For First Time, Egyptian Textbook Showcases Begin Next to Sadat

Are the changes in way Israel is portrayed indicative of a new spirit wafting from President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi?

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Menachem Begin as U.S. president Jimmy Carter looks on in Camp David, September 1978.
Egypt's President Anwar Sadat, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Menachem Begin as U.S. president Jimmy Carter looks on in Camp David, September 1978.Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Encouraging glimmers of change inform a new Egyptian textbook just published for use by pupils in their last year of junior high school. “The Geography of the Arab World and the History of Modern Egypt,” issued by the Egyptian Education Ministry, does not forget to portray Israel as a colonialist state – but it also stresses the importance of the Israeli-Egyptian peace accord.

Dr. Ofir Winter, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University, compared the new textbook to previous books used during the era of former President Hosni Mubarak. Some of his findings indicate a new spirit wafting from the current government of President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi.

Among other things, Winter notes that for the first time, the new book features a picture of former Prime Minister Menachem Begin next to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat; limits discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to 12 pages, as opposed to 32 pages in a comparable book published in 2002; and covers the peace accord between Egypt and Israel in four pages, compared to three in the previous edition.

The lesson on peace with Israel that is outlined in the new book includes an analysis of the reasons for Sadat’s peace initiative, an examination of the various clauses in the agreement, and a detailed explanation of why the accord is good for Egypt and the Arab states. The new version makes it clear that examination of these issues reveals their connection to broader goals today – like battling violence, extremism and terror.

Although parts of the book are copied verbatim from parallel schoolbooks used under Mubarak, some of its textual changes point to a new trend, Winter says. For example, to the list of adjectives in the phrase “to establish normal, political, economic and cultural relations between states,” from the previous textbook, the new book adds “friendly.”

There is also a new take on the Oslo Accords. The book presents them as the fruits of joint efforts by leaders Shimon Peres and Mahmoud Abbas, but the paragraph about the Camp David accords – which states that they are aimed, inter alia, at “realizing the legitimate rights of the Palestinians” – does not appear in the new version. Moreover, the assessment that “the road to peace is still far away,” which appears in the older textbook, was deleted in the new one.

Winter stresses that this is just one textbook, aimed at a single age group, and one cannot conclude from this that a comprehensive reform is planned for the Egyptian educational system, and certainly not for that of other Arab countries. One need only recall the uproar in Dubai last year, when the Education Ministry of the United Arab Emirates received complaints about a textbook used by a private school that not only depicted Israel as an example of agricultural progress, and but even mentioned Israel by name.

The problem is that despite the little that has changed in this realm, plenty still hasn’t. The textbooks in Egypt and in most, if not all of the Arab world still relate to Israel as an enemy. The changes seen in the new Egyptian textbook reflect the demand by Sissi to reexamine all textbooks in order to remove phrases that glorify violence and Islamic extremism.

What about Saudi books?

Thus, if Israel merits a few crumbs as a result, there’s no reason to complain. But one can still wonder why the Israeli government, which takes every opportunity to explain how Palestinian textbooks are full of incitement, issues nary a tweet about the harsh anti-Israel and anti-Jewish statements found in the schoolbooks used by its Arab neighbors.

For example, has anyone heard a word of criticism of Saudi textbooks, used in the same Saudi Arabia constantly mentioned as a possible ally in Israel’s imaginary coalition? And what about the UAE?

For his part, Jaber al-Harami, editor of the Qatari newspaper A-Sharq, responded to Winter’s study, which was quoted in the Arab media: He lashed out at Egypt’s Sissi, who, he asserted, "is changing the curriculum to strengthen the campaign for normalization with Israel.”

Egyptian commentator Mohamed Elmenshawy also hastened to criticize Sissi’s educational policy, calling the phenomenon “the new normalization,” aimed at “serving Israeli strategic interests, according to which the Israeli occupation is not the foundation of the Palestinian problem and is not the Arab states’ problem.”

The Egyptian media haven’t bothered to analyze the new book or curriculum; on the other hand, Arab media outlets have devoted considerable space to Israel’s new civics textbook, which they say contains elements of racism and fascism and “forces Arabs to recognize the Jewish character of the state.”

Perhaps on the day that Egyptian or Jordanian researchers publish studies on a new curriculum in which Israel accepts some responsibility for the Nakba – when more than 700,000 Arabs fled or were expelled from their homes during Israel’s War of Independence – there will be no need for a microscope to find glimmers of light in the Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian textbooks.

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