Egypt cultural boycott of Israel tested by union decision

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CAIRO: A controversial meeting between a journalist and the Israeli ambassador to Egypt has reignited a long-standing debate on whether cultural circles should normalize relations with Israel.

Hala Mustafa, editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqratiya, is facing disciplinary action by the Journalists’ Syndicate for hosting Israeli ambassador Shalom Cohen at the headquarters of the state-owned Al-Ahram media group in violation of a ban imposed by the union.

The union’s decision will be an unofficial referendum on where Egyptian cultural circles stand regarding ties with Israel, 30 years after the signing of a peace deal which was never mirrored in intellectual circles.

“The policy should be revised, Mustafa told AFP. “It didn’t achieve anything and it didn’t help the Palestinian cause.

“I think most of the political trend advocating boycott comes through a media which has not changed since the 60s, said the editor.

“While the Egyptian government is the biggest normalizer with Israel, people who act in the same manner are punished, she said, shortly after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Cairo.

Passions still run high on the subject, pitting the pro-normalization camp that argues the boycott is out of date against those who say keeping up the pressure is vital.

“It’s the only pressure card left against Israel, said Mustafa Al-Sayyid, professor of political science at Cairo University. Like many, he believes the boycott should be kept up until Israel changes its policies.

Hala Mustafa says she represents the liberal trend, but not all liberals share her view.

Ahmed Mustafa, deputy news editor of the liberal weekly Al-Youm Al-Sabea, said that as a syndicate journalist, he will abide by the syndicate’s decisions and he will comply with the boycott.

But privately, he believes a ban on ties with Israel should not be imposed by the unions, but rather from political parties or groups.

A decades-long restriction on political activity has rendered parties weak, pushing most politics into the unions and professional associations.

“The matter should be one of personal choice or political choice, but not necessarily imposed by your profession, he told AFP.

Ali Salem, a playwright who was kicked out of the writers union for visiting Israel, believes the Journalists’ Syndicate made a mistake in how it dealt with the Hala Mustafa issue.

“It goes against the peace achievements of the state, he told AFP.

But the anti-normalization movement has survived precisely as a passive form of resistance to the peace deal, which is seen as an imposition that was never backed by popular consensus.

To this day Egyptians rarely visit Israel on holiday, and festivals and tournaments block Israeli participation.

On the other hand, economic cooperation with Israel is the Egyptian government’s worst kept secret. Gas deals and trade agreements abound.

In 2004, Egypt, Israel and the United States approved the creation of Qualified Industrial Zones throughout Egypt, as a stepping stone towards securing a final Free Trade Agreement with the United States.

Under the agreement, Egyptian goods created in those areas can go straight to the United States without tariffs or quota restrictions on condition they include a percentage of Israeli goods.

Some believe the ban on dealing with Israel is an easy non-confrontational way to attack the regime.

“It’s passive aggressive, said Issandr El Amrani, an independent political analyst in Cairo.

“It’s a way to express opposition (to the regime) without going all the way, he told AFP.

But supporters say keeping it is a way of maintaining the pressure on a state whose policies they reject.

“Boycotting Israel is refusing to pay tribute to the idea of settlement colonization, said Rabab Al-Mahdi, a political science professor at the American University in Cairo.

“It is a form of resistance to the settlements, to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, to the checkpoints and all of the other grievances, Mahdi said comparing the stance to the Boycott Movement against South Africa’s system of apartheid.

Despite its outdated style, the movement is politically important, says Amrani. “It’s something that gets people excited.

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