August 9, 2007
What use were all the wars?
If turning 40 isn't challenging enough, try preparing for this milestone when you're as old as one of the worst defeats Arab armies ever suffered at Israeli hands. Wars mark time and generations in the Middle East, so it's difficult not to take the humiliation personally.
My birth at the end of July 1967 makes me a child of the naksa, or setback, as the Arab defeat during the June 1967 war is euphemistically known in Arabic. There was no Summer of Love for us in 1967. We Children of the Naksa were born not only on the cusp of loss but also of the kind of disillusionment that whets the appetite of religious zealots.
My parents' generation grew up high on the Arab nationalism that Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser brandished in the 1950s. By 1967, humiliation was decisively stepping into pride's large, empty shoes.
As the region marks the 40th anniversary of the Arab-Israeli war, it's been a relief to be watching from another country, one where the stain of wars and defeat have marked several generations. But no relief or distance can silence this question: Is this what we fought all those wars with Israel for?
My country, Egypt, fought four wars against Israel between 1948, when the Jewish state was created, and 1979, when Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Two of my uncles were rocket engineers during the 1973 war, the last conflict between the two countries.
Watching the Palestinians' whiplash descent into civil war in Gaza this summer, it is difficult not to question the past. Israel's occupation of Palestinian land has caused no end of misery, poverty and frustration for the Palestinians. It has even scarred the Israeli people's conscience. But occupation doesn't explain the reckless and often corrupt leadership that seems to be the curse of the Palestinians.
You might think society would have evolved differently in the two countries that have peace treaties with Israel -- Egypt and Jordan -- or that their treaties have rendered conflict out of the question. Think again.
Has Egypt or Jordan logged better records on human rights or political freedoms because of those treaties? Has development or progress taken the place of war? Ask the thousands of political prisoners and the silenced dissidents of both countries.
Egypt has been at peace with Israel for 28 years. For the past 25 years, we have had the same president, who has never visited Israel -- just the tip of the iceberg known as the "cold peace" between the two countries, which Egyptian officials usually blame on negative public opinion of Israel's occupation of Palestinian land.
We have subsumed so much into the Palestinian cause, channeling efforts that should have gone into development into a near obsession with Palestine, for little apparent good. Egypt boasts that it can talk to both the Israelis and the Palestinians, but even that has done little for its influence in halting intra-Palestinian fighting in Gaza.
I visited Israel for the first time in September 1997. Soon after, I moved to Jerusalem as a correspondent for Reuters. I wanted to see things for myself and not have to rely on the "official" narrative given by our media.
To this day I remain under the suspicion of my country's security services. When I returned to Egypt after my year in Israel, a state security officer -- whose nom de guerre was Omar Sharif -- held up a thick file that he said was full of orders to have me followed and my phone tapped.
My generation, sadly, might be lost to defeat and humiliation. If so, the best gift we can offer those coming behind us is clear advice: Don't walk in our footsteps, and know that the best way you can help Palestinians is to help your own countries.
The Arab leaders of the 1967 era are gone, replaced in Jordan and Syria by their sons; preparations for a similar hand over are underway in Egypt. The Palestinians are led by the dangerously impotent combination of a weak president and a prime minister who is a religious zealot.
And still there is no Palestine.
Why has time stood still for the Arab world? The Syrian town of Quneitra is exactly as it was when it was destroyed after the 1967 war with Israel, untouched so that we never forget. Yet how many German cities, almost leveled during World War II, have been rebuilt and are thriving again?
The 1967 war was one of the many conflicts with Israel that bookend our ages. Looking around the Arab world today, we must ask: What were they all for? It's time to move on.