Sometime in late March, at a Cairo protest, a prominent Egyptian activist pretended he was meeting me for the first time, despite our six-year acquaintance. “Military intelligence,” he murmured, as he formally shook my hand and brushed past to greet fellow activists. Later, he sent a message through a mutual friend asking that I not contact him again. He was one of several Egyptians who avoided me because I have Israeli citizenship (in addition to my Canadian citizenship) and because my home base was in Israel.
Egypt and Israel have been formally at peace for more than three decades, but relations between the two countries are a complex mixture of cooperation and hostility. Many call it a “cold peace.” The Mubarak regime jealously guarded contact with Israel, restricting it to the army, the government, and powerful businessmen. At the grassroots level, popular discontent with 1979’s Camp David peace accords feeds a strong taboo on normal contacts between the two countries; lack of interaction between ordinary people contributes to popular fears and conspiracy theories.
During the anti-Mubarak uprising, activists faced tear gas, water cannons, beatings, and bullets, speaking exultantly of having left fear behind. But less than two months later, they responded to my interview requests with polite refusals, explaining apologetically that a meeting was too risky. Only a handful agreed to speak for attribution to +972, my left-wing Israeli digital magazine. In post-Mubarak Egypt, the taboo on normalization with Israelis is as strong as ever.
Fear of army intelligence and of social opprobrium were the most common excuses for refusing to be interviewed. The interim military government has stoked an atmosphere of uncertainty with its impenetrable and unpredictable policies. On the one hand, the army arrested and tortured political activists, tried them in closed military courts, and handed down severe jail sentences. On the other hand, they detained and investigated corrupt members of the Mubarak regime, and lifted restrictions on freedom of the press. Did the military council permit contact with Israelis? No one knew, and there was no one to ask. This lack of guidance, combined with a taboo so deep that Egyptians lower their voices or use a code word when talking about Israel in public, reinforced a formidable psychological barrier.
Some refused interviews for ideological reasons. A blogger and prominent labor organizer declined because he was opposed to normal contact with any Israeli, no matter how liberal. An American academic—Jewish and identified with Marxist politics, who divides his time between a US university and an Egyptian academic institution—responded curtly to my e-mail request for contacts in Egypt: “Sorry. I won’t help you. You should have told me that you were Israeli.”
Under Mubarak, several prominent Egyptian journalists suffered for having contact with Israelis. Hisham Kassem, co-founder of the country’s largest independent daily paper, Al Masry al Youm, was excoriated for a photograph, published in the state-owned paper Al Ahram, showing him sitting by an Israeli journalist at a UN event in Egypt. Hala Mostafa, a former Al Ahram columnist, was censured by the Journalists’ Syndicate for meeting with the Israeli ambassador.
Both fought back and kept their reputations intact. Mostafa believes that the taboo against normalization will become stronger in post-Mubarak Egypt. Most of the anti-regime activists, she explained, were opposed to normalization. She predicted Israel would become a populist issue with factions accusing one another of being soft on the Zionist state.
But Kassem is impatient with this view. “We are not yet in the post-Mubarak era,” he said. The situation in Egypt is still unstable and the military council is merely an interim government tasked with keeping order until September elections.
Kassem is in the process of establishing a new magazine, and has recruited at least one contributor who is an on-the-record advocate of normal contact between Egyptian journalists and Israelis, within a professional context.Lisa Goldman is a freelance writer based in Tel Aviv. Her articles have been published in Haaretz, the Guardian, Corriere Della Sera and the Forward; she blogs at lisagoldman.net.