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Can Egypt's parliament learn from Israeli Knesset?

Egyptian member of parliament Sayed Farag has sparked controversy with his call for a parliamentary delegation to visit the Knesset to discuss pending issues between the two countries and take advantage of Israel's military experience.
A general view shows the plenum during a session at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem May 13, 2015. Netanyahu's emerging government scraped by its first parliamentary test on Wednesday, paving the way for the new cabinet to be sworn in after two months of difficult coalition building. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun  - RTX1CSJJ

CAIRO — On March 22, Sayed Farag, an Egyptian member of parliament representing Cairo's Hadayek el-Qubba district, announced an initiative to form a parliamentary delegation that would visit the Israeli Knesset to discuss pending issues between the two countries. Farag was inspired by former President Anwar Sadat, who spoke in the Israeli Knesset on Nov. 19, 1977, and discussed the problems facing both countries at the time.

As soon as the media published the news, many members of parliament objected and considered the initiative a form of “normalization” with Israel that should not be accepted under any circumstances.

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Farag described his opponents as “ignorant,” given that there is a peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. He said that Egypt has a permanent ambassador to Israel and the same goes for Israel, and the two countries have legal diplomatic channels as well.

Farag called on people to be reasonable and seek to achieve the country’s national interest, even if that has to be done by sitting together, negotiating and proposing solutions to reach consensual settlements. He said that whether we like it or not, there are pending issues between the two countries, and we cannot ignore one another: "Why don’t we use all possible solutions that might achieve national interest through public diplomatic channels?"

The text of the interview follows:

Al-Monitor:  What is the goal of this initiative? What motivated you to launch it?

Farag:  To sum it up, my initiative aims at solving all pending issues that involve Israel or that the latter can contribute to settling. The purpose is to stop the killing of even one Egyptian soldier on the dear Sinai [Peninsula] lands and to solve the Palestinian issue — a mission international leaders and governments have failed to complete.

When I voiced my readiness to visit the Israeli Knesset along with several fellow members of parliament, I wanted to sit with them to negotiate and benefit from their experience.

We all know that Israel is advanced militarily and has state-of-the-art technological equipment. Why, then, don’t we benefit from this development and make deals with it to purchase weapons? This cooperation does not mean I approve of its politics in the region or of its actions toward our Palestinian brothers.

Al-Monitor:  How can we learn from the Israelis when it comes to advancing society, as you said?

Farag:  Both countries will benefit, but we should first sit and negotiate. The Palestinian cause has been unresolved for years. Terrorism in Sinai is on the rise, and there are countries supporting it and participating in it. Why don’t we use all possible solutions that might achieve national interest through public diplomatic channels?

Many are saying that Israel is supporting extremist groups in Sinai. Therefore, if we negotiate with it and reach an agreement, it will halt its support. We would eradicate terrorism and extremist groups in Sinai.

Al-Monitor:  What in particular drew you to the Israeli experience as something Egypt could benefit from, instead of perhaps another country?

Farag:  I found the huge military progress and equipment that we should get introduced to and buy — if needed — the most alluring. Just imagine a weak citizen throwing a stone at another citizen carrying a rifle equipped with a scope!

This is when I thought, why don’t we buy rifles from Israel? Why don’t we benefit from its military development?

Al-Monitor:  What is parliament Speaker Ali Abdel Aal’s position on this initiative?

Farag:  Abdel Aal is a reasonable man who is well aware of the national interest and seeks to fulfill it. But he did not talk to me officially in front of the other members of parliament. We had a friendly discussion during which he told me, “If you managed to solve the crisis — to solve the Palestinian issue — I will applaud you, because this is a huge problem no one has been able to solve."

Al-Monitor:  Have you been attacked by any members of parliament for launching this, or have they welcomed it?

Farag:  Unfortunately, I was fiercely attacked by “ignorant people” after announcing the initiative. I do not know the real reason behind their objection. We are now living in peace and there is a peace agreement guaranteeing this. Each country has an ambassador residing in the other. Where is the problem in negotiating once, twice or 20 times?

Why did Sadat confront Israel? Why did he communicate with it and embarrass it in front of the whole world?

Al-Monitor:  Are you concerned that this could provoke a backlash from the public, given the Egyptian people’s general opposition to Israel?

Farag:  I was not afraid of anyone because it goes without saying that I have an honorable national record, and I always seek to fulfill national interest. I knew that I would face strong opposition. People never agree on one thing, but there are many reasonable individuals who supported my initiative and understood its content and goal.

Al-Monitor:  Does your initiative include discussing the Palestinian issue with the members of Knesset?

Farag:  Of course, as it involves discussing all aspects, crises and issues that concern the interest of the Arab nation — in particular the Palestinian cause.

Al-Monitor:  Some members of parliament have suggested amending the Camp David Accords. What is your stance on this?

Farag:  I do not approve of the amendment of any international agreements currently.

Al-Monitor:  What’s your take on the government’s program that was presented to parliament in recent days?

Farag:  With the available data and under the current circumstances, I announced my approval of the government’s program. The current phase necessitates cooperation with the state institutions to serve the citizens. As you know, Egyptian tourism is facing a setback and the Egyptian economy is collapsing. The Central Bank has many challenges up its sleeve due to the depreciation of the Egyptian pound. Therefore, the government’s program amid all this is good, but it has to implement it as soon as possible. We will oversee its implementation step by step in the coming phase.

Al-Monitor:  Do you support Prime Minister Sherif Ismail’s recent Cabinet reshuffle, or do you think a complete change of government is needed?

Farag:  We have a big problem with the decision-making process. Unfortunately, the easiest thing is to change and replace ministers. But this is a mistake. We should give the government a chance and grant ministers some time to solve citizens’ problems, and then hold them accountable if they go wrong. Changing the government only a few months after its assignment is useless.

For instance, newly appointed Minister of Labor Mohamed Saafan is a decent man. I sat with him and listened to him after he was attacked by other members of parliament who accuse him of being affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. But he has no affiliations and he has reiterated this.

I would like to say this to the opponents: Give the official some space to work. Do not punish him for his intellectual or political affiliations, but rather [judge him by] what he is offering citizens. Whether the minister is communist, Christian or pagan, what he is giving citizens is the most important.

Al-Monitor:  What do you think of the state’s general budget that President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi approved and sent to the parliament for discussion?

Farag:  Most members of parliament voiced their approval of the state budget because resources are limited and crises are increasing. This is the best-case scenario at the moment.

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