Analysis |

Israel-UAE Normalization Is a Test for Egypt and Jordan

Sissi fears that Mohammed bin Zayed will now be the 'whisperer to the Israelis,' while Jordan is worried about the standing of the Arab peace initiative

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
King Abdullah of Jordan at a conference with Egypt and Iraq in Amman, August 2020.
King Abdullah of Jordan at a conference with Egypt and Iraq in Amman, August 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

In 1981, the Egyptian poet Salah Abdel Sabour died of a heart attack. His death was no coincidence. It happened at a party at the home of another Egyptian poet, Ahmed Abdel Muti Hijazi, to celebrate the birthday of Hijazi’s daughter. The invitees included poets, novelists, journalists and intellectuals.

Abdel Sabour headed the General Egyptian Book Organization, an arm of the Culture Ministry, whose signature event is the Cairo International Book Fair in which Israel took part. For weeks, Abdel Sabour had been under attack for inviting Israelis to the fair, violating the consensus at the main writers’ association against normalizing ties with Israel, with which peace had been made in 1979.

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During the party, the cartoonist and illustrator Bahgat Osman went up to Abdel Sabour and declared, “You sold your soul for a pittance!” Apparently the accusation was one too many for the poet, who had a heart attack and later died. Osman’s apology before Abdel Sabour’s death couldn’t save him.

Egypt’s most prominent intellectuals continued to cultivate the Committee in Defense of National Culture, a nongovernmental organization for fighting a cultural normalization with Israel. They called out authors and poets who sought ties with Israel and instructed the unions and associations of authors, journalists, actors and the like to draw up strict regulations barring any expression of normalization.

Israel took part in the Cairo International Book Fair until 1985, but only with the protection of the regime’s bayonets. So, for example, shortly before that year’s fair, around two dozen writers were arrested after they planned to protest Israel’s participation.

Another storm erupted a few years later, over the translation of Hebrew literature into Arabic and vice versa. The former is considered legitimate as part of the “know your enemy” approach; it’s even taught at a few Egyptian universities.

But the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew is considered not only part of normalization but also a threat; it gives the Israeli enemy a window into understanding the Arab soul and intellect, including any vulnerabilities, which it can exploit in its battle against the Arabs.

Opinions were divided. Some writers ridiculed the “security” argument, noting that some Israeli intelligence agents don’t need translations to understand “the Arab soul” – they can read the literature in its original language. Others rallied around the flag and refused to permit the translation of their works.

In an op-ed on the Al-Quds Al-Arabi website last week, novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who had been a member of a committee for combating a normalization with Israel, argued that there was no reason to object to the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew as long as it didn’t involve direct contact with an Israeli publisher. Amid pressure, the translation into Hebrew of one of his novels, “No One Sleeps in Alexandria,” under the auspices of the American University in Cairo, was halted.

Abdel Meguid asks in his op-ed: What will happen to the war against cultural normalization after the United Arab Emirates signs a peace treaty with Israel? Will Israel be able to take part in book fairs and film festivals in any of the emirates? Which Arab artists will take part?

Will they agree to receive the generous prizes from the hand of the UAE ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan? Or will they take the lead of the Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim?

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at Hosni Mubarak's funeral in Cairo, February 2020.
Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi at Hosni Mubarak's funeral in Cairo, February 2020.Credit: Amr Abdallah Dalsh / Reuters

The gatekeepers

In 2003, Sonallah Ibrahim refused to accept the Arab Novel Award from Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, saying he wouldn’t accept a prize from a government that maintained relations with Israel.

To Arab intellectuals, especially Egyptians, who oppose normalization, the UAE-Israel peace treaty is more than a “knife in the back of the Palestinians.” It’s a massive blow to the struggle that made them the gatekeepers, the real patriots, unlike a regime that “betrayed” the nation and signed a peace agreement with Israel. As long as Israeli culture is boycotted, they argue, the peace will remain a cold one.

They wrap their apprehensions about a UAE-Israel normalization in reasoning aimed mainly at Crown Prince Mohammed, couching it as concerns meant to warn the UAE leader against falling into a trap set by Israel and the United States.

The Palestinian journalist Sami Sarhan explained this week that the agreement with Israel could harm not only the UAE’s relations with Iran and other Arab states, but the conscience of the Emirates and the UAE’s reputation as the keeper of Arab solidarity. He said the agreement would cause a rift between the public and the ruler, as Anwar Sadat experienced in Egypt.

More importantly, the UAE would lose the Arab world's solidarity and have to consider what would happen the day it needs this solidarity to protect it from an attack. This is a strange argument from a Palestinian who knows how little Arab solidarity means when it comes to helping the Palestinian people.

The “concern” for the UAE’s safety can’t cover up the real fears troubling Egypt and Jordan, countries that signed peace treaties with Israel. Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Hussein, King Abdullah’s half brother, shared Avi Shlaim’s essay in Middle East Eye this week on the UAE agreement’s possible damage to the Palestinians and Jordan.

The share shows a caricature in which a red X is marked on the UAE leader’s face, under which  “traitor” is written with a drawing of a shoe sole covering his face. Jordanian officials said their country hadn’t been in the loop regarding the declaration of the agreement. Jordan knew about the closer ties between the two countries but apparently wasn’t made partner to all the negotiations.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, right, inspects an honor guard with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, November 27, 2019.
UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed, left, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Abu Dhabi, November 27, 2019.Credit: Rashed Al Mansoori / Presidential Affairs Ministry via AP

Angry Jordan

The king didn’t criticize the agreement – Jordan depends on assistance from the UAE and thousands of Jordanians are employed there – but he left it to Jordanian officials to do it, including Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, who recently met with Saeb Erekat in Jericho. A joint statement said Jordan adheres to the Arab peace initiative of 2002 and to a two-state solution, adding that the occupation is the root of the conflict.

Not much analysis was needed to understand Jordan’s anger. It sees the UAE move as a blatant bypassing of the Arab initiative, which promises a normalization with Israel only in exchange for a withdrawal from the occupied territories.

Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister and an architect of the Israeli-Jordanian peace deal, said “the agreement is of no importance if other states don’t join it .... The danger is that other states will join.”

The main concern is that Saudi Arabia also demands sponsorship of the holy sites in Jerusalem and excludes Jordan from its status as sponsor, as stipulated in the peace agreement.

Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi was the first to congratulate Crown Prince Mohammed for his “historic move” and was even thanked by Benjamin Netanyahu for his words. He has a different kind of feeling in the pit of his stomach. Egypt is almost a sister state to the UAE. Sissi consults with the crown prince on internal matters, not only diplomatic and military affairs.

According to the Egyptian site Mada Masr last November, Crown Prince Mohammed was the one who suggested that Sissi remove his son from a senior intelligence post and appoint him military attache in Moscow. The UAE invested billions of dollars in Egyptian infrastructure and deposited billions more at Egypt’s central bank to save Egypt’s foreign currency reserves, shortly after Sissi came to power in July 2013 after he ousted Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt and the UAE are partners in the war in Libya alongside separatist Gen. Khalifa Haftar, and although Israel hasn’t taken an active role in the war in Yemen, it’s seen as a member of the Saudi coalition in which the UAE was a very active partner until it quit about a year ago.

But Egypt has special international status due to two things. It’s Israel’s crutch in the clash with Hamas and it’s cultivating ties for Israel with a number of Arab states.

These special relations, which have become closer under Sissi, have made Egypt the landlord in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These ties have also provided Egypt with Israeli military support in the fight against Islamic terror in Sinai, which has included Israel’s consent to breach the Camp David Accords and let Egypt use its air force and heavy weapons in demilitarized zones.

Egypt also won a warm embrace from U.S. President Donald Trump, who called Sissi “my favorite dictator” and sees him as a strategic ally in the region.

President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as he arrives at the White House in Washington, April 3, 2017.
President Donald Trump greets Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi as he arrives at the White House in Washington, April 3, 2017.Credit: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

According to some Egyptian commentators, peace between Israel and the UAE could gnaw at Egypt’s diplomatic status and shift the focus of regional importance from Cairo to the Gulf, especially if other Gulf states join the party.

The fear is that Crown Prince Mohammed will now be the “whisperer to the Israelis,” and to the Americans, stealing this role from Sissi. This concern has no basis at the moment. True, the crown prince is Trump’s unofficial adviser for Middle East affairs, and his weight in money is much greater than Sissi’s. But this doesn’t overshadow Egypt’s regional importance, even though it’s economically dependent on the UAE.

If one of the two has to worry it’s the crown prince, who is tensely awaiting November 3. If the opinion polls are right and Joe Biden becomes U.S. president, Mohammed could lose his power strongholds in Washington. And Sissi, despite reservations about human rights breaches in Egypt, is the Democrats’ favorite Arab leader.

Thus the importance of the Israel deal for the UAE leader, who believes, with considerable justification, that it will help him build his influence with the new administration as well.

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