Cairo, Egypt - The American University in Cairo is a neatly landscaped stronghold of Egypt’s ruling elite, the alma mater of the wife and children of the country’s autocratic and deeply unpopular president, Hosni Mubarak. As a symbol of the ruling class and its close ties to the United States, the university has long been the focus of rumors and popular unease in this bustling city of 18 million.
In the past few months, the unease reached a crescendo amid a heated debate on campus and in the local media about rumored university plans to launch academic exchanges with Israeli universities. According to campus gossip, the university was looking at a secret plan that would allow Israelis to come to the university to study and teach.
On Facebook, the popular social networking site, students organized a group opposed to any “normalization” of ties between their school and the Jewish state that attracted more than 900 members.
Students on the Facebook group called for “a strict boycott against Israeli academics” and urged the university to “act on its good judgment and refrain from any dealings with Israeli academic institutions.”
The quick opposition that formed on campus underscores the fact that, almost 30 years after Egypt and Israel signed the Camp David Peace Accords, cultural normalization with the Jewish state, through academic or artistic exchanges, is still a touchy subject. The university administrators acknowledged this by quickly and assertively denying the rumors.
“Over the past several months, rumors have circulated on campus — and have also been reported in the local media — that have had no basis in fact and may seek to harm the university and its reputation as an independent, apolitical institution,” said AUC President David Arnold in an e-mail message sent to the university community November 11.
University provost Tim Sullivan was blunt when asked about possible cooperation with Israel.
“There are no agreements with Israeli universities,” Sullivan told the Forward. “We don’t have any now, nor are we contemplating any. And David Arnold never said we were.”
Even after these denials, though, many students are skeptical.
“I think the rumors are true,” says Yasmeen Jawdat El Khoudary, a 17-year-old undergraduate from Gaza. “It’s not a lie. As we say in Palestine, there is no smoke without fire. If these things weren’t happening, then why would people be talking about them?”
El Khoudary says that her opposition to normalization is based on her childhood in Israeli-occupied Gaza.
The peace between Egypt and Israel is often described as a cold one, but that does not mean the two countries ignore each other. Since the peace treaty between them was signed in 1979, they have exchanged ambassadors and cooperated on a number of security issues in the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli diplomats in Cairo say that their ties with Egypt are strong and that they meet with officials at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs every other day.
There is a significant economic component to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship, as well, and it becomes more significant every year. Cross-border trade has more than tripled since Egypt and Israel signed a limited free-trade deal in 2004.
Despite three decades of negotiation, cooperation and trade, many people here act like the conflict never ended. Ibrahim El Houdaiby, a prominent Muslim Brotherhood member and the tech-savvy editor of the organization’s English-language Web site, says that the cultural boycott is all about politics.
“Cultural normalization will never happen as long as Palestinians are slaughtered and killed, and the whole world can see them being deprived of their human rights,” said Houdaiby, who is an alumnus of the AUC.
For many Egyptian intellectuals, the battle migrated to the country’s cinemas and coffee shops and to the campus of the AUC, which is a stone’s throw from the Nile and from crowded Liberation Square. Many Egyptian liberals from the country’s ruling class favor cultural normalization and economic ties with Israel. Some point to the financial perks of working with Israel, while others stress the importance of dialogue in a part of the world wracked by conflict.
Those who work with Israelis can face severe criticism and potential ostracism in Egypt. This fall, the actors’ union investigated Egyptian actor Amr Waked, best known in America for his role in “Syriana,” after he appeared in a BBC film opposite an Israeli co-star.
The union dismissed the case against Waked, but the furor the actor provoked reveals the degree to which most of Egypt’s intelligentsia still regards Israel with suspicion. It is a hostility that cuts across the political spectrum, from artists and actors to members of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood.
Mahmoud El Lozy, an AUC theater professor and a well-known critic of normalization, is typical of many elite members of the Egyptian left who reject normalization. A highly educated playwright, he laments life in Egypt under the Mubarak regime with a posh British accent.
Israel is “the enemy,” he said, and cooperation and business ties with Israel are just one of the many insults brought to the country by the autocratic Mubarak regime. “People who support normalization are just a bunch of bend-over Egyptians who support globalization and the rape of the country,” he said.
University administrators privately blame the controversy on the popularity of conspiracy theories in Egypt, which are influential in forming many people’s political opinions.
El Lozy says that the reason the rumors are so powerful in Egypt is that the country’s institutions suffer from a lack of accountability.
“Rumors always grow, develop and acquire dynamism in the absence of transparency,” he said. “If there were clear principles established, and people believed that policies would be based on those principles, then there would be no more rumors. The problem is that we are dealing with shifting grounds.”
Officials at Israel’s heavily guarded embassy in Cairo say they are frustrated by Egypt’s cultural boycott of their country. They say it is “a source of sorrow” that Egyptians cannot watch Israeli films or study next to Israeli students. Shani Cooper-Zubida, the spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy, said that Egyptian-Israeli relations are strong at the political level. She attributes the cultural boycott to the ignorance of the Egyptian people.
“We have good relations regarding political issues, but when it comes to cultural affairs it is a little tougher,” she said. “It has been 30 years since Sadat came to Israel to try to break down the wall of ignorance and hate between our countries, and he was successful in certain respects. But there are still some bricks in the wall that are still standing, and one of them is cultural relations.”
Among the students at the AUC, a small coterie is amenable to the Israelis — though that does not equate with sympathy for Israel politically. Passant Rabie, a senior who has long, curly hair and who sports a backpack with peace signs, supports normalization with Israel and would like to travel there someday.
“I support normalization because we’re all people,” she said. “Normalization does not necessarily mean that you are pro-Israel. You should be civil enough not to have hate for any one big group of people.”
“People here need to learn to differentiate more between Israel, Zionism and Jews,” she added. “You can’t just say that all Israelis automatically have Zionist beliefs, because that is like saying that all Arabs have terrorist tendencies. That’s what we always accuse the West of saying about us.”