I was born at the end of July 1967, which makes me a child of the Naksa, or setback, as the Arab defeat during the June 1967 war with Israel is euphemistically
known in Arabic. Wars mark time and generations in the Middle East, and so there was no summer of love for us in 1967. Instead, we children of the Naksa were born not only on the cusp of defeat 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. Two of my uncles fought in the 1973 war against Israel, but soon after I turned 10 in November 1977, Egyptians sat glued to their television screens, watching President Anwar Sadat reach out to the enemy that Egypt had fought four times.
My family lived in London at the time, so I turned to those who witnessed Sadat’s daring visit to give me a sense of how my compatriots reacted. To mark the 20th anniversary of his surprise visit to Israel, I wrote a series of stories for Reuters News Agency that were both my way of revisiting that history but also preparing for a history of my own.
“The roads in Cairo were empty. Egyptian television followed his visit every step of the way. People were bewildered at the visit and Sadat’s courage,” Salama Ahmed Salama, former managing editor of the official al-Ahram newspaper, told me.
Two years after Sadat visited Jerusalem, Egypt became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. But his peace overtures to the Jewish state were on the list of grievances of the Muslim militant soldiers who assassinated him in 1981 as he watched a military parade marking the beginning of the 1973 war with Israel, the last war the two countries fought against each other.
Soon after I wrote that series marking the 20th anniversary of Sadat’s visit to Israel, I moved to Israel, where I became the first Egyptian to live and work there for a Western news agency. 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 state security. When I returned to Egypt after a 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.
When I interviewed Jihan al-Sadat in 1997, she told me that Sadat visited Israel to save Egyptian and Israeli children from fighting more wars: “He said that while his motorcade drove through the streets there, women with tears in their eyes were holding up children.”
“He said: ‘I couldn’t hear what they were saying but I felt they were telling me your message has arrived, and these children won’t fight any more wars when they grow up.’ He was looking out for our children. We lost a lot of them in wars,” Jihan al-Sadat said.
I call those children saved from war the Children of Camp David — the name of the town in Maryland where Egyptian and Israeli negotiators worked out details for the peace treaty at the end of 1970s. For their entire lives, Egypt has been at peace with Israel. They have no vivid memories, as my brother and I do, of air raid sirens that prompted us to darken our homes during the height of the 1973 war.
So how do those young Egyptians regard Israel?
When I visited Israel again in 2007 to speak at a Tel Aviv University conference marking the 30th anniversary of Sadat’s visit, I conducted an informal survey of several of those Children of Camp David. I sent out my questions through the social networking site, Facebook, which has become a popular forum for political activism in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world.
Unsurprisingly, I found that although those young people disagreed on their positions regarding Sadat’s peace initiative, they all shared a negative attitude toward Israel. Unless Israel made peace with the Palestinians and ended its occupation, they said, they would never accept it.
And when I visited Israel yet again last January, the day after the cease-fire that ended its offensive in Gaza, the messages I received on Facebook, asking me if I could “smell the burning flesh in Gaza” from my hotel room in Tel Aviv, condemning me for “rewarding” Israel by my visit and asking me to take roses to my “godfather and uncle Ariel Sharon,” were further reminders of that continued hostility.
I went to Israel to speak at another Tel Aviv University conference, this time, ironically, on young people in the Middle East — ironically because although the Children of Camp David have never experienced war with Israel, it is clear we have lost another Egyptian generation to conflict with Israel.
I am not saying that Arab anger at Israel is misplaced. Israel all too often lives up to its reputation as a bully. Its disproportionate reaction in Gaza to the Hamas rockets fired at southern Israeli towns was but the latest example of greater fluency in the language of warfare than in that of difficult negotiations. Israel’s blockade of Gaza punishes the enclaves’ civilians more than its Muslim militant Hamas rulers.
But the coat hanger that Israel has played for the past few decades for a variety of Arab ills is wearing thin. 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.
Have 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 30 years. For the past 28 years, Egypt has had the same president — Hosni Mubarak, who was Sadat’s vice president and who was standing on the podium when the militants emptied their rifles into Sadat.
Politically, Egypt is stuck. It faces the possibility that the most powerful country in the Arab world will witness a transfer of power by inheritance to Mubarak’s son, Gamal. This in a country that proudly rid itself of a monarchy in 1952.
While Mubarak has remained faithful to Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel, his regime continues to use the Arab-Israeli conflict as a convenient target of popular anger. Egyptian security services, which are brutal in their crackdowns on anti-government demonstrations, are more patient with anti-Israel demonstrations.
During the war in Gaza, Egypt’s refusal to open its border with Gaza was seen as siding with Israel. Two bloggers who wrote about Gaza were arrested on the same day.
My latest visit to Israel was to present a paper on how the Internet is giving a voice to the voiceless in the Arab world. The Internet has become the place where young people, especially in the Middle East, are able to express the taboos of the real world.
Although the governments of Egypt and Jordan discourage their citizens from visiting Israel and Arabs from other parts of the region cannot visit, it is in the virtual world of the Internet that Jews and Arabs are starting to tentatively traverse that psychological distance that Sadat was determined to close with his 1977 visit.
Online, some Arabs and Jews are meeting — sometimes arguing and sometimes learning things about each other. The Gaza war sent millions of people online to blog, twitter and form groups on Facebook supporting one side or the other. The Internet might have been another front in the war, but it also offered alternative points of view. For those who wanted to meet, online was the place to go.
Here’s what one Egyptian woman told me — online at Facebook — about visiting Israel: “We have to go there for the sake of knowledge and information — or how else will we understand? We have to ally ourselves with secular and leftist Jews, because there is great potential in them ... but, of course, doing this means that you face all types of nasty accusations! We clearly need a new approach to the cause that breaks away from old nationalistic discourses.”
Sadat would have been proud.
Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning syndicated columnist and an international public speaker on Arab and Muslim issues. Her opinion pieces have been published frequently in the International Herald Tribune, The Washington Post, the pan-Arab Asharq al-Awsat newspaper and Qatar’s Al-Arab.