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Israel must change its approach, says Egyptian journalist

CAIRO — “The whole region is changing except for Israel,” said Egyptian journalist Ahmed Naje. “In three or four years, Egypt will have a democratically elected civilian government, but Israel will still have a government dominated by former army officers. The gap in mentalities will widen, and it will become very difficult to bridge. Israel must change its approach to the peace process.”

Ahmed Naje (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Ahmed, often called ‘Nagy,’* covers culture and literature for the daily newspaper Al Akhbar. The reporters are on strike to demand the editor in chief’s resignation, which is why he was able to spare me several hours for a conversation at a café in the borsa, the stock market area of downtown Cairo. It’s a picturesque street lined with outdoor cafes, popular with students and democracy activists.

Cafes in the borsa, Cairo's stock exchange area (photo: Lisa Goldman)

Nagy was one of the first people to welcome me back to the city, and so far he is the only Egyptian journalist who readily agreed to be interviewed for +972 Magazine. “I know who you are and I read +972 Magazine,” he said. “I don’t care that the contributors are mostly Israeli. What matters to me is what you write and what your opinions are.”

Agreeing to speak on the record for an Israel-based website, no matter what its politics, is a brave position to take in Egypt. The issue of normalization is hugely controversial, and is often cynically used to create media storms or carry out vendettas. The Journalists Union’s ban on normalization is not the main issue – as far as I have understood, the union does not have much power – but the social and political taboos are strong. There are plenty of people who will say off the record that they think slapping the ‘normalization’ label on every contact between Egyptian journalists and Israelis is ridiculous and hypocritical, but it’s a populist issue that isn’t going away.

Over the past two years, two prominent Egyptian journalists – Hala Mustafa of Al Ahram and Hussein Serag of October Magazine – were hit by a storm of controversy when their contacts with Israelis were made public. Under Mubarak’s regime, contact with Israelis could also arouse the undesirable interest of the dreaded Amn al-Dawla, the Internal State Security Service. Nagy’s unlikely to become the target of a media storm and the SSI has been dissolved, but there is still the issue of professional and social opprobrium. Nagy said he does not fear either one. When I repeated this to a few mutual friends, they smiled fondly and said, “Yeah, Nagy’s great.”

So we talked about the main groups involved in the revolution leading up to Mubarak’s resignation, the future of Egypt’s economy, the role and goals of the Muslim Brotherhood in a future Egyptian government – and the future of Egypt’s relationship with Israel.

It’s already a cliche to describe the situation in post-Mubarak Egypt as ‘uncertain’ and ‘confusing.’ The revolution is a work in progress; many people have told me it will take several years to rebuild the country’s economy and institutions. University students are striking for the removal of Mubarak-appointed academics, workers are striking for minimum wage and improved conditions; there are demands to reform the ministry of communications and the ministry of security, and there are demonstrations in the Tahrir area several times per week. Daily life continues, but there is a sense that the army, about which many people are quite ambivalent, is the only thing preventing a state of chaos.

Nagy is pragmatically optimistic. He acknowledges the challenges and obstacles Egypt faces in transitioning to democracy, but he sees them as bumps on the road leading inexorably to a democratic Egypt with a civilian government elected by the people. “It will take five or six years for the real revolution to be achieved,” he says. “When the 15 and 16 year olds of today are mature adults who were raised on democratic values, without the mentality of needing a ‘father figure’ like Mubarak – that’s when the real change will happen.” He is certain that Egypt – and the entire Arab Middle East – is in a process of unstoppable historical change. We are going through a period of reorganization, he says, and Egypt will soon retake its position as regional leader.

Revolutionary graffiti outside Houria Bar, near Tahrir Square (photo: Lisa Goldman)

“Obviously we want the Palestinians to have their civil rights and their own state,” said Nagy, “But no-one is willing to spill Egyptian blood to achieve this goal.”

Only one Egyptian politician has called for abrogating the peace treaty with Israel, he pointed out. Hamdeen Sabahy, of the left-leaning Al Karama (Dignity) party, made a statement to that effect during a radio interview show. According to Nagy, three or four people immediately called in to challenge Sabahy, asking irately what he meant by ‘cancel.’ The terms of the peace treaty are unpopular, but a popularly elected government can renegotiate them. “We just had a referendum in this country and the results show that people want stability,” said Nagy. “War is the opposite of stability. No-one wants it.”

No-one in the political leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood has called for canceling the peace treaty, either. Nagy’s a secular liberal, but he does not fear the Muslim Brotherhood. “There are a lot of misconceptions about them,” he said. “For example, it’s not true that their target constituents are the poor and disadvantaged, or that the Brotherhood has a non-democratic agenda. And it’s not true that their membership is drawn from the poorer classes, either. If you look at their membership list, you won’t find a single one who did not finish high school.”

The Egyptian narrative of the 1967 and 1973 wars with Israel, and of the war of attrition that came between the two, mirror the Israeli narrative of suffering and loss. It seems as though nearly every Egyptian has an uncle or a father who served, died or was taken prisoner in one of those wars. Just as Israelis in their forties who grew up in the border regions remember childhoods spent in bomb shelters, so do Egyptians who grew up in Suez remember the many civilians who were killed by the Israeli army. Issander El Amrani, a well-known Middle East expert who blogs at The Arabist, told me that the 1967 war pretty much bankrupted Egypt. No wonder, then, that war with Israel is the last thing anyone wants.

But, warns Nagy, Israel will become a popular rallying issue for Egyptian politicians. “Israel will become part of the political game,” he said, if it continues its military occupation of the West Bank and its blockade of Gaza. Palestine is an emotional issue for Egyptians, as it is for most Arabs.

There is also a lot of popular resentment toward the natural gas deal, whereby Egypt sells one of its most valuable natural resources to Israel at a price that is well below market value. Egyptian journalists who try to investigate the terms of the deal, which were negotiated with no transparency at all, have been rewarded with the unwelcome attention of the ISS. It is widely believed that most of the revenue from the gas deal went straight into Gamal Mubarak’s bank account, to the detriment of Egypt’s largely impoverished population. Last year, there were reports – denied by EGAS – of Egypt having to re-import its own natural gas from Israel due to an electricity shortfall.

Nagy is certain that the culture of corruption and cronyism will change. Egypt, he said, will become a transparent market economy, “Because that is what the middle class wants.” He explained, “Don’t forget that January 25 was a middle class revolution. The Egyptian middle class numbers 20 million. That is huge. They want a globalized, transparent market economy and they will get it.”

“Do you see Israel as a threat?” I asked him. Nagy laughed in surprise. “Who in the world does not worry about Israel?” he asked. “Can you show me one week when Israeli soldiers did not kill civilians? What would make any Egyptian feel positive about Israel? What positive thing has Israel ever done for Egypt? Even the peace treaty was initiated by Sadat, by the Egyptian side. Not by Israel.”

Yesterday, a friend sent me this poll, which asks Egyptians about the issues they want an elected leader to focus on. The top three issues are getting rid of corruption (73%), reforming the education system (53%) and reducing unemployment (60%). Ending the peace treaty with Israel is the least important issue, with only 23 percent of respondents citing it as an important issue.

During the Egyptian revolution, a lot of Israeli Middle East analysts – mostly men in their 60s – lined up in front of the television cameras to predict that the overthrow of Mubarak would take Israel back to the bad old days, before the peace treaty, when the border with Egypt was a dangerous place and the threat of war was always present. No-one explained why Egypt would want to go to war with Israel, or why Egyptians wanted to overthrow Mubarak. As Mohamed said to me, “This revolution was not about Israel, you know. B’emet.”

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    1. Michael W.

      I really liked this report.

      Reply to Comment
    2. zvi

      Great article! Thanks. The issue of “normalization” or just “normal contacts” is hugely important – for all sides. Not having a clue about how the “other” lives makes it all the easier to demonize them.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Mike Murphy

      Good report-nice style. Lisa, I would like to know if the organizing for up-coming elections is being done outside of the major urban areas. Can the revolutionaries capitalize on the wage strikes etc to make the case for a secular democracy? Can they offer the working poor a better choice than the Muslim brotherhood?

      Reply to Comment
    4. So the Middle Class in Egypt does not care about Palestine? Then what about justice itself? You just want it for yourselves? Well, I hope your ice cream cones melt before you get to eat them.

      A government based on the tolerance of the injustice on its doorstep (to which that government actually contributed) does not bode well.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Natan

      Congrats on your revolution, Nagy.

      Since you read this blog I wish to address you personally.
      Thanks for sharing your dream of a democratic Egypt with us. However, the nature of this democracy is unclear to me. In there a place in your dream for a woman heading your state, the independent Supreme Court, and the parliament? If so, how long do you think it will take for that to happen?

      Talking about “the gap in mentalities” – women led all three branches: legislative, judicial, and executive in Israel.

      I wish you the best of luck, for your sake and for ours.

      Reply to Comment
    6. zvi


      Nagy was quite clear that the Palestinian cause is important to Egyptians, but not everything in the world revolves around the Israel/Palestinian conflict. In my opinion any new Egyptian government must first and foremost address the needs and ambitions of the Egyptian people. They have enough of their own challenges, without needing to get any more involved in their neighbors’ difficulties.

      And speaking of the Egyptian “Middle Class”, to what degree does this exist (in Egypt)? An Egyptian colleague of mine who now lives in Montreal noted that amongst his ‘middle-class peer group’ from Alexandria only one or two of them are still in Egypt. It is very difficult for educated and ambitious young people to make a living there. Have you raised this issue with people who do actually live there?

      Reply to Comment
    7. In an era of “talking heads” and various other “experts”,Lisa brings a clear view based on the very best street level journalistic practices.

      Reply to Comment
    8. rick

      I think he suits very well with the egyptian mainstream on israel-palestine (won´t spill our blood), the peace treaty (stability, our ouncles told us what war means) and killing civilians by Israel(daily, hundrets).

      i´m not so sure on his views about economy. thats (as lisa wrote) mostly common around the middle class, only.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Borg

      If Gaza is such an issue to Egyptians, why doesnt he talk about the fact that Egypt participates in the “siege” of Gaza?

      Reply to Comment
      • Borg – Nagy does not mention Gaza in the interview at all.

        Reply to Comment
    10. Sylvia

      Very nice interview. Very optimistic.

      I am surprised that after the controversial rule 2 (on Egypt being a Muslim state with sharia as legal instrument) remained in the constitution you didn’t deem it important to inquire about the status of the Copts, a minority of more than 10 millions. This law will certainly affect their status.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Ben Israel

      Nagy says the Middle Class, which he numbers at 20,000,000 want a market economy and liberaliztion. However, this is a minority of the population. There are 60,000,000 other people. Reports claim that they want an increase in “socialization” of the economy, i.e. increases in subsidies for basic food products and other necessities for life. This means the opposite of liberalization, and added strain on the national budget which would need to be cut in order to carry out the liberalization that Nagy wants.
      Most of the population is traditionalist, religious and does not have middle class values. Recall the recent PEW poll that said that majorities of around 80% want adulterers stoned, converts out of Islam executed, increased separation of men and women in public places and, in general, a greater role for Islam in public life. How does this jibe for the liberal Republic Nagy and the Middle Class want?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Thank you, Lisa, and شكرا Ahmed Naje. Lisa, what is it like to be an Israeli in Egypt? Do you hold English-only conversations? How to you respond to normal questions from people you meet along the way route, say, about where you’re from or what you are doing and that sort of small stuff that is hardly small? Are you meeting the brave people who helped plan, carry out, and blog the revolution? Is there a chance you might have a conversation with a Muslim Brotherhood member whose identity would be unknown, (to you, too, if preferred) and to share it with us (with the member’s permission, of course)?

      Reply to Comment
    13. Tamar – You ask excellent questions. I cannot answer most of them now, while I am still in Egypt, but I am planning to write about them at some point after I leave.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Ben Israel

      Thanks for the link. I read the PDF file you had the link to and it seemed to confirm what I had said:
      82% of youth in GCC and non-GCC countries view “traditional values” as being important, and only 26% of Egyptian youth view themselves as being “liberal” (whatever that may mean to them).
      It is true large majorities favor “democracy” but it would be interesting to ask them exactly what that means….it is the same as what an Israeli, and American or a European thinks it is? I don’t think that having someone face the death penality because he changed in religion in the wrong direction is indicitive of support for democracy which we understand means ‘freedom of concience’ as being an integral part.

      Reply to Comment
    15. BI – In Egypt, traditional values means going to visit your parents every Friday and fasting on Ramadan. It doesn’t mean stoning women.

      Reply to Comment
    16. MonkFish

      Lisa, your response to BI starkly contradicts the findings of Pew’s latest (December 2010) global attitudes poll which homed in on views of religion and politics among Muslims in the ME:

      Views of Harsh Punishments (asked of Muslims only)- % Favor Stoning people who commit adultery:

      Turkey 16
      Egypt 82

      Whippings/cutting off of hands for theft and robbery:

      Turkey 13
      Egypt 77

      Death penalty for people who leave the Muslim religion:

      Turkey 5
      Egypt 84

      Would you be prepared to argue that these are these are non-traditional attitudes and that, therefore, the vast majority of Egyptians misunderstand the strictures of their religious and cultural traditions? Btw: it’s pointless to contest the figures. If you read the full report you’ll find that the methodology is a very sound one.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Monkfish, my response to BI was to post a link to another poll that adds nuance and depth to the findings of the Pew poll. I am not interested in arguing. At all.

      Reply to Comment
    18. zvi

      @Monkfish and Ben Israel, this article was based on an interview with one person on a set of topics which were discussed in one afternoon. Of course there are many other topics which can be discussed and debated, but that was not the point here.

      @Tamar, I am not a journalist, but my profession often brings me into direct contact with people from many muslim countries, and I have even visited a few “enemy” countries (not with an Israeli passport of course). I do not present myself as an Israeli, but I do not necessarily hide the fact either – it really depends on the context. In my experience, people are people, no matter what their political persuasion. If you are respectful of them, they will return the courtesy.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Ben Israel

      Zvi-Wars are not fought because individuals on one side dislike individuals on the other side. Wars aren’t even necessarily fought because of anger or hatred on a group level. Japan Manchuria, China, the Phillipines, Dutch East Indies, Malaya and the rest because they wanted their raw materials. It was nothing personal and had nothing to do with the local populations. People who carried out horrible mass atrocities often claimed that it also wasn’t anything personal but they were simply carrying out orders or following some higher “ideal”.
      Thus, Israelis and Jews can visit hostile Arab countries and be graciously received by individuals there but this says nothing about the possibility of war in the future between Israel and these countries.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Ben Israel

      I meant to say that Japan invaded the following countries.. Manchuria, etc

      Reply to Comment
    21. zvi

      But we are not talking about war here. This article, and my comments, were all about one on one personal experiences. I have no delusions that yet another war in our region is a very distinct possibility. But I also have no delusions that violence and oppression will ever resolve this conflict.

      Reply to Comment
    22. @Lisa – this is fantastic reporting. Your conversational interview mixes with narrative background seamlessly.

      Why did it take so long for me to find +972?

      Reply to Comment
    23. Zvi – I forgot to answer your question. It’s true that the educated middle class youth often look abroad for employment opportunities, but it’s extremely difficult to find a job abroad and then to obtain a visa. I know quite a few people in their late 20s – people with fluent English, tangible skills and impeccable educations – who have failed in their attempts to obtain opportunities abroad. These are people who would be at the top of their fields if they had been born in an industrialized democracy. So now they are turning their attention to making Egypt a place to stay in rather than escape. And they are very committed to that goal.

      Reply to Comment
    24. zvi

      Thanks for the information. All of the Egyptians I know are academics, so presumably they are more mobile (and more in demand) than your ‘average’ person. Glad to hear that there is a growing commitment to staying put and making things better.

      One of my [Egyptian] friends here, who never once expressed any kind of opinion which was remotely political, has even become a FB activist!

      Reply to Comment
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