Speaking Friday at a Duquesne Club luncheon as part of an “Egypt Today” forum hosted by the American Middle East Institute and the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh, Tawfik used most of his time trying to sell Pittsburgh area executives on Egypt as being ripe for investment. But when the floor opened for questions, Tawfik was prodded on a number of topics, including Egyptians’ demonstrations against visiting U.S. diplomats and his country’s relationship with Israel.
He stated that during the last election, all 10 Egyptian presidential candidates said that if elected, they would respect the peace treaty with Israel, along with all of the country’s other international obligations.
“Polls consistently show that a majority of Egyptians support the peace treaty with Israel,” Tawfik said. “We have been a state for 5,000 years. We see ourselves as a responsible state, and we respect our commitments. And that’s not going to change.”
He acknowledged that Egypt disagrees with Israel on settlements and Gaza, and thinks Israel isn’t doing enough to further peace elsewhere in the region, but said that the diplomatic relationship with Israel is stable and foresees no change to it.
Deborah Fidel, the executive director of the Pittsburgh Area Jewish Community, was pleased with Tawfik’s remarks on the matter.
“The fact that he underlined the importance of the treaty, at the end of the day, that’s what we want from Egypt,” Fidel said. “We would like to have the relationship with Israel be warmer. We would like to see cooperation between the two countries deepened, but if that’s all we can get assurance of at this point with all the turmoil and unrest in the region, dayenu.”
Tensions between Israel and Egypt have escalated since the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak during the Arab Spring of 2011. In September of that year, Egyptian protestors stormed the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The Egyptian military evacuated the embassy and delivered all Israelis to safety. Israel finished cleaning out its former embassy last year, but has yet to establish a new one. Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi recalled his country’s ambassador to Israel last November in protest to Israel’s rocket attacks on Gaza.
However, Tawfik insists that the diplomatic relationship between Egypt and Israel remains normal, despite the lack of physical presences in each other’s countries. He told the Chronicle in a brief interview after the forum that it is his understanding that Israel is currently looking for a new location to establish an embassy in Cairo, and that the Egyptian ambassador to Israel only remains in Cairo on a consulting mission.
“Peace with Israel remains in Egypt’s best interests,” Tawfik said.
“I think it’s more of a cold peace or a tenuous stability,” said Sami Hermez, a visiting professor of contemporary international issues at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for International Studies. “I don’t think that the people have been necessarily too happy with this kind of agreement. If you look at Egyptian society, Egyptians and Israelis doing academic or cultural exchanges or anything like that — that’s stuff Egyptian society has been dead set against for the most part.”
Still, while a plurality of Egyptians may not have warm feelings toward Israel, that isn’t necessarily going to threaten the existing peace.
“I don’t think Egyptians feel that they’d want to wage war on Israel. I think it’s quite accurate that they don’t want an escalation,” Hermez said.
In 2010, before he was president, Morsi called the Israelis “warmongers” and “blood-suckers,” and called Israeli-Palestinian negotiations “a waste of time and opportunities.” He also claimed that the Palestinian Authority “was created by the Zionist and American enemies for the sole purpose of opposing the will of the Palestinian people and their interests.”
Morsi has since backed away from those comments, claiming they were taken out of context.
“I don’t think personal views really matter in politics,” Hermez said. “Ultimately, there’s a government policy, and I don’t necessarily think that it matters. Morsi can say that he’ll hold on to the Camp David Accords and think whatever he wants to think, but what matters is that he’s holding on to the Camp David Accords.”
One of the most pointed questions of the ambassador came from Pittsburgh Steelers Chairman and former U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, who expressed his dismay with how former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was treated during her visit to Cairo last summer, during which demonstrators threw food and shoes at her car.
Tawfik admonished the demonstrators, but also faulted Clinton.
“One of the first things she did was visit Tahrir Square, and she just charged out of her car and walked around the square to the dismay of her security detail,” Tawfik said. “There were basically demonstrations from the liberal camp. … It’s sort of an irony, in the sense that the people who were demonstrating against her at that time were basically the people who wanted Egypt to become very much like the United States. This was not an angry mob of people who loathe the United States. These were people who wanted Egypt to become a democracy, but who wanted to send a message, and I think did not send it the right way. I think the vast majority of Egyptians did not support the demonstrations against [Secretary Clinton].”
(Matthew Wein can be reached at email@example.com.)