The Obama administration's Arab-Israeli peace process is in more trouble than even the White House realizes. To be sure, the Israelis and Palestinians are both dug in, and when the president sought baby steps from the Arabs toward normalizing relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Kuwait rebuffed the administration. But now even Cairo, where Obama hit his reset button with the Muslim world, has made its stand, albeit much less publicly. The campaign against Egyptian editor and analyst Hala Mustafa for meeting with Israel's ambassador to Cairo is sufficient evidence that the first country to have a peace treaty with Jerusalem is no closer to normalization than it was when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords 30 years ago.
Recently, Israel's envoy to Egypt, Shalom Cohen, visited Mustafa at her office in the Al-Ahram newspaper building, home to the semi-official daily to which Mustafa often contributes, and where she edits the quarterly Arabic-language journal, Democracy.
"The ambassador had a proposal to convene a symposium and asked me to participate," Mustafa told me by phone. "Egyptians, Israelis and Palestinians were to discuss Obama's initiatives and the peace process. Since we would need authorization from Al-Ahram and other state institutions, I didn't give him any final decision."
Nonetheless, chairman of the Egyptian press syndicate Makram Muhammad Ahmed claimed that Mustafa's brief interview with Cohen violated the boycott of the Zionist enemy that the syndicate adopted in 1983.
"But there have been many exceptions" over the past two decades, Mustafa says. "A lot of journalists at Al-Ahram have met with Israelis and even traveled to Israel. Even the chairman of Al-Ahram met with Israelis when he took part in the Copenhagen movement in the '90s. There is no way my act could be considered a violation."
A member of the ruling National Democratic Party's policy planning staff, Mustafa says that the regime still considers her an independent intellectual, and wants to limit interactions with Israel to intellectuals and journalists with connections to the security establishment. "The issue with me is not a legal one," she says, "since the constitution endorses the right of individuals to think and act freely, and we have a peace treaty with Israel and Cohen is the ambassador whose credentials have been accepted by the state. Rather, it is a political issue."
The context is not just normalization, but an Egypt gorged, fat, and sleek with anti-Israel sentiment as well as anti-Semitism.
"The press syndicate's probe is part of a paranoid reflex against any contact with Israel or Israelis," says Raymond Stock, an American writer and academic who has lived in Cairo for nearly two decades. "It harms not only Egypt's psyche but also makes it more difficult for them to actually understand their alleged enemy to the northeast."
It also affects Egypt's soft power, or those intangible qualities of national honor that enable states to advance their interests by way of what statesmen once called prestige.
Egypt's Culture Minister Farouk Hosni was considered the front-runner to take over UNESCO, the United Nations' organization devoted to cultural diversity and cooperation until some of his less tolerant opinions were aired in public. For instance, to prove his anti-Zionist credentials at home, Hosni, as Stock reported in a recent Foreign Policy article, told the "Egyptian parliament that he would 'burn right in front of you' any Israeli books found in the country's libraries."
Hosni was passed over in favor of the Bulgarian candidate, Irina Bukova, which is to say that if the Culture Minister's anti-Israel bias had crossed even UN redlines, then something is decidedly wrong with Egypt. And indeed Hosni confirmed those suspicions when he told reporters after the vote that he saw the hand of international Jewry at work. A "conspiracy cooked up in New York" masterminded by a "group of the world's Jews," said the part-time painter, " had a major influence in the elections."
The Mubarak government, Mustafa believes, missed an opportunity in the Hosni affair to make a constructive point. "It was a chance for the state to say, 'Egypt has nothing against Israelis or Jews.' It is the same thing with my meeting the ambassador," she says. "My act was helpful. But the government has made no statements about my affair. Instead, there has been complete silence. If they were against it, they could've put the whole story to rest."
Mustafa, a frequent visitor to Washington during the heyday of the Bush administration's Freedom Agenda, says that the campaign against her is a reflection of the Egyptian regime's desire to keep the peace with Israel cold. "After all this time, no one can have a free discussion about what Egypt gets from its anti-normalization posture for three decades. This is ridiculous."
Egypt, after all, is supposed to be part of the moderate Arab trend, those U.S.-backed Sunni states that share a common interest with Washington and Israel in setting back the Iranian-led resistance bloc. And it is true that while Hezbollah and Hamas have warred against Israel, Tehran's allies have targeted Egypt as well; Hassan Nasrallah went so far as to invite the Egyptian masses to bring down the regime. In return, Hosni Mubarak rounded up Hezbollah cells in the Sinai, but has done nothing to confront the ideology of his enemies. Nor does it seem that President Obama has it in his power to compel him to do so. In the Middle East right now, it is the resistance that wields the predominance of soft power.
"The regime is comfortable now that Obama has dropped political reform and democracy, contrary to Bush," says Mustafa. "But the message is clear: Egypt cannot adopt normalization with Israel as part of Obama's plan."
Lee Smith is the author of 'The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations' (Doubleday), forthcoming in January.