Egyptian Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Hamdi Zaqzouq called on Muslims worldwide to visit Jerusalem and assert its Islamic identity.
In an interview with the Arab daily A-Sharq Al-Awsat, Zaqzouq attacked the traditional Arab policy of tourism boycott against the Jewish state. He warned Israel’s building in the city could smother Islamic sites.
"I say to those who insist on not visiting [Jerusalem] before its liberation: my worst fear is that you will have nothing to visit after Israel realizes its plans in Jerusalem and elsewhere,” Zaqzouq was quoted as saying.
Zaqzouq said his tactic of urging a worldwide conversion on Jerusalem could be used to expose any subsequent Israeli hypocrisy, should the Israeli government refuse to grant them entry permits. He said Muslims could then turn to the international community claiming religious discrimination.
"This would produce powerful leverage, in lieu of the current negative Islamic boycott," Zaqzouq said. "We are wrong to define Jerusalem as a Palestinian issue. Rather, it is a purely Islamic issue concerning 1.5 billion Muslims."
According to official data issued by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, only 1,870 Egyptians entered Israel in the first six months of this year. In comparison, some 77,000 Israeli traveled to Egypt during the same period.
"There are two sources of pressure preventing Egyptians from traveling to Israel," Sobhy Essaila, a researcher at the Cairo-based Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told The Media Line. "The first is social and peer pressure placed on any individual wishing to travel to Israel. The second is the notion that the Egyptian security keeps a record of anyone traveling there."
Essaila denied that the Egyptian security apparatus outwardly pressured Egyptians not to travel to Israel, but the simple fact that they were being monitored put people off any visit. He added that traveling to Israel was regarded as a form of normalization which was widely rejected by the average Egyptian.
The mental barrier blocking many Egyptians from visiting Israel was contrary to the principles of the 1978 peace treaty between the two countries. This treaty specifically called for a "termination of economic boycotts and barriers to the free movement of goods and people."
Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt, said that the opinion voiced by Zaqzouq represented an official policy by the Egyptian government.
"The fact that Zaqzouq continues these statements despite pressure from pro-boycott elements within Egypt proves that he represents government sentiment," Mazel told The Media Line. "The government feels it went too far with its boycott policy and is now trying to backtrack a little.”
Mazel added that initial calls to boycott Israel came from the Egyptian syndicates, representing the society’s elite and not the government. Yet, he noted, the government did little to object to the pressure. Furthermore, he said the government required any citizen who wanted to visit Israel first obtain a permit, something not required for any other country.
Mazel added that the Egyptian government found itself trapped between growing public calls to boycott Israel, and the economic and diplomatic ties it developed with its northern neighbor.
In July, Zaqzouq met with Palestinian Minister of Religious Endowments Mahmoud Al-Habbash who thanked him for his position and personally invited his Egyptian counterpart to visit Jerusalem.
Ironically, one Israeli tour operator put the blame on the paltry Egyptian tourist numbers on Israeli bureaucracy instead of political pressures.
"There is very little incoming tourism, mainly of Coptic Christians visiting Israel around the holidays," said Zeev Refael, manager of Mazada Tours, an agency specializing in Middle East tourism. "The reason for this is that our bureaucracy simply doesn’t understand the mentality and life-style [of the Egyptian client], and how to deal with non-democratic authorities."