In the poem “Sympathy,” by Paul Laurence Dunbar, a caged bird, serving as a symbol of African slaves, is struggling to break free, but every time he (that’s how the poet refers to it) tries to get out, his wings slam against the bars and he ends up with wounds all over his body.
Older wounds from previous escape attempts gradually turn into scars, while new ones from recent failures are still fresh. And it is not only the latter that hurt, for with every confrontation with the barred opponent one more injury is sustained existing ones, which apparently have only healed on the surface, are revived or, as the poet puts it, start to “pulse again with a keener sting.”
Well, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that old wounds never heal as long as the reason for their existence still persists, and you don’t need to be a Greek philosopher to realize that there is no better way to blind yourself to the bigger picture than looking at things in isolation from their precedents and their future repercussions. In like manner, you don’t need to have passed your elementary school exams to understand why Egyptians feel the way they feel towards Israel.
Israeli forces were hunting down Palestinian militants who were reportedly responsible for the bus attack in Eilat and Egyptian soldiers at the border got caught in the crossfire, goes the official Israeli story, which I am in no position to judge as true or fabricated.
As important as knowing whether this action was really an accident is, I believe it is the discourse used in explaining it that is the crux of the matter.
Israeli officials have for some reason decided to pretend that five Belgian soldiers were shot dead on the borders with Luxembourg and were, consequently, taken aback by the decision to withdraw the Egyptian ambassador in Tel Aviv and by the reaction of thousands of angry Egyptians who flocked to the Israeli embassy in Cairo to call for the expulsion of the ambassador and must have thought those people were out of their mind to consider an apology no better than none at all.
There is much more to the matter that Israel fails to see, does not want to see, or does not want to admit it sees.
For Egyptians, Israel is like a Lego building that gets taller with every atrocity the country commits, and with each added brick they take a couple of steps back and see the sprawling structure in its full length and remember what each brick stands for.
In fact, a quick look at the most recent bricks could be enough for those who have not been around to witness older ones. For those Egyptian youths, amongst whom is the man who climbed the embassy building to take down the Israeli flag, the 2006 war on Lebanon, the 2008-2009 war on Gaza, the killing of activists in the Freedom Flotilla, the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, and the expansion of settlements in the West Bank are more than enough to render any act of violence on Israel’s part, whether planned or coincidental, a direct assault on their land and a flagrant breach of their sovereignty.
Examining the lower bricks all the way back to 1917, when the land became “promised,” does nothing but feed this resentment and increase this determination to fight with all their might any sort of normalization with an entity that they view as the main source of their and their brethren’s misery.
But what those people want is impossible, say politicians, strategic experts, and everyone who knows a tad bit about how politics works. There is a peace treaty. Indeed there is. What will happen to it? Nothing, I would say.
However, there is no denying that the peace between Egypt and Israel is one between governments and by no means reflect the will of the people, and that is why while it is neither practical nor wise to breach it in one way or another, it is also neither rational nor fair to prevent the people from voicing their objection to it and reiterating that they have never been part of it in the first place.
Now we come to a very important factor that determines the feelings of Egyptians towards Israel: the close link that has gradually been developing between the regime and relations with Israel.
Since almost all Egyptian people are against peace with Israel as long as the killing of Palestinians does not stop, the refugees are not allowed to return, and an independent Palestinian state is not declared, those diplomatic ties between the two countries constitute another form of repression by a tyrannical regime that has for decades constantly overlooked what the people want.
This association started with the signing of the peace treaty in 1979, but reached its peak in the last years of Mubarak’s rule, and particularly with the export of natural gas to Israel and with the role the Egyptian government played in tightening the blockade on Gaza and endorsing the brutal war on the strip.
In addition, another issue, of course, is the way Western powers supported a president who supposedly stood for everything they supposedly believed in because he preserved the “stability” of the region through maintaining peace with Israel.
That is why many of the slogans chanted against Mubarak during the revolution were about his subservience to Israel and his abandonment of the Palestinian cause, and that is why one of the main demands of that same revolution was the opening of the Gaza crossing and a stop to the export of natural gas.
True, the cancelation of the peace treaty was not on top of the list, and sometimes was not on the list at all; and true, the Higher Council for the Armed Forces announced right after the fall of the regime that Egypt would abide by all international treaties to which it a signatory; and true, very few people made a fuss about that.
But that does not change the fact that the Egyptian street is against this peace not because they want to go to war, but because they feel would feel like traitors if they extend a hand of friendship to people they view as the murderers of their folks.
Now we come to another similarity important factor that explains why Egyptians do not budge when it comes to their rejection of ties with Israel, even though there have been no real confrontation between the two countries since the 1973 war.
The Palestinian cause and the history of Palestinian suffering has for long years been part and parcel of the Egyptian psyche, regardless of who lived to see which bit of the saga, and the liberation of Palestine has also been part and parcel of the nationalistic project that began with the uprising against the regime.
That is why getting Sinai back after the signing of the treaty was kind of an incomplete victory, for we can’t live in peace while they are getting killed and kicked out of their land. A flag fluttering on top of a building in Cairo was not to make Egyptians receive the newcomers with a housewarming gift, and whoever thought that this would change over the years must have been either naïve or too self-absorbed to realize that others out there think differently, or too arrogant to understand how important it is to study the psyche of a people before taking it for granted that they will want to be friends with you.
After 9/11, Americans started asking themselves, “Why do they hate us?” Well, a terrorist attack is not justified under any circumstances, regardless of any crimes that might have been committed by the government of the country targeted in this attack or of any hate harbored against it by any entity of any sort.
But the question itself, apart from its timing in this specific incident, is very inspiring, because it implies that some soul-searching is in progress and that perhaps it is time for a few “mirror, mirror on the wall” moments.
I am not sure Israel is interested in such a procedure, or that my voice and those of millions of Egyptians can be heard across the border, even though we know that literally it can. But we have recently learned that a voice is the most precious human asset, and just as it toppled a dictatorship, it will forever scream in defense of justice and humanity and will forever be the most powerful weapon in the face of brutality and tyranny.
(Sonia Farid, Ph.D., a writer for Al Arabiya, also teaches English literature at Cairo University. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)