Homeland Security

Egypt Now Teaching Schoolchildren: Israel Is (Sort of) a Legitimate Country

(AP Photo/Belal Darder)

Ofir Winter, a researcher at Israel’s top-tier Institute for National Security Studies, reports on some unprecedentedly positive messages about Israel in a ninth-grade Egyptian textbook. (Winter’s article is included here in the May 2016 issue of Strategic Assessment.)

Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. Before that—specifically from 1948 to 1973—the two countries fought five wars (in three of them Egypt was joined by other Arab states). Since the peace treaty, with Egypt out of the picture, wars between Israel and Arab states have come to a stop, though Israel has had to cope with a great deal of terror.

The Israeli-Egyptian peace, however, has remained “cold.” While the treaty spoke of “foster[ing] mutual understanding and tolerance,” a 2011 Pew survey found 98% of Egyptians holding antisemitic sentiments. When Mohamed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood regime took power in Egypt in 2012, it appeared to many that the peace had collapsed for good and war was imminent.

Morsi, though, was deposed a year later by his then defense minister, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Under President el-Sisi’s government, Egypt has taken a notable turn toward moderation. Regarding Israel, that has meant tight cooperation in fighting ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula and Hamas in Gaza, the return of the Egyptian ambassador to Tel Aviv, and plans for Egypt to start importing Israeli natural gas.

As Ofir Winter notes, the textbook in question, which is called The Geography of the Arab World and the History of Modern Egypt,

blends old and new messages…. As in the older textbooks, Mandate-era [i.e., pre-statehood] Israel is cast historically and ethically as land that was stolen from the Arab residents of Palestine. Zionism is described as a threatening colonialist movement born in sin rather than as a movement expressing legitimate national aspirations.

So much for the old. But when it comes to the new, the textbook has features that reflect the moderating trend under el-Sisi and haven’t been seen so far in Egyptian education.

First, the new textbook is much more supportive of the peace with Israel than previous textbooks. It stresses the economic value of peace “as a necessary precondition for Egypt’s stability, development, and material prosperity.” At the end of the class discussion on the subject, pupils are asked to “memorize the ‘provisions of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel,’ and enumerate the ‘advantages of peace for Egypt and the Arab states’”—no less.

The textbook also “portrays Israel as a legitimate peace partner” with no further apologies. Its photo of the signing of the treaty at the White House on March 26, 1979, includes President Jimmy Carter, the then Egyptian president Anwar el-Sadat—and, for the first time, the then Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Winter calls this

more than a mere inclusion of a graphic image that was absent from previous textbooks. [It] may reflect a decline in the antagonism that peace with Israel arouses among the Egyptian public, or it may be a deliberate attempt by the Egyptian regime to foster increased openness to the establishment of friendly relations. In a manner unprecedented in earlier textbooks, the Israeli prime minister is given equal status with the Egyptian president in the description of their receiving the Nobel Peace Prize….

And, third, the new textbook devotes much less space to the Palestinian issue. When it does address it, it portrays the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process so far, and the creation of Palestinian institutions in the West Bank and Gaza, in a completely positive light. In short, unlike previous Egyptian textbooks, the new one doesn’t make the Palestinian issue an Egyptian-Israeli bone of contention.

These are noteworthy developments—but it is still far too early to celebrate.

For one thing, as Winter points out,

the opinions of Egypt’s young people are not influenced solely by the Egyptian educational system, but also—and perhaps principally—by content that appears on the internet and on the social networks, which is not mediated by the state.

For another, Egypt is only one Arab country, and all surveys find high levels of anti-Israeli and antisemitic hatred in the region. And, for another, as noted earlier even this new textbook depicts pre-statehood Zionism as a criminal enterprise.

The novel features of this Egyptian textbook, however, are at the very least significant for indicating what real Arab-Israeli “peace”—that very loosely used term—would entail: genuine acceptance of Israel as a legitimate country.

Considering that in Palestinian schools, mosques, and media no comparable trend of legitimizing Israel has even begun, seemingly caution and humility are called for in that context. Instead Western governments keep pursuing ostensible “peace” visions, pressuring Israel and blithely ignoring the fact that the Palestinians have not even taken baby steps in the right direction.