Friday, June 17, 2011

Why is the Egyptian public so misinformed about Israel?

By Amr Yossef -- June 13, 2011

In an earlier commentary in the Daily News Egypt (May 30, 2011), I have argued that underlying the recent rise of anti-Israeli attitudes in Egypt are three myths — “Israel wants to weaken Egypt,” “Israel wants to occupy Egypt,” and “Israel is all powerful” — that appear to continue dominating public opinion. None of these are logically or factually justified, but why is Egyptian public so misinformed about Israel in the first place?

Four major factors apparently account for this misperception. For starters, almost a third of Egypt’s population is illiterate, and only a small proportion of those who can read do actually so. The Arab Knowledge Report of 2009 described the base of actual readers within the Arabic-speaking population, among which Egypt is the largest, as “extremely limited” — one book for every 11,950 Arab citizens annually or almost 4 percent of what the British read — and the quality of the read books as “weak.” In such an atmosphere, the majority of Egyptians is unlikely to seek knowledge beyond what the state-owned newspapers or the plethora of Arab TV satellite channels, especially those of an extremist religious content, generally present of either inaccurate reporting or conspiratorial analyses about Israel.

Second, previous regime(s) in Egypt has allowed the spread of misinformation about Israel through tolerating anti-Israel media and obstructing normalization, serving the double aim of legitimization and diversion. The case against normalization can be backed up by reasoning that Israel should not receive the peace dividend before delivering a just settlement to the Palestinians. Yet official/corporate Egypt was itself a willing normalizer (the natural gas deal, for example), and unofficial indiscriminate boycotts denied Egyptians a prerequisite of public awareness — interaction. Valuing the need to understand the other, even the fiercest enemy dyads (the United States vs. the Soviet Union or India vs. Pakistan), let alone two countries bound by peace, do not prohibit exchanges between their two peoples. Social and cultural boycott of Israelis means talking to one’s self and perpetuating outdated beliefs that neither help the Palestinian cause nor match the realities on the other side of the fence.

Third, and closely related to the normalization factor, is the low status of Israel and Jewish studies in Egypt. Today, almost every Egyptian state university hosts a Hebrew language department whose programs involve the study of Judaism, Jewish History, Zionism, and Hebrew literature. However, not only do these departments suffer from the same problems of low quality and relevance of higher education in Egypt, but also their graduates, even the distinguished among them, constitute an underutilized asset. As “Israel specialists,” they face a number of challenges including: 1) an alienating public reaction to their work combining cynicism and skepticism; 2) low employment potential as interest in their expertise is rare; and 3) politicized academia that perceives its mission as confronting the “Israeli enemy.” For example, the Deputy Director of the Center for Israel Studies at Zagazig University — established in 2008 as the first of its type in Egypt, though it paradoxically boycotts Israel — asserted that the Center’s aim is to respond to “Israeli cultural invasion.” Obviously, the net result of underutilizing the Israel specialists is increased ignorance of that country.

Finally, there are the extremist policies of Israel’s right-wing. If the above-noted myths about Israel form some sort of a conspiracy theory, then in the eyes of the Egyptian public these policies present the supporting evidence. Even if the average Egyptian came to recognize that Israel is genuinely interested in Egypt’s stability, that Israel does not aim to expand territorially, and that Israel and the world’s Jewry are influential but not ruling the world, he/she would still have problems understanding Israel’s stance toward peace, asking legitimate questions that remain unanswered: Why does Israel consider itself a nation above the law (targeted killings and collective punishment, for example)? Why is Israel’s use of force against its enemies so disproportionate that it causes mass casualties and devastation at the scale of the Gaza war? Why Israel turns down the Palestinian Authority’s reasonable offers for peace that include guarantees for Israel’s security? And why should peace negotiations take two decades with no end in sight? Alas, the door will remain open for conspiratorial explanations of Israel’s actions until it reaches a just and lasting peace deal that ends the occupation and establishes a viable, independent Palestinian state.

Overcoming the obstacles to a proper, objective understanding of Israel would not be easy, because what is targeted are long-held beliefs and practices that are part of the larger socioeconomic dilemma in Egypt, especially the problem of education. But a democratic Egypt should offer a window of opportunity. Media freedom would guarantee the abolition of state-run media, and the establishment of an independent regulatory system that provides guidelines for all outlets to ensure accurate reporting and avoid making up stories. An Egypt opposing the policies of the Israeli government should not necessarily prevent its citizens from interacting socially and culturally with Israelis under the guise of no-normalization-before-peace, because interaction is a must for awareness. Like in other democracies, a culture for human resources should allow Egypt’s “Israel specialists” to develop and make use of their expertise free from political agendas. Last but not least, it is time for Israel’s right-wing to recognize that its policies reinforce the image of the Jewish state as pariah and ultimately risk its chances of living in peace in a democratic Middle East.

Amr Yossef is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the American University in Cairo.