CAIRO — Egypt witnessed a new political storm following reports of a recent meeting between Israel's ambassador to Cairo, David Govrin, and prominent Egyptian sociologist and director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, at the latter’s house.
Although Egypt and Israel signed a peace deal in 1978 and the two countries' security forces cooperate in the Sinai, there are minimal people-to-people relations and ties with Israel remain a touchy topic among the Egyptian public.
According to an unnamed official speaking to local media July 20, Ibrahim was asked to help limit Egyptian media outlets' attacks on Israel. Egyptian media often refers to Israel as an “enemy,” and Israel's controversial new Jewish Nationality Law has been severely criticized in Egyptian newspapers as discriminatory against Palestinians.
The source added that Ibrahim was also consulted on how to strengthen diplomatic ties and relations between Egypt and Israel. The meeting also reportedly involved a discussion of the idea of extending a railway between the two countries and sending Egyptian students to Israel.
In a phone conversation with Al-Monitor, Ibrahim talked about the topics tackled at the meeting with Govrin without mentioning the meeting place and date.
He said, “I discussed with the Israeli ambassador how the Israeli public believes the relations between the people of Israel and Egypt have not been as hoped since the peace agreement between the two sides. Many in Israel are calling for more coordination with Egypt. This should not be limited to daily security coordination to preserve security in the Sinai but should also cover travel, cultural and commercial activities. This is why the Israeli ambassador proposed at our meeting the idea of a railway connecting Egypt to Israel.”
Ibrahim added, “The Israeli ambassador talked about an old railway line that may be reactivated. It extends from Jerusalem to inside the Egyptian territories. After 1947 and the creation of Israel, the line was suspended and the commercial exchanges that were carried out through it were halted.”
Govrin’s proposal of reviving the old railway lines with Egypt comes in conjunction with the Israeli government's plans for a railway project linking it with Arab countries. The Israeli budget for 2019 approved by the Knesset in mid-January had allocated 15 million shekels ($4 million) for the planning of these railways.
The rail plan, called Tracks for Regional Peace, would begin in Israel and go to Saudi Arabia, across the Jordanian border and the city of Jenin in the northern West Bank. Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration is aiming to turn Israel into a connection point between the Middle East with the world.
This would improve Israel’s economy, strengthen its regional influence and bring it closer to the Arab states. According to Israeli media, Tel Aviv is mobilizing regional and international support through the US administration in order to complete this project.
Ibrahim continued, “In response to the proposals raised at the meeting with Ambassador Govrin, I asserted that the Palestine cause still prevents Egypt from reversing its conservative stance toward [further] normalization with Israel.”
The buzz was not limited to the sharp criticism leveled against Ibrahim because of his insistence on normalization with Israel — popularly rejected and frowned upon in Cairo. On July 22, a complaint was filed with the Egyptian attorney general against Ibrahim on charges of spying for Israel. The complaint was filed before the Egyptian Court of Cassation and Supreme Constitutional Court by lawyer Tarek Mahmoud.
Al-Monitor talked to Hazem Abu Shanab, a member of the revolutionary office of the Fatah movement. “These Israeli scenarios on the extension of railway lines across the Arab region are a reproduction of the so-called New Middle East project coined by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres.” He explained that Peres had sought to achieve a Middle East where Israel is fully integrated with the Arab world.”
In turn, political analyst and expert in Israeli affairs Munir Mahmoud noted that the Israeli ambassador’s talk in Cairo at this time about a railway with Egypt could be linked to Egypt’s plan of establishing a railway with Sudan and Ethiopia. “An Israeli Gulf-European railway network would greatly benefit from a railway with Egypt, as this would facilitate access into Africa,” he told Al-Monitor.
On Feb. 15, Egyptian Transport Minister Hisham Arafat had announced the start of cooperation with the London-based European Bank for Reconstruction and Development for conducting an economic feasibility study for a railway extending from the Cairo suburb of 6th of October City to Sudan and Ethiopia. The project was approved by the leaders of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia at the tripartite summit that brought them together in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Jan. 29.
Former chairman of the Egyptian syndicate of engineers Tariq al-Nabrawi told Al-Monitor that all engineers in Egypt refuse the idea of a railway with Israel in line with the position taken by all Egyptian trade unions against normalization. “Our refusal of this project is not based on technical or engineering reasons. This is rather a political position against cooperation with an occupying entity.”
Meanwhile, Yahya Kadwani, the undersecretary of the parliamentary Defense and National Security Committee, does not believe the meeting between Ibrahim and Govrin is worth this buzz. “It was held between the ambassador and an Egyptian figure with no official status and discussed matters relating to Egyptian sovereignty,” he told Al-Monitor. “Israel must demonstrate good intentions and achieve progress on the Palestinian cause. This is how it would gain the confidence of the Arab peoples and get them to accept it.”
The Israeli ambition to open up to the Arab, European and African world at the same time through a railway network is a smart plan. Yet several impediments hinder this plan. The “red lines” policy seems to prevail when it comes to normalization with Israel at the Arab and Egyptian levels in solidarity with the Palestinian cause.