CAIRO // Hala Mustafa, a member of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) and editor of Democracy, the publication of a state-run think-tank, has been put under investigation after receiving Shalom Cohen, the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, at her office last week. "I didn't expect all this frenzy and fury; for me it was just like any visit by a diplomat," Mrs Mustafa said in an interview on Sunday.
"This is not the first time that an Israeli ambassador has come to Al Ahram [think-tank] and met senior officials there, so if they will probe me, let them do that in a collective trial for all 'normalising' journalists," she added. The Egyptian Press Syndicate, of which Mrs Mustafa is a member, has ordered an investigation into the incident for a possible violation of the syndicate's anti-normalisation policy. No date has been set yet, though it will begin some time after Eid.
It is not the first time a syndicate member has been investigated for having ties with Israel, and it was announced recently that Hussein Serag, a journalist with the state-owned October Weekly, who has translated some Israeli books into Arabic, will also be investigated for reportedly visiting Israel on more than one occasion. "I violated a decision, not a law, so I don't know what's the legal punishment for that," said Mrs Mustafa. "Things should be simpler than that."
Since her graduation from university in 1981, Mrs Mustafa has worked as a political researcher at the Al Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies, a state-run think-tank affiliated with Al Ahram newspaper, Egypt's oldest and largest daily. She has been editor of the quarterly journal Democracy since 2000. Mrs Mustafa said many journalists, including Abdel Moneim Saeed, a senior member of the NDP and the new chief of the board of Al Ahram, have hosted Israeli ambassadors and intellectuals before.
Mr Saeed, a founding signatory of the 1997 Copenhagen declaration, a treaty signed by Arab and Israeli intellectuals and cultural leaders calling for Arab-Israeli peace, was not immediately available for comment. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. However, 30 years later, normalisation with the Jewish state remains controversial and frowned upon, especially among journalists, intellectuals and cultural circles.
During the Israeli attack on Gaza in December and January, people routinely demonstrated by burning Israeli flags and chanting "The masses demand - close the embassy and expel the ambassador". Last year, the minister of culture, Farouk Hosni, said in a debate with Muslim Brotherhood MPs he would burn Israeli books if he found them in Egyptian libraries, though he has recently retracted the remark as he runs for the post of director of Unesco, the United Nations' cultural body.
"Hala committed a mistake by violating an old decision by the Press Syndicate and wronged Al Ahram and outraged her colleagues there and journalists in general," said Makram Mohammed Ahmed, the director of the Press Syndicate. "There is no alternative to transferring her to investigation, but I'm against expelling her from the syndicate, which would amount to her professional execution. "But there are other punishments like a reprimand or a suspension of up to one year from work."
Mr Ahmed, in his 70s, has been to Israel, but insisted he only passed through Israeli checkpoints en route to Ramallah to visit Yasser Arafat, upon the late Palestinian leader's request, who was at the time confined to his compound ringed by the Israeli army. "Hala and other people who don't believe in this Press Syndicate binding decision [against normalisation] should sit down and discuss it, not violate it, until it's reconsidered and changed, if that's what the majority of the members want," Mr Ahmed said.
But Mrs Mustafa defended her choice to have contacts with Israeli diplomats, journalists and academics. "Having dialogues with Israelis doesn't mean I condone Israeli practices," she said. "Some people believe in dialogue to resolve the conflict, others believe in boycott and armed struggle. "We have to remember that there is a struggle between Israel and Palestinians, not with Egypt. The constitution has granted Egyptians the freedom of thinking and choice."
Renowned Egyptian playwright Ali Salem concurred. "This is an absurd debate that must end in Egypt," he said. "No one is forcing those who are anti-normalisation with Israel to do so, however, this camp should stop blackmailing those who don't mind having dialogue with Israelis or visiting Israel." In 1994, Salem became one of the few Egyptian writers to dare to visit Israel and wrote a book about it, A Trip to Israel. Almost 15 years later, Salem, 73, is still paying a price for what many considered to be normalisation, a step seen as tantamount to betraying the Palestinian cause.
He was ostracised not by the state, but by fellow intellectuals, who expelled him from the Egyptian Writer's Union. When he won a case to be allowed back in to the Union, he resigned. None of his plays have been performed in Cairo since. He remains steadfast in his position, however. The columnist Salama Ahmed Salama, in a tongue-in-cheek article on Sunday in the Al Sharouk daily discussing Mrs Mustafa's meeting with the Israeli ambassador and relations with Israel in general, asked that if Egyptian leaders are meeting with Israeli "war criminals", why should others not?
"Concerning relations with Israel, many Egyptians and Arabs tend to fall into deep confusion and suspicion," Salama wrote. "Some are betrayed by Arab leaders meeting Israeli military leaders and war criminals, so why can't Hala Mustafa meet with the Israeli ambassador in Cairo?" On a more serious note, he concluded: "Some diplomats as well as researchers and academics are deceiving themselves by clinging to faint hopes [of peace] ... of their capability of gaining Israel's trust and [convincing] it of peace," he added.