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Posted Feb. 9, 2011
Interview with Ghada Talhami, professor of politics emerita at Lake Forest College, conducted by Melinda Tuhus
The question of how the popular uprising in Egypt will affect the liberation struggle of the Palestinian people is one of great concern in the U.S. as well as in the Middle East. The Camp David peace accords were signed in 1978 by Menachem Begin of Israel and Anwar Sadat of Egypt, who was assassinated three years later. For the past 30 years, under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has collaborated with Israel to seal off the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza and has been Israel's most powerful Arab ally.
Now, as angry street protests across Egypt demand the ouster of Mubarak, there have been reports of gun battles between Egyptian security forces and Islamist Bedouin groups near Egypt's border with Hamas controlled Gaza -- as well as the bombing of a northern Sinai gas terminal which briefly interrupted gas exports to Israel and Jordan.
Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Ghada Talhami, professor emerita in the department of politics at Lake Forest College near Chicago, where she has taught for 25 years. A Palestinian, Talhami, has written four books about Egypt and one on the Palestinian refugee issue. She says the crisis in Egypt is not just about democracy but one of illegitimacy, largely due to the Egyptian public's negative view of their government's relationship with Israel.
GHADA TALHAMI: Since 1979, the Israelis were able to fight several wars, and they admit this today, based on the fact that they are assured of the silence and the inactivity of the Egyptian military. Given the temper of the Egyptian public, given the years and years and years of critiquing this leadership in the press, because they really achieved something remarkable. The Egyptian public has managed to achieve a cold peace, and to prevent normalization of relations with Israel. So they had on one side -- the public itself -- has defied the normalization of relations that was to be one aspect of the Camp David agreement. And the government went along, of course, playing as they wish being the great ally of the U.S., which means giving full support to Israeli policies all these years. But the public had its own coldness to this agreement, so I assume now this will materialize in a stronger way.
BETWEEN THE LINES: The uprising has not been led by the Muslim Brotherhood, yet that's the group that the U.S. government is always saying is the alternative to Mubarak. Where do they stand on this issue?
GHADA TALHAMI: They have always advocated a closer relationship with the Arab and Muslim world, and they have always criticized Egypt in particular, for weakening the ties with the Arab and Muslim public, particularly with the Muslim movement in Gaza. Everyone would agree that what the Mubarak regime is suffering from is really a crisis of "delegitimization" more than anything else. It's not only a crisis of democracy; it's the fact that over 30 years, the Mubarak regime has lost its legitimacy in the eyes of its public to a great degree because of its inability to affect any kind of change in the Israeli-Egyptian relationship.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Is Hosni Mubarak just a hapless puppet of the U.S.? What did Egypt under Hosni Mubarak get out the Camp David accords for 30 years?
GHADA TALHAMI: Well, they got Israel's neutrality. They didn't get back Sinai, because Sinai has been demilitarized; there are no Egyptian troops in Sinai, there are international troops. And only belatedly in the last few years, the Egyptians have been brought into the equation over Gaza, by literally doing what the Israelis wanted them to do, which is to stop the Gazan people from escaping through the Egyptian boundary. So now we see the Egyptians engaged in the bizarre project of building a wall, a cement wall, in order to shut off Gaza from Egypt. That does not sit well with the Egyptian public. What did they get out of it? A great deal of gratitude by the US, especially during the Bush administration, and that's why you hear the rhetoric all the time of "Egypt is our great ally, Egypt is our great ally." As long as Egypt was willing to prevent itself from doing anything to shake up the Israeli situation, the US was happy. The U.S. has given its full support -- particularly under the Bush administration -- to whatever Israel was doing. So that's translated into an erosion in the credibility and legitimacy of the Mubarak regime, particularly in Egypt. We can say it doesn't matter how Arabs feel about this, but what you should really remember is how Egyptians feel about this. They have been really angry at this kind of one-sided imbalanced relationship between the two countries.
BETWEEN THE LINES: We hear in the U.S. that Egypt is an ally because it has made a peace treaty with Israel. What impact do you think the uprising in Egypt will have on the Israel-Palestine question?
GHADA TALHAMI: I don't think the Netanyahu administration will move one inch towards going back to negotiations with the Palestinians, but I think pressure from the Egyptians -- if there is going to be a change of regime, as we hope will be -- and if there is going to be serious re-evaluation of a different foreign policy in the region. One aspect of this will be that the Egyptians will even freeze the relationship more with Israel, for instance, no gas, no free gas for the Israelis. Perhaps the Egyptians will withdraw their ambassador whenever the Israelis increase the building of illegal settlements, when the Israelis continue to expel Arab families from their homes in East Jerusalem -- that has been a terrible event that's going on all the time, and the Egyptians just look the other way. Egypt would simply have to be more pro-active in this kind of relationship.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist?
GHADA TALHAMI: Of course I do. I'm a realist. It has existed. It was established by illegitimate means, in my opinion. It was established in the throes of the post-war period, when everyone was sympathetic to the plight of the European Jewish community, forgetting completely that the Palestinians had nothing to do with the German policy during that period. How do you deal with it? Do you simply allow it to continue to expand, continue to take over Palestinian land, continue to reduce the Palestinian territories to Bantustans? Continue to starve the people of Gaza? No. There's other policies short of war, and other policies short of war will have to be extreme diplomatic, economic and political pressure.
Ghada Talhami is the author of "The Mobilization of Muslim Women in Egypt," published by University Press of Florida.