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A cold peace

Updated: Jan 5, 2021

In the 2005 hit “The Embassy in the Building” (السفارة في العمارة‎) comedy icon Adel Emam plays a man who returns to his native Cairo after a long absence to find that the Israeli embassy has moved into the flat next door. The film follows Emam’s hijinks as he navigates the inconveniences and indignity of association with Israel at the behest of faceless Egyptian officials who urge him to act in “the national interest”.

It’s a not-so-subtle allegory of Egypt’s relationship with Israel. Following 30 years of bloody border conflicts, Egypt’s President, Anwar Sadat, normalised relations in 1978. For his efforts, he was subsequently assassinated. Although the two countries have maintained normalised relations ever since, it has remained, in the words of Sadat’s nephew, now a politician himself, “a cold peace”.

So it was with a mixture of amusement and outrage that the Abraham Accords were viewed on Egyptian Twitter. The United Arab Emirates signed a ceremonious “peace deal” with Israel in August, even though the two countries are yet to fight a war. Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan followed suit, and a rumoured meeting between Netanyahu and Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia suggests that Riyadh is not far behind.

This tearing up of the Arab-Israeli narrative was less of a shock to those who have followed the growing close-but-covert relationship between Israel and the Gulf. The Emiratis see themselves as trailblazers in a new era for the Middle East. Burying the hatchet with Israel means a new regional ally with close ties to America and a willingness to stand up to Iran. The deal strengthens the informal Saudi-led Arab alliance, of which Egypt is a part.

Abu Dhabi, at least, has jumped into its new friendship with Israel with both feet. There’s talk of technological co-operation, regular passenger flights, student exchange programmes, and all the trappings of friendly state relations. A chief rabbi has been appointed and the UAE’s first synagogue is scheduled to open next year.

But when photos emerged last November of Egyptian singer Mohamed Ramadan at a party in Abu Dhabi embracing Israeli footballers, it was clear that this newfound enthusiasm for Israel had not spread to Egypt. Ramadan was slapped with a lawsuit for “insulting the Egyptian people'', was torn apart on social media, and left out in the cold by the musicians’ syndicate.

Israeli and Egyptian governments enjoy a fairly close relationship based on shared security concerns in Sinai. But in the country as a whole, little has changed since Sadat’s assination 40 years ago. Trade between the two countries is around 0.1 percent of their respective exports; tourism is limited to handfuls of Israeli backpackers in South Sinai; Israel remains a favoured boogey-man of journalists and screenwriters. While Egypt may have been the first Arab country to recognise Israel, the decades of conflict and deaths of more than 30,000 Egyptian servicemen cannot so easily be signed off.

Then, of course, there’s the Palestine issue. Up until the signing of the deal, a settlement between the Israelis and Palestinians was a prerequisite for talks among members of the Arab League. While that no longer appears to be the case, Netanyahu’s government continues to ride roughshod over any hopes for a two-state solution. The Arab League seems to have grown weary with the intransigence of the Palestinan Authority and the PLO, but the future of Palestine is far from resolved.

It will be interesting to see over the next few years if Egyptian attitudes towards Israel and Israelis change. Since becoming President, El Sisi has maintained a foreign policy closely in line with that of Saudi Arabia and it’s possible that Gulf states warming to Israel will temper Egypt’s “cold peace”.

But a UAE-style friendship with Israel may be an impossible sell in Egypt, where the memories of war are fresh. The 1973 Yom Kippur War alone claimed some 15,000 Egyptian lives and veterans of the conflict are still alive and active in society today; the UAE, in comparison, had been a state for less than two years at the war’s outbreak.

Friendship with Israel comes with advantages. The UAE is already cooperating with Israel on issues like water management and desalination technology, things Egypt too would like to improve. There are plans for Israel and energy-hungry Egypt to create a regional gas hub to cooperate in the production and export of liquified natural gas. State relations between the two may be strong enough to keep these plans alive, but for any wider reconciliation with Israel, Egyptians will have to believe that the relationship is in their own interests.

In “The Embassy in the Building”, our protagonist ultimately felt that the pay-off wasn’t worth it. Despite lavish gifts and favours from the Government, Emam has an epiphany at the end of the film. He abandons his beautifully furnished flat and leaves the building to join the protests in the street outside.

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