On March 26, 1979, under the auspices of the United States, Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty. But the bilateral relationship has been characterized as a “cold peace.” For the nearly four decades since, the two countries have exchanged ambassadors and coordinated on security and borders, but full “normalization” never occurred.
While Israeli tourism in Egypt has surged during periods of calm, Egyptian tourists have only trickled into Israel, partly because Egyptians who visit Israel risk harassment by Egypt’s security apparatus. Cultural exchanges are also extremely limited; Egyptian artists and academics have boycotted Israel, and those Egyptians who have traveled to Israel, notwithstanding the boycott, often face severe censure once they return home.
This was evident by the criticism within Egypt after Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry was photographed watching a soccer match with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a July 2016 meeting in Jerusalem, and when Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi was photographed laughing with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2017.
It is worth recalling that many of the Egyptian activists who catalyzed the January 2011 “Arab Spring” cut their political teeth by participating in anti-Israel protests during the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2004). Indeed, Egyptian leaders are well aware that protests against Israel can quickly become protests against those who deal with Israel.
More than this, the Egyptian government has actively discouraged travel to Israel from Egypt. Egypt justified the lack of Egyptian tourists to Israel as a matter of Israel’s inadequacy: there is nothing to see in Israel in comparison to Egypt’s beautiful beaches and many interesting archaeological sites. However, others contend that if the gates were opened toward Israel, ordinary Egyptians would see the reality of Israel, and thousands of unemployed workers would pour into Israel since it is closer than Italy and France.
Simply put, an ordinary Egyptian cannot travel to Israel. The government, through its controls, limits such travel to diplomats, journalists or Coptic pilgrims who wish to visit Christian sites in Jerusalem, though those Christians must be over age 40.
Thus, while it is true that the security cooperation has improved in the recent years, the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is still considered a “cold peace.” To some extent, this reflects the durability of Egyptian perceptions of Israel as an enemy, as the wars that Egypt fought against Israel from 1948 to 1973 are given far more attention in Egypt’s public sphere than the 1979 peace treaty. Consider, for example, that multiple public institutions, roads, schools and even cities are named to commemorate the 1973 war, but none honor the treaty; this reflects the Egyptian government’s refusal to inform its public about peace with Israel. Another example took place last January when the Israeli ambassador to Cairo, David Govrin, submitted an official protest to the Egyptian government that out of all diplomatic missions that being briefed by the Egyptian foreign ministry on the situation in Sinai, Israeli representatives were not invited, despite the countries’ two militaries cooperating closely to fight ISIS.
Therefore, one of the biggest obstacles to full normalization is the Egyptian government, which still engages in anti-Israel rhetoric. The most obvious example took place this past Ramadan, when TV viewing was at its yearly peak. In a TV show sponsored directly by the Egyptian intelligence services, Jews and Israelis continued to be portrayed negatively — as spies, thieves, killers and socially immoral individuals.
The indoctrination of hate that unfortunately gets passed down from generation to generation hinders opportunities for true peace. The history of the Middle East tells a tragic and cautionary tale that must not be forgotten, but what the region needs is real progress. It needs people who recognize the positive, and work toward a more collective and inclusive future.
Haisam Hassanein is a Glazer fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he focuses on economic relations between Israel and Arab states. Follow him on Twitter @HaisamHassanei1.