The photo went viral after it was posted by Emirati journalist Hamad Al Mazrouei on Twitter, provoking an outcry on Egyptian social media platforms. It was later removed.
"Dubai unites us," Al Mazrouei wrote in the caption. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Avichai Adraee shared the picture Nov. 21, tweeting, "How beautiful art, music and peace are!"
Another photo of the prominent Egyptian artist with Israeli footballer Dia Saba, apparently taken at the same event in Dubai and posted by @IsraelArabic, further fueled anger among Ramadan's fans, many of whom accused him of betraying the Palestinian cause.
Many dismayed Egyptians lashed out at Ramadan. The Arabic hashtag for #Mohamed_Ramadan_Is_A_Zionist has been trending on social media platforms. An image of Egyptian troops taking an Israeli soldier captive circulated widely, with one critic stating, "Only reason to take pictures with Israelis."
Ramadan, nicknamed Number One after his popular song, was also attacked by Egypt's largely pro-government media outlets. In an episode of his show on the Sada El Ballad TV channel, talk show host Ahmed Moussa described the artist's photos with the Israeli stars as "a shame" and "a crime against all of society."
Lawyer Tariq Mahmud filed a lawsuit against Ramadan, accusing him of offending the Egyptian people by "normalizing ties with Israel." A hearing is scheduled for Dec. 19.
Ramadan is known for playing gangster roles in action films but also for patriotic roles such as a soldier and a police officer on both the silver screen and in soap operas. Defending himself, he claimed he was not aware of the nationality or identity of the men photographed with him.
Ramadan also tweeted a photo of himself with a keffiyeh, a traditional Palestinian scarf, draped round his neck, but it failed to quell the storm of public condemnation. The Union of Artistic Syndicates announced Nov. 22 that it would suspend his membership pending investigation, the semi-official Al Ahram reported.
In a telephone interview on the Saudi-owned MBC Masr, head of the Actors Syndicate Ashraf Zaki said that many Egyptians consider Ramadan's photos with the Israeli celebrities a form of normalization. "The incident is not the first of its kind; a technician who did the same in the past, publicly announcing he had visited Israel, also had his membership suspended. … Ramadan will be given a chance to explain his actions and we will judge him fairly," Zaki said.
Zaki added that the Union of Artistic Syndicates' rejection of any form of normalization with Israel is a longstanding policy meant as an expression of solidarity with the Palestinians. The stance reflects public sentiment in Egypt about the Jewish state, still perceived by many Egyptians as an enemy state despite Egypt being the first Arab country to have signed a peace treaty with Israel more than four decades ago and the Egyptian leadership's close cooperation with Israel under the rule of President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
When contacted by Al-Monitor, Zaki declined to comment further, saying he had nothing more to say on the subject.
The Press Syndicate also released a statement calling on the media to boycott Ramadan over the controversial photographs. Diaa Rashwan, the head of the syndicate, instructed the media to refrain from mentioning Ramadan pending the investigation, a move tantamount to media blackout on the case.
Ramadan, Egypt's highest paid artist, is no stranger to controversy. He unleashed a barrage of criticism after posting a video in October 2019 that showed him in the copilot's seat during a flight on a private aircraft in defiance of regulations prohibiting passengers from cockpit during flights. The pilot since had his license permanently revoked but Ramadan refused to accept responsibility for the suspension, saying he had asked the pilot for permission to enter the cockpit to take photos.
In August, Ramadan again provoked a social media outcry after appearing bare chested on stage during a live concert in Cairo attended by some 40,000 fans. Samir Sabry, a lawyer notorious for filing legal complaints against artists, sued Ramadan, accusing him of corrupting young people.
Said Sadek, a professor of political sociology at Nile University, noted that when Egypt signed the Camp David Accords in 1979, it faced a backlash from other Arab countries. In the years following the treaty, ties were limited to military and economic cooperation with no cultural or social exchanges between the two former foes.
"In other words, Egypt chose to adopt a midway position, allowing syndicates to go against its foreign policy by boycotting Israel in order to appease Arab-Muslim public opinion. Any citizen who deals or engages with Israelis is stigmatized by society and often suffers serious consequences as a result," he told Al-Monitor. "Ramadan's dilemma … is an indication that normalization is being used as a political bargaining tool by the regime," he said.
Some observers like freelance journalist Maged Atef believe the hullabaloo over Ramadan's photos is a way for Egyptians to vent their anger at government policies. "Unable to criticize the government out of fear for their personal safety, Egyptians are lashing out at Ramadan to let off steam and release some of their pent-up anger; it's a safe battle," he said.
"If Egyptians were left to decide for themselves, many may choose to normalize ties with Israel," he said. He cited the millions of Egyptians working in the hospitality business who welcome Israeli tourists visiting Egypt and others working in factories in Port Saeed and Suez.
"The government is acting as a guardian of morality, dictating how Egyptians should or shouldn't behave. It does not want Egyptians interacting with Israelis for security concerns,” Atef told Al-Monitor. “While state officials engage with the Israeli government and there is full normalization at the state level, any kind of people-to-people contact or interaction is banned and even punished."
He further noted that the hostile media narrative on Israel is meant to ensure there is no warming of ties between Egyptians and their northern neighbors. "Citizens that engage with Israelis are labeled ‘traitors’ and ‘infidels’ by the pro-government media."
He pointed to a 2016 court ruling that allows the Interior Ministry to strip Egyptians of their citizenship for marrying an Israeli. "Only when we see such laws abolished can we believe that Egyptians are free to make their own choices," he said.
"It remains to be seen whether Israel and the US will pressure Egypt to fully normalize with Israel in the coming months," said Sadek. "The UAE has set a precedent and we shall see if Egypt will follow their example."