced with the public outcry, the Actors’ Syndicate suspended Ramadan’s membership and the Press Syndicate announced a ban on any reporting of the actor’s news pending a formal and public apology for his having taken photos with Israeli entertainers and sportsmen.
Attempts by Ramadan to dilute the storm failed. When he wrote on social media that he was planning to visit Palestine to sing in solidarity with the Palestinian people he was widely mocked.
Ramadan claimed he was unaware of the identity and nationality of the figures who appeared with him in the picture, a defence the public roundly rejected.
An Egyptian lawyer, Tarek Mahmoud, filed a case against Ramadan in the courts, with a first hearing scheduled for mid-December and producers who had contracted Ramadan, one of the highest paid and most popular actors in Egypt, have said all projects are on hold until the crisis surrounding the actor is resolved.
“I am banned from acting in Egypt,” Ramadan posted on social media.
Ashraf Zaki, the head of the Actors’ Syndicate which is investigating Ramadan’s actions, declined to comment. “I really have nothing to say on this matter,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly by phone.
Mohamed Saad Abdel-Hafiz, a Press Syndicate board member, told the Weekly that it is hard to excuse Ramadan given that he must have been aware how strongly the public opposes normalisation with Israel.
The debate over what constitutes normalisation is nothing new. In his defence Ramadan argues that he neither visited Israel nor attended an Israeli-sponsored event, pointing out that he was attending a party in an Arab city after having been invited by an Arab businessman.
According to a government source, “Ramadan flew on the private jet of an Emirati businessman so security bodies were well aware of where he was going and the event he was attending but nobody thought he would have had his picture taken with Israeli figures or that this picture would be made public.”
Abdel-Hafiz insists that as far as the Press Syndicate is concerned, normalisation includes all forms of engagement with Israeli entities or individuals outside the strict context of official relations.
“We realise that Egypt has diplomatic ties with Israel. What we are talking about here is normalisation outside the official context,” he said. “This includes not just visiting Israel but also meeting with Israelis anywhere, including in Egypt.”
Hala Mustafa, a leading analyst at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the Press Syndicate, was reprimanded by the syndicate after inviting the Israeli ambassador to Cairo to a meeting at her office in 2009.
This week, Mustafa said the Press Syndicate’s action against her had “no legal standing whatsoever given the law does not prohibit these kinds of meetings”.
Abdel-Hafiz insists it is up to the General Assembly of the Press Syndicate to set a code of conduct for members, providing, of course, that the regulations do not violate any law. He points out that “it is not against the law to promote and insist on a boycott of Israel.”
Mustafa is convinced that such a position reflects attitudes that pervade not just the syndicates but “the very heart of state establishments”.
“I don’t think anything has changed since [late president Anwar] Al-Sadat was faced with a state establishment whose Nasserist political creed blocked his ability to shift peaceful relations from the official to the public level,” she said.
“Mubarak was unwilling to enter into a confrontation with the state establishment which remained Nasserist at heart, or with public opinion fed by strongly anti-normalisation media outlets” despite the growing cooperation between Egypt and Israel in terms of security, trade, and industry.
“What we are seeing today is what has prevailed since Sadat signed the peace deal in 1979. It is not about Ramadan or any other individual, it is about how deeply rooted Nasserist ideas remain.”
Abdallah Sennawi, a Nasserist commentator, agrees that Nasserism still conditions the public’s perception of Israel.
“Confronted with an image of Ramadan alongside Israeli figures many Egyptians took to social media to publish pictures of relatives who served during the Arab-Israeli wars, some of whom lost their lives.”
“It is true that the vast majority of the population was born after the last Egyptian-Israeli war took place in 1973 but the collective memory of the nation cannot be overlooked or undermined under the flimsy pretexts of moving on,” Sennawi argued.
“Ramadan is not just an actor, he is Egyptian and he should have remembered that the public in Egypt have not forgotten the history of wars with Israel. The sentiments of Egyptians against all forms of public normalisation are deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of Egyptians and cannot be ignored for the sake of catching up with the mood of normalisation that has taken over some Arab countries.”
Mustafa acknowledges the difficulties in comparing the situation in Egypt with that of Arab Gulf states currently pursuing normalisation. “We cannot overlook the history we have of armed conflict. The countries of the Gulf never had to go through wars with Israel,” she said.
She added, however, that it is essential to review positions and assess whether or not they serve national interests: “Obviously, new arrangements are emerging in the region and we must ensure that our position as a leading regional player is not undermined.”
While Abdel-Hafiz insists the fuss engulfing Ramadan simply reflects “the unwavering position Egyptians have towards normalisation” – he cites the controversy last month around the news that El Film Festival was honouring French actor Gerard Depardieu who is known to have strong ties with Israel, the outrage that greeted news in October that an Israeli actress, Gal Gadot, had been cast as Cleopatra, and the criticism levelled at Cairo Film Festival in 2018 for its decision to host French film director Claude Lelouch, another figure with ties to Israel, to support his contention — Cairo-based Western diplomats believe there may be more to the furore over the Ramadan photo.
“There is something more going on,” said one foreign diplomat based in Cairo. “I don’t think Egypt is happy with the honeymoon the UAE and Bahrain are having with Israel. The fact that this actor is being completely panned over the picture is not just a reflection of public apprehension about Israel but a message being sent by Cairo about where it stands on the Gulf countries’ hasty normalisation moves. Clearly, the press campaign could not have happened without a nod from the state authorities, and it’s undoubtedly a big campaign.”
In the past, he said, the Egyptian authorities have acted against civil movements championing an Israeli boycott, even pressing legal charges against some leaders of the movement.
It is true, says an informed government official, “that we are not comfortable with the fast pace of normalisation that is unfolding in the absence of any significant development in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.”
According to the official, Jordan, the only other Arab country to have a peace deal with Israel, shares Egypt’s concern over advancing Gulf-Israeli normalisation without taking the Palestinian cause into account.
On Monday in Cairo President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi met with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to discuss possible avenues for resuming peace talks. Abbas had been in Amman for talks with Jordanian King Abdullah about the same issue on Sunday.
The Palestinian leadership, say Palestinian sources, is hopeful about negotiations with Israel picking up following Joe Biden’s US election victory.
But even if the peace talks were to pick up, says Sennawi, they will not change “how Egyptians feel about Israel and how they perceive it.
“There were times in the past when peace talks were ongoing, and there has long been a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. None of this changes the fact that for 41 years peace has been confined solely to the official realm.”
During Mubarak’s 30-year rule Israeli officials often complained about the cold peace with Egypt, and Mubarak himself was often blamed by Israeli officials for encouraging the freeze, not least because he never deigned to visit Israel except to attend the funeral of Israeli prime minister Rabin, assassinated by an anti-peace Israeli militant. Now the Israeli media complains that every time a senior Israeli official is in Egypt for high-level talks it remains unannounced at the request of Cairo.
In the past few weeks Israeli commentators have been said over and over again that while Israel could well end up signing peace deals and closely engaging with every state in the Arab Gulf, when it comes to Egypt the “psychological barrier” seems too tough a nut for anyone to crack.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 December, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly