Cultural boycott partitions Egypt from Israel

Cultural boycott partitions Egypt from Israel

Almost 30 years after Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David peace accords, the normalization of cultural ties is still mired in a cold war.

Since Egypt became the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, the two nations have exchanged ambassadors, cooperated on security issues and greatly increased trade. Yet for many Egyptians, the war has migrated to the cultural arena, including boycotts of Israeli artists and criticism of actors who work with their Israeli counterparts.

At the center of the normalization debate is the American University in Cairo, the most elite university in the Arab world and a stronghold of Egypt”s secular ruling class of military officers and business leaders.

Last year, articles published in the local media that the university would hire Israeli professors and allow the entry of Israeli students provoked much campus outrage. Student activists organized protests, circulated petitions and organized opposition groups on Facebook, the popular social Web site. University administrators quickly intervened.

“Over the past several months rumors have circulated on campus and the local media that have had no basis in fact and may seek to harm the university and its reputation as an independent, apolitical institution,” David Arnold, the university”s president said in an e-mail to the student body. “These rumors are completely false and seek only to harm the university.”

A boost to trade

Many Egyptian liberals favor cultural normalization with Israel. Some point to the financial benefits, while others stress the importance of dialogue in a region racked by conflict. A 2004 free trade pact more than doubled trade in its first 12 months from $58 million to $134 million, according to the Israeli Export Institute.

Yet cultural interactions are few, and those who travel or work with Israelis are harshly criticized.

Last year, Egyptian actor Amr Waked, who is best known for his role as a terrorist preparing young suicide bombers in “Syriana,” was threatened with a lifetime ban from filming in Egypt by the nation”s actors union. The union was angry that he had appeared opposite Israeli actor Yigal Naor in a 2007 BBC film called “Between Two Rivers” about the life of Saddam Hussein. The union eventually dropped the threat after Waked said he did not know an Israeli was involved and that the film criticized U.S. foreign policy.

The actor”s union and other critics who reject any cultural exchange with Israel say it is a matter of standing up for Palestinian human rights.

“In this case, art must follow politics and not the other way around,” said Rafiq el-Saaban, the organizer of the annual Cairo international film festival. “I can”t accept the idea of having artistic relations with Israel before we have found a political solution to this crisis.”

Envoys frustrated

Officials at Israel”s heavily guarded embassy in Cairo say that even though the two countries have good political relations, they are frustrated by the cultural boycott. Tourism between the two nations has dropped significantly since the peace agreement and only a handful of Egyptian artists, writers and academics has traveled to the Jewish state.

“It has been 30 years since (President Anwar) Sadat came to Israel to break down the wall of ignorance and hate between our countries, and he was successful in certain respects,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Shani Cooper-Zubida said. “But there are still some bricks in the wall that are still standing, and one of them is cultural relations.”

High-ranking officials in Egypt agree that the cultural boycott has not reduced the strong political ties between the two nations.

“On the level of prime ministers and foreign ministers, there have been many exchanges between our countries, but you can draw a line between them and all the different groups in society that do not encourage any kind of cooperation with Israel in any way,” said Hussein Amin, the chairman of the journalism department at the American University.

Amin says the human rights concerns that motivate the boycott are “respectable reasons,” but are misguided. “You have to understand that the people, the public, do things with their feelings, not with their minds,” he said.

But most critics disagree.

Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, says the boycott is all about politics.

“Cultural normalization will never happen as long as Palestinians are slaughtered and killed, and the whole world can see them being deprived of their human rights,” said Houdaiby, an American University alumnus. “I am always in favor of dialogue, but you need a good atmosphere to have a healthy dialogue. You can”t just kill people and then ask the survivors to have a dialogue.”

Critical of Mubarak

Yasmeen Jawdat El Khoudary, a 17-year-old undergraduate at the American University from the Gaza Strip, says Israelis should not be allowed to study in Egypt until the occupation is over.

“My major reason for being opposed to normalization is that no one ever listens to the Palestinians,” she said. “The occupation has taken every opportunity and right that we have, including the right to education.”

For other critics of normalization, attacks on the Camp David accords are part of larger criticism of the autocratic government of President Hosni Mubarak, its close relationship with the United States and its embrace of free trade.

“Rumors always grow, develop and acquire dynamism in the absence of transparency,” said Mahmoud El Lozy, an American University in Cairo drama professor and well-known critic of normalization. “If there were clear principles established, and people believed that policies would be based on those principles, then there would be no more rumors. The problem is that we are dealing with shifting grounds.”

But among the university”s students, there are those who disagree with the cultural boycott against Israel.

Passant Rabie, an American University senior supports normalization and wants to visit Israel someday.

“People here need to learn to differentiate more between Israel, Zionism and Jews,” she said. “You can”t just say that all Israelis automatically have Zionist beliefs, because that is like saying that all Arabs have terrorist tendencies. That”s what we always accuse the West of saying about us.”