x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Hostility for Israel simmers below worries about stability

Economy and security are dominant campaign issues, but antipathy towards the Camp David accords spans the political spectrum.

CAIRO // Wael Khalil is the archetype of Egypt's "secular-liberal" activist camp - a catch-all term that is haphazardly used for anybody who is not a hard-core proponent of political Islam.

An easy-going IT professional with a salt-and-pepper beard, Mr Khalil is one of the quiet architects of the Egyptian revolution. A member of the revolutionary socialist movement since his 20s, he was one of a handful of activists who plotted and organised the landmark January 25 protests last year that launched the Egyptian revolution.

But before he helped bring down Hosni Mubarak's regime, Mr Khalil, 45, came of age as an activist in his 20s by joining protests that burnt Israeli flags at Cairo University and launched numerous failed attempts to march on the Israeli embassy a few blocks away from campus.

"My understanding is that the majority of people are not happy with the relationship with Israel. They are not happy with how the Egyptian government has subjugated their will for 30 years," Mr Khalil said. "Israel is a hostile state. It is an aggressive state that attacks its neighbours. I don't think anyone is calling for war with Israel. But people are definitely not happy about normalisation."

The sense of anxiety among Israel and its allies only increased after parliamentary elections in Egypt last fall produced an Islamist-controlled legislature. Israel's biggest fear seems to be a vision of the largest Arab country morphing into a fanatical Islamist citadel on its border - one that tears up the Camp David Peace Accords and begins aggressively exporting militant Islam throughout the region.

However this focus on Islamists ignores a fundamental reality about modern Egypt - almost everybody across the political spectrum has a dim view of Israel and Camp David.

"My view on Israel hasn't changed. It is a racist country," said Hamdeen Sabbahi, a secularist presidential candidate and an opposition politician since his days as a Cairo University student government leader.

In 1978, the undergraduate Mr Sabbahi, along with other students, engaged in a public debate with Anwar Sadat, Egypt's president, on a host of issues including Camp David. "Part of Egypt's value is its role [as a leader] in the Arab World, Camp David put so many restrictions on that role. We lost so much because of it."

The accords were signed by Sadat and the former Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin in September 1978. The accords returned the Sinai peninsula to Egypt in exchange for recognition of Israel. They led directly to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in 1979, which was the first time a peace deal was made between Israel and an Arab country.

Two of the four leading presidential candidates in the election that starts tomorrow are Islamists: the Muslim Brotherhood representative, Mohammed Mursi, and Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a long-time Brotherhood member who left the organisation and campaigned as a centrist.

The issue of Israel and Camp David has popped up frequently on the campaign trail - with the candidates differing primarily on the shades of just how negatively they view the situation.

"Sadat sold the nation on Camp David," Mr Aboul Fotouh said during a recent televised presidential debate with Amr Moussa, Mubarak's former foreign minister. But he added that, "the majority of Egyptians are enemies of the state of Israel".

Camp David, Mr Aboul Fotouh said, "should be revised; that which is against Egypt's interests should be removed immediately and what's in our interest should stay".

Mr Moussa, the career diplomat, was more measured, saying, "Most of our people consider [Israel] an enemy but the responsibility of the president is to deal with such things responsibly and not run after hotheaded slogans".

However, Mr Moussa has also been recently quoted as referring to Camp David as, "dead and buried" and "a historical document whose place is on the shelves of history".

These political stances largely reflect public opinion. Egyptians generally feel a strong antipathy towards Israel and deep sympathy for the Palestinians. Almost nobody wants to go war; but many would favour scaled back relations that stick to the absolute letter of Camp David, but with no wider sense of cooperation.

Right now, Egyptians are understandably obsessed with domestic concerns such as the economy and security. The issue of Israel and Camp David has been irrelevant to the presidential race, but public hostility towards Israel still pops up regularly.

This spring, Egypt's Grand Mufti, Sheikh Ali Gomaa stoked controversy and criticism by visiting Jerusalem. Last summer, a cross border-shooting incident in the Sinai Peninsula ended with the Israeli ambassador in Cairo being evacuated.

Activists seized on the shooting to organise protests outside the Israeli embassy that culminated in the Israeli flag being taken down and the embassy being overrun by crowds.

Mr Khalil, the socialist activist, recalled the image of a young Egyptian protester scaling a multi-story apartment building to remove the flag as one that produced a gush of national pride.

"It was not because we all hated Israel or anything, but because at last we were standing up to them."

Islamist leaders have since sought to calm those fears in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and elsewhere. Yousseri Hamad, a prominent Salafist sheikh, recently granted an interview to an Israeli radio station and said that Camp David may be revisited for amendment, but not cancelled.

"We are not opposed to the agreement, and we are saying that Egypt is committed to the agreements that previous Egyptian governments have signed," Mr Hamad said, noting that if Egyptians want changes on the treaty, "the place for that is the negotiation table".