Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
24 Feb. - 1 March 2000
Issue No. 470
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

Just a façade

By Amira Howeidy

The Islamist-oriented Labour Party's secretary-general, Adel Hussein, still refers to Israel as the "Zionist entity", while two years ago the militant underground Jihad group formed what they called the International Islamic Front Against Jews and Crusaders, the organisation accused of bombing the United States Embassy in Tanzania. More recently, Jihad, which is undergoing major organisational upheavals, issued a statement saying it will halt violence when the Aqsa Mosque is liberated from Israeli occupation.

Ironically, neither Labour nor Jihad were formed with any such agendas in mind. The Labour Party, in fact, was established under President Anwar El-Sadat to support his Camp David deal. It did. And when Jihad was formed more than two decades ago, its founder Abdel-Salam Farag made it clear that the target was the "closer enemy", the Egyptian government, rather than the "distant enemy", Israel. Back then, almost the only political force that objected to a peace agreement with Israel was the left-wing Tagammu party.

Today the political landscape has been completely transformed. Labour and the Islamist trend lead the way with anti-Israeli politics while Tagammu recently modified its charter to support the Oslo accords, signed in 1993.

"Contrary to widespread views, we haven't adopted a more lenient stance towards Israel," says Khaled Mohieddin, leader of Tagammu. "This is what the extremists say. However, we're not Hamas and we're not the Palestinian liberation movement, we are not in a position to accept or not accept Israeli-Palestinian agreements." The situation has changed since Camp David "which we opposed because it was a unilateral settlement." But that's over, he says, "because the Madrid Conference and many other things have happened since then. There was also the USSR, there was support, now there isn't."

But despite the change of heart on both the right and left of the political spectrum, widespread scepticism remains over any improvement in Egyptian-Israeli diplomatic ties. And the reason, representatives of Egypt's political forces agree, is Israeli intransigence. Despite a peace deal, 20 years of diplomatic relations that have resulted in official and public sector cooperation on several levels, the consensus remains that the "peace" is no more than a façade.

To prominent Islamist intellectual Tarek El-Beshri, the conflict with Israel will remain unsolved for decades to come because Israel is "an inseparable part of globalisation". "Israel can never be a peaceful society," says El-Beshri. Egypt's role, too, as a leader in the region, will ensure that it remains at odds with its expansionist neighbour.

"When the Israeli embassy was opened in Cairo 20 years ago we expected that the conflict would be resolved somehow. It has not been resolved. It has just taken forms other than wars," he argues. Despite the various settlements signed between Israel and Arab countries, El-Beshri believes such "vague" agreements have only complicated the situation further and consigned "genuine solutions" to "an unknown future" while at the same time implying that "something has been achieved when in fact nothing has."

Representatives of the other Islamist trends agree. Leading Muslim Brotherhood figure Essam El-Erian argues that "as long as the roots of the problem exists, the conflict will remain."

This, he believes, will be manifested more clearly in the post-settlement era. "The aftermath of the [current Syrian-Israeli] settlement will be that each party will want to be the stronger and more vital in the region's politics. And this applies to Egypt too because it can't be got out of the game," El-Erian told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Abul-Ela Madi, would-be founder of the Wassat party, doesn't believe in the current settlement efforts "although the negotiations are focusing on the very weak possibility of retrieving land occupied by Israel in 1967. [But] this isn't even the crux of the conflict. Hence its outcome will not resolve the historical struggle."

Hussein sounds a more dramatic note. "History doesn't stop and nothing remains the same. This will apply to the Zionist entity... which is based on racist and expansionist policies. It cannot survive by relying on power alone. The natural development of things is that this entity is bound to fade away."

But many are ready to admit that Israel's technological, scientific and military dominance might allow it to play the leading role to which it aspires in the coming decades.

"Don't forget the atomic bomb," warned Amin Eskander, a prominent Nasserist. "Although Egypt is constantly working on increasing its military capabilities, it needs to make a political decision. It needs its own nuclear capability to create the necessary strategic balance in the region."

"Although Israel wants to play the leading role in the region, and it has the potential," argues Eskander, "no one will tolerate this. Other countries, too, anticipate playing the same role; Egypt, because of its geographical position, and Turkey because of its nostalgia for the past and ambitions for the future."

Said Abdel-Khalek, editor-in-chief of the Wafd party's mouthpiece, Al-Wafd, believes the conflict will remain because "there isn't a house in Egypt that doesn't have a martyr, killed in one of our wars with Israel. There are too many open wounds. I was an officer in the 1973 war and I can't put my hand in an Israeli's. And the vast majority of the people share this feeling."

Will Israel, then, remain forever the enemy?

"For the Egyptian Armed Forces Israel is the enemy," says Hussein Abdel-Razek, member of the Tagammu's central committee. "and this is very telling of how the government, which signed a peace agreement 22 years ago, views its neighbour."

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