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Tuesday, December 21, 2004

Cairo's information-free zone

Last week's Israeli-Egyptian-American trade agreement was hailed both in Israel and abroad as another harbinger of improved Israeli-Egyptian relations.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed hope that the agreement – which establishes "Qualifying Industrial Zones" (QIZs) from which Egyptian firms can export to the US duty-free as long as their products contain at least 11.7 percent Israeli content – would lead to "warmer relations between the peoples."

The New York Times welcomed it as "a giant step toward peace in our time." The theory is that the pact will boost Egyptian exports, create jobs, and thereby convince ordinary Egyptians that peace with Israel is a good thing.

Economically, this theory makes sense.

Israel's five-year-old QIZ agreement with Jordan has boosted Jordanian exports to America from $13 million to about $800 million and created some 40,000 jobs; there is no reason to believe that QIZs will not have a commensurate impact on Egypt's economy.

Yet no amount of economic growth will produce improved Egyptian attitudes toward Israel unless the ordinary Egyptian knows about Israel's role in it. And unfortunately, experience shows that nothing is more unlikely.

Even in Jordan, whose relationship with Israel has traditionally been much better than Egypt's, the connection between the QIZs, Israel and the country's export boom is not widely known.

But in Egypt, information about Israel's contribution to the economy appears to be a closely guarded secret.

Most Egyptians, for instance, were completely unaware that Israelis account for a major share of the Sinai tourist trade until the Israeli victims of October's terrorist attacks in Sinai accidentally brought this fact to light.

"We were completely surprised by the large number of Israeli tourists in Sinai," an Egyptian businessman told Haaretz after the attacks.

"Since the peace treaty, we did not grasp the scale of the Israeli contribution."

Indeed, Egypt appears to view secrecy as a virtual precondition for business with Israel – as the natural gas saga demonstrates.

For years, the two countries negotiated over a multiyear, $2.5-billion sale of Egyptian natural gas to Israel. Although British Gas had made a competing offer, Israel's government preferred Egypt, as it attributed great importance to boosting Egypt's economy.

The talks were extensively reported in Israel, but in Egypt they were apparently kept secret until a Cairo newspaper broke the story this June.

Egyptian legislators promptly demanded that the government clarify this "worrying" report of an impending deal with Israel, and the next day Egypt informed Israel that the deal was off.

(Talks have since resumed, but a deal has still not been signed.)

NOR IS it only on economic issues that official Egypt discourages any hint of positive information about Israel.

This past May, the Egyptian newspaper Nahdat Misr reported that Egypt's parliament had deprived a legislator of speaking privileges because he spent 10 days in Israel and then wanted to ask a question about something he had heard there (a proposal whereby Israel would give Egypt part of the Negev in exchange for Egypt giving the Palestinians part of Sinai).

That same month Egypt's highest administrative court banned the establishment of an Egyptian-Israeli friendship association – which might, God forbid, have disseminated information about Israel to Egyptians.

The court declared that relations with Israel were strictly the government's prerogative and no private organization had the right to get involved.