Between Rejection and Acceptance: The Normalization Agreements with Israel in the Egyptian Public Discourse

Michael Barak analyzes the public discourse in Egypt regarding the Abraham Accords. This article is part of "The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel".

the first flight to Abu Dhabi
El-Al first flight to Abu-Dhabi, August 2020. U.S Embassy Jerusalem, from Wikimedia Commons [CC BY 2.0]

The public discourse in Egypt regarding the signing of the normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco is com­plex and ranges from opposition and reservations, to acceptance. The critics, who mainly include left­ists and Islamists, describe the treaties as a serious blow to the Palestinian issue and to Arab solidar­ity. Supporters, who mainly include the regime and liberals, emphasize that every Arab state is entitled to pursue its national interests, even if it means establishing normalization with Israel that could obscure the Palestinian issue. The discourse also reflects concerns about the decline of Egypt’s status in the Arab world in favor of the Gulf states, who it is feared may use the new agreements to further leverage their regional and international power and influence. These arguments have inten­sified the already existing conviction of Egypt that it is obliged to invest greater efforts in order to regain leadership of the Arab world.

Responses to the Normalization Treaties

The circumstances in which the normalization wave took place were broadly analyzed by Egyptian jour­nalists and academics. Many agreed that this was a “historic peace” and a political achievement for the Prime Minister of Israel. Journalist Jamal Abu Hassan, for example, claimed that “the Arab Spring is the land that yielded the new peace agreements [...] while President Obama is the one who sowed the seeds,” pointing to the nuclear deal with Iran, that provoked criticism and close diplomatic coop­eration by the Gulf states and Israel. Other fac­tors mentioned accelerating the rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries were particular aspects of the national identity of the normalizing states, their desire to distance themselves from outmoded notions of Arab solidarity and from political Islam, and the growth of a new generation that does not live the conflicts of the past.

‘Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi, President of Egypt, was the first Arab leader to welcome the peace treaties between Israel and the two Gulf countries, as well as the later agreements. His ambition to stabilize the region and his desire to maintain a strategic alliance with the US administration and the Gulf states, as well as Egypt’s economic dependence on the UAE, were among his motivations in doing so.

In contrast to his welcoming attitude, leftists claimed that the treaties were signed out of politi­cal weakness and harmed Palestinian interests and Arab solidarity. Abdullah al-Sanawi, a prominent Nasserist, described the normalization agreements as a strategic failure of the Arab states, giving Israel an opportunity to achieve what it had failed to gain in all its wars, without giving up a single piece of land. Mustafa Kamel, a leading Egyptian academic, stressed that “the biggest losers are, without a doubt, the Palestinians and Arabs who identify with them […]”. Islamists for their part claimed that the treaties were illegal and contradicted Islam. Yasser Burhami, a senior Salafi leader, stressed that the Palestinian territories are occupied Islamic land, hence no peace can be established with an occu­pying state that also violates Palestinian rights. Moreover, he has criticized using the term “Abra­ham Accords” on the grounds that it has corrupted Abraham’s Islamic identity and aimed at creating a new religion in which all religions are equal. Interestingly, the al-Azhar establishment has cho­sen to remain silent on the issue, despite its tra­ditional support for the Palestinians. This is due to a reluctance to confront the Egyptian regime, which expressed full support for the peace treaties, especially in a challenging period of economic and epidemiological crisis. It also may reflect the good relations of al-Azhar Sheikh Ahmad al-Tayyib with the UAE regime.

Yes to Peace,No to Normalization

Another aspect of the public discourse is concerned with the refusal to normalize ties with Israel beyond the government-to-government level, described as a major difference between the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and the recent normalization trea­ties. Ahmed Abu al-Ghayt, Egyptian diplomat and Secretary General of the Arab League, explained that the main reason for the lack of comprehensive peace between Egypt and Israel lies in the contin­ued Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories; The key to full peace, in his view, lies in ending the occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. Egyptian MP Mustafa Bakri stressed that “Egypt has strong principles on the Palestinian issue, it has not changed and will never change. The estab­lishment of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and the implementation of the UN res­olution demanding that Israel withdraw from the occupied lands of 1967, including the Golan Heights and occupied Jerusalem, are the only source of authority for the Egyptian leadership [...] “.

On the other hand, voices who support the nor­malization process between Israel and Arab coun­tries demand to prioritize national interests and not to “surrender” to criticism about “abandon­ing” the Palestinian issue. Muhammad Ibrahim al-Douiri, a former Egyptian military officer and analyst at a research institute, described criticism of Israeli-Arab normalization as an attempt to undermine the state’s authority and to harm its national interests and goals. Academic Abd al-Mu­nim Sayyid argued that Arab states cannot give up their national interests in favor of a “divided Pales­tinian group” that has its own deep normalization ties with Israel. In his view, the Palestinians cannot dictate to the Arab states not to normalize relations with Israel while they themselves maintain ties with Iran and Turkey, which have been harassing Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Both advocates of the agreements and those opposed to them have called on the Palestinian leadership to recalculate its course in view of the new reality. Some argued that Palestinians should be rational about the conflict and use the new ties established by four Arab states to persuade Israel to bring about real change regarding Palestinians’ rights. Others called on the Arabs and especially the Palestinian national movement to formulate a new plan of action.

Implications of the Peace Treaties for Egypt

Another prominent theme in the discourse regarded the negative implications of the new peace agreements on Egypt’s regional position. Mustafa Kamel al-Sayyid, a leading Egyptian aca­demic, warned that the treaties posed risks to Egypt’s national and economic security, mainly due to the Gulf states’ ambitions to lead the Arab world instead of Egypt. He mentioned as an exam­ple the Israeli-Emirati plan for laying oil pipelines in the UAE that would reach to the Israeli ports in the Mediterranean, which could compete with the Egyptian SUMED oil pipeline; an alleged Israe­li-Emirati plan to establish a joint naval force that will operate along the shores of the Red Sea; and the possibility of establishment of an Israeli naval base in Sudan, on Egypt’s southern border.

In conclusion, the Egyptian responses indicate a struggle between two approaches, one which advocates Arab solidarity and the second one “sanctifying” the national interests. As a former Egyptian officer phrased it, “there is no a per­manent friend and no a permanent enemy, only permanent interests.” The discourse reveals an understanding that Egypt must carve its way back into the leadership of the Arab world and com­pete for regional hegemony. This is, among other things, through the development of the economy, human capital, and playing a growing role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.