40 years on: What did Egyptians make of peace with Israel?
A look at popular sentiment surrounding the peace treaty four decades after Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel

“You won’t believe how Egyptians react to the Israeli flag being flown for the first time in Cairo in 1980,” reads the title of a YouTube video featuring brief segments from the opening ceremony of the first Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

The ceremony was held on February 18, 1980, at the embassy’s first location, on Mohie Eddin Abul Ezz Street in Dokki. It subsequently moved to a different building near Cairo University in Giza. After being stormed by protesters twice in 2011, it moved to its final location in Maadi.

The video’s source is not clear, but whoever documented the incident seems to have been keen on splitting the focus between participants in the ceremony and women standing on balconies and by windows overlooking the embassy building. As the camera zooms in, you can see that the women look visibly shocked, before they retreat back into their apartments. The audience applauds as the Israeli flag is raised and the women’s voices, shouting in disapproval, rise with it.

Does this video fully capture popular reactions to making peace with Israel?

The opening of the Israeli Embassy in 1980 was the endpoint of a political trajectory that began three years earlier, when former President Anwar Sadat visited Israel in November 1977. The subsequent public negotiations between the two countries culminated in the signing of the Camp David Accords on September 17, 1978, which served as an initial framework for a peace treaty that was signed on March 26, 1979. It was an isolated peace, amid a boycott of Israel by most Arab states.

Other reactions documented from the time reflect a popular stance against the move to make peace with Israel. In one such example, Saad Idris Halawa took two employees of the local municipality of Aghur al-Kubra village in Qalyubiya hostage by armed force in February 1980, one week after the opening of the embassy in Cairo. In exchange for their release, Halawa demanded that Sadat not receive the Israeli ambassador Eliyahu Ben-Elissar. The story ended with Halawa being shot in the head after hours of negotiations, in which he refused to release the employees.

Official records paint a very different picture of the popular reception the president received upon returning from his visit to Israel in late 1977, with state media showing thousands of people lining the streets to watch Sadat drive by in a convertible on his way to the presidential palace from the airport. In his book, Egypt’s Road to Jerusalem, then-Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali, questions the spontaneity of this reception.

Between these two poles is a historical record of a people who had become disenchanted with the conflict with Israel and its effects on their lives, but who remained highly skeptical of normalization nonetheless.

No more war

While Sadat’s moves toward peacemaking with Israel were met with opposition from some factions within Egypt — particularly within leftist and Nasserist ranks — as well as regionally, a large segment of the Egyptian public following the news was more receptive to the events.

Laila Soueif, a professor at Cairo University, recalls the general mood at the time. In 1977, she had recently been appointed as a tutor at the university’s mathematics department. “Anyone involved in politics, regardless of their political affiliation, was against the agreement with Israel,” she says. “Those who were not interested in politics — and this makes up the majority of people — were not opposed to it.”

Describing the position of the less politically engaged segment of society as “not opposed” to the agreement with Israel is not to say that they were approving of or enthusiastic about it, she notes. “People’s main concern was not going to war again, not that [Egypt] should necessarily become friends with Israel.”

“I vividly remember Sadat’s address to Parliament in 1977, in which he announced his willingness to visit the Knesset. At the time, people thought it was only talk meant to embarrass Israel. Nobody believed that it would actually happen,” Emad Attiya, an engineer who was a member of the Egyptian Communist Party at the time, recounts. “People were impressed with Sadat’s shrewdness, his ability to maneuver politically.”

By the time Sadat visited Jerusalem in November of that year, however, things were a little different. “The feelings of people around me then were a combination of astonishment, shock and admiration,” Attiya says.

“The anti-war sentiment was shared by large swathes of the Egyptian public. This does not mean, however, that there weren’t other feelings involved,” Attiya says.“Some people were shocked, while others were anxious and afraid. All of these feelings existed because what was happening stood in stark contrast with everything people had been led to believe.”

Saeed Abu Taleb, a retired engineer who was a student at Ain Shams University and a member of secret leftist organization Al-Matraqa (“The Hammer”) when the agreement was signed, recalls how, while the agreement did not come as a shock, the group still felt a need to issue a statement of condemnation. “One of the group’s active members refused to take part, though. ‘People will beat us up, whether in the neighborhood or at the university,’ she said. ‘People are happy with what’s happened.’”

“The uncertainty about everything that followed 1967 had shaken the whole country, including my family,” Abu Taleb says, pointing to several reasons for why, by 1977, many were ready to welcome peace. “My cousin disappeared on June 4, 1967. He was working in a coal mine in the Sinai Peninsula and has not been seen since. Another cousin of mine died in the War of Attrition, and my older brother went to identify his body at a military unit. My third cousin worked in an Abu Zaabal factory which was bombed by Israel. The iron furnace collapsed on the workers and their bodies were mixed in with the iron blocks.”

“People had plenty of reasons to hope for peace, the most important of which were the trials they faced during the war,” according to Abu Taleb.

The heftiest price had been paid by citizens of cities along the Suez Canal, who were displaced following the 1967 Six-Day War. “When peace was reached [in 1977], they were extremely relieved, because they had seen all kinds of mistreatment during their displacement,” the retired engineer recalls. “In our area, Shibin al-Qanater, the children were always going after them shouting insults.”

Those displaced in 1967 had been living for nearly seven years away from their home cities due to forced migration. In the wake of the Six-Day War, the state evicted approximately 1 million civilians, evacuating the canal’s west bank for use by the Armed Forces, while also keeping residents at arm’s length from military operations.

They spent years scattered among the villages and cities in the Nile Delta and Upper Egypt governorates, living in temporary camps established in schools, factories and public squares. The imprint these years of displacement left on people from Suez is clearly reflected in what they have publicly shared about the difficult experience.

The fallout from the conflict with Israel was not the only reason people were keen for peace, however. Before founding Egyptian folk music band El Tanbura in the 1980s, Zakaria Ibrahim spent most of the decade prior living in Cairo, with the exception of occasional visits to his family in Port Said. The seaside city was declared a free zone in 1975 as part of Sadat’s open-door economic policies, after which it began to change dramatically.

“The free zone led to a state of rapid social mobility in Port Said, which facilitated an acceptance of ​​peace, especially because people had nothing to fall back on during the displacement. People were exhausted. At that time, importers in the free zone were selling goods to the merchants using IOUs, making it easier for everyone to trade, even without money. People started to believe that everybody would make big money and whoever didn’t make money during Sadat’s time would never get another chance,” Ibrahim says.

There was a clear link between the prosperity of the free zone and the final end to the war, one that transcended the cities along the Suez Canal to encompass the entire country.

When the war was over, Sadat immediately began to turn the economy toward open-door policies. The government issued a number of laws to encourage Arab and Western investment and paved the way for the private sector to import all but 18 staple products that the state continued to import and control. It also allowed the private sector to deal with foreign banks and liberalized the currency market so that foreign currency could be obtained directly without interference from the state banking system.

In his book, The Marxist Movement in Egypt (1967-1981), Italian researcher Gennaro Gervasio argues that through these policies, Sadat sought to reshape Egypt’s relationship with the world by creating a link with the US-led capitalist Western bloc, decisively ending Egypt’s alliance with the Soviet Union, which had been waning for years.

“The first major blow [to Nasser-era policies] was [former President Richard] Nixon’s visit to Egypt in 1974. Nixon had been recently shamed in America because of the Watergate scandal, but he was given an enthusiastic reception here,” Attiya says. “The idea was simply that America would solve our economic problems. We were no longer at war, and we were done with the Soviet Union, socialism and all that gibberish.”

“Sadat knew how to address something in the middle class psyche, a desire for consumption and a new way of life. People had enough of living in squalor. This is the context, in my opinion, in which people received Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the signing of the Camp David Accords and the peace treaty,” Attiya adds.

Attiya playfully describes the gleeful reaction to the introduction of the popular soft drink 7 Up to the Egyptian market as evidence of a desire for consumption after years of austerity, a situation not dissimilar to what happened in Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The politics of peacemaking

By 1977, the policies enacted with the goal of restructuring the Egyptian economy had turned into a complete catastrophe, according to Gervasio. They did not encourage development and failed to attract foreign investment. The entire economy was geared toward massive import of consumer goods, compounding the deficit of the trade balance with the West. The inability of local industries to compete with goods imported from both East and West led to the failure of these industries, increased unemployment and the transformation of the economy into mostly unproductive activities. Amid all this, consumption had increased without a real increase in income, which was impacted by high inflation rates.

The inflation, in addition to International Monetary Fund and World Bank pressure on Egypt to implement certain austerity measures, led to the government’s decision on January 17, 1977, to lift subsidies on a large number of essential commodities. This, in turn, sparked the uprising of January 18-19, 1977, commonly known as the bread riots.

“The anger in January 1977 was triggered by people feeling that they had believed Sadat and given him a chance,” Soueif says. “But the result was high prices and nothing positive.” The popular movement that spread from Alexandria to Aswan singled out Sadat and members of his Cabinet with an assortment of personalized chants against his government.

“Oh Jehan, tell the beih, a kilo of meat is worth LE1 now,” chanted the crowds, referring to first lady Jehan al-Sadat, with beih — an Arabic form of address — meant to refer to Sadat himself. “He wears the latest fashions and we live 10 to a room,” another chant went, also referring to the president.

“The most provocative aspect of Sadat’s rule was the contrast between people’s impoverished standard of living and his own opulent one. People still considered Gamal Abdel Nasser to be the model for a good president: living in a modest house and giving his own children no extra privileges,” Soueif says.

Sadat did not publicly or privately admit that the dissent constituted a popular uprising. He described it as a “conspiracy drawn up by communists,” according to journalist Ahmad Bahaa Eddin in his book, My Conversations with Sadat.

Bahaa Eddin met with the former president a week after the January uprising at the Qanater Palace after Sadat left Cairo in the middle of the turbulence. In the conversation that took place between them over the duration of roughly 12 hours, with intermittent breaks, the journalist was unable to convince the president of the reality of the situation.

“Until the last day I met Sadat, he was never as exasperated as he was by the mention of the bread riots, which he felt had undone the popularity he acquired after the October War,” Bahaa Eddin says. “It was akin to a withdrawal of confidence. In my estimation, these uprisings had the greatest impact on Sadat’s life, which was reflected in his policy of repression, as well as his decisions to go to Jerusalem to obtain any peace at any price and put 99 percent of his cards in American hands.”

The 1977 uprising ushered in a crisis of legitimacy for the president. In his book, Gervasio states that foreign capital could not be invested in Egypt as long as the specter of war with Israel still loomed over the country, putting Sadat’s plan for economic openness at risk. Sadat felt the need to break the stalemate of negotiations with Israel, which had continued since the signing of the Second Disengagement Agreement in 1975. He was now resolved to departing with the rest of the Arab world in signing a peace treaty with Israel.

Before the 1977 crisis, Sadat was also looking for peace as the way out of the conflict. His motivations behind peacemaking were in tandem with his attempt to re-engage the United Nations and the United States in resolving the conflict in the Middle East, according to Gervasio.

On February 4, 1971, in a speech to the National Assembly, Sadat announced his willingness to reopen the Suez Canal if Israel withdrew its forces from the East Bank, a proposal rejected by Israel and which did not receive any support from the US either.

Sadat’s failure to convince the US to place pressure on Israel into beginning negotiations — as well as perceived internal threats to his position due to the limbo state between peace and war that Egypt had found itself in — prompted him to launch military operations in 1973, which he presented to the Egyptian and Arab public as a comprehensive war of liberation. Gervasio, however, among others, described it as one step closer to the negotiating table.

Sadat’s move toward negotiations was swift. Three weeks after the outbreak of the war, on October 30, 1973, the first direct discussions took place between the military leadership of Egypt and Israel, through UN mediation. The meeting resulted in what was known as the Six-Point Agreement, which stipulated a mutual commitment to a ceasefire and an exchange of prisoners.

The First Disengagement Agreement came into force afterward, on January 18, 1974, under US sponsorship. The agreement entailed the withdrawal of Israeli forces to about 20 kilometers east of the Suez Canal, in addition to allowing a symbolic presence of Egyptian Armed Forces in the area. The Egyptian government, for its part, committed itself to stopping commando raid operations and the oil boycott.

The Suez Canal was reopened by Sadat on June 5, 1975, while most of Sinai was still under Israeli control. Residents of cities along the canal who had been displaced because of the war were allowed to return to their homes, which was almost a direct declaration that Sadat had no intention of going to war again.

This was confirmed by the Second Disengagement Agreement of September 1975, which stated that “the conflict between the two sides in the Middle East will be resolved by peaceful means” and that both sides must commit themselves to achieving “just and lasting peace through negotiations.” In return, Israeli forces withdrew from the corridors located in central Sinai and the oil wells in the governorate. Three military checkpoints were also erected and manned by joint forces from Egypt, Israel and the US.

Peace, yes, but friendship?

People — not just Egypt’s military — were defeated in the 1967 war. It was a concrete reality for Ibrahim for example, as he tried to volunteer in the Popular Resistance Brigades in Port Said before the 1967 war. He was 15 at the time. “I was not the only one who had done this. All my classmates did the same thing. There was a collective concern with defending the homeland.”

With this collective concern crushed by the defeat, other ambitions were defeated too. “Egyptians’ ambition to live in a country that preserved social justice and promoted liberation movements was wiped out,” Soueif says.

It is in this context that the lead-up to peacemaking was unfolding. But the defeat of these ambitions, the acceptance of the status quo and the hope for economic prosperity after the end of the war were not sufficient reasons to change the the popular perception of Israel to that of an ally.

“I don’t think people’s imagination at the time were occupied with the idea of normalization with Israel,” Ibrahim says. “They had not yet crossed that line to the other side. Their talk mostly revolved around their impatience with war and poverty, which reflected their daily struggles, rather than a coherent political stance.”

But there was also skepticism of the idea of Israel ever being a friend to Egypt. Attiya recalls that, after his return in 1979 from a two-year mission in the Soviet Union, most people refused to consume goods that they thought came from Israel.

“I remember someone stopping at a grocery store near my house and pointing at something and saying it came from Israel,” he recounts. “At that time, everyone fought with the grocer for importing Israeli goods. People did not like Israel at all. But, at the same time, they had no desire to fight in any more wars.”

According to Abu Taleb, every time Israel attacked an Arab country, people became enraged. He points to the anger of the Egyptian public in response to the Israeli air strikes on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in June 1981 and the subsequent invasion of Beirut in 1982 as examples.

Soueif tells a story she witnessed in 1981. It was Israel’s first participation in the Cairo International Book Fair, which she used to go to every year along with her students. That year, “when we entered the fair, we found Palestinian flags hanging everywhere,” she says. “The students were incredulous when they were told that there was an Israeli section at the exhibition. Even though they had no interest in politics, they insisted on putting stickers of Palestinian flag on their clothes when entering the Israeli section. This was how they chose to protest.”

Today, 40 years on, making peace with Israel remains a contentious issue that continues to resurface in the form of student demonstrations, support campaigns for the first and second Palestinian intifadas, movements calling for the boycott of Israeli goods and the rejection of state and popular normalization with Israel.

Nonetheless, chants calling for the closure of the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador from Egypt have often been intermingled with chants asking, “You want us to fight again?”

To date, neither group’s chants have emerged victorious.

Mostafa Mohie 

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