Egypt and Israel: Getting Closer, Child by Child?

The Times of Israel article a couple of weeks ago headlined: “In a first, new Egyptian schoolbook teaches peace deal with Israel” and based on an Army Radio report by Jacky Hugi, was intriguing.

While the report was not entirely accurate – the peace deal has in fact been mentioned in Egyptian schoolbooks since 2002 – research conducted by Dr. Ofir Winter for IMPACT-SE suggests that changes to curricula in Egypt, albeit rolled out with infinite caution, could be part of a larger Sisi-era shift in how Egypt speaks about its relations with Israel – and might indicate long-term changes that will effect generations of Egyptians.

Textbook revision can be front-page news (as we are seeing in Israel at the moment). There is very good reason as to why the public gets animated about competing historical narratives and the norms that define a society’s identity, goals and values. Ultimately, people know well that the way in which children are taught about these subjects in school have long-lasting and particularly powerful effects on them.

Now, for the first time, and nearly 40 years after the signing of the Camp David Accords, schoolbooks in Egypt are expressing positivity about the peace treaty, rather than just noting its existence.

The Accords are characterized as good for the Egyptian economy. The stated advantages of peace with Israel include: “maintaining the Arab countries’ internal stability”; “advancing economic and social development and upgrading the state’s infrastructures”; “encouraging Arab and foreign capital investment in Egypt and in the other Arab states”; and “increasing [a] tourism movement that will boost the national income and supply foreign currency needed for existing needs and for construction of national projects that will foster the development of Egypt and of the Arab region as a whole.” All well and good, but it’s also all about Egypt’s self-interest.

More significant is that Israel is characterized as a legitimate peace partner. This might seem somewhat obvious, but it was not so in Mubarak’s Egypt.

Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s image, in an unprecedented move, is shown in all its glory alongside that of President Anwar Sadat in a photograph of the White House accord-signing ceremony. The Accord provisions that Egyptian children are expected to learn include calling for the establishment of “friendly relations – political, economic and cultural – between the two states,” in contrast to the “normal-relations “locution that had been employed in earlier textbooks.

Also noteworthy is that Palestinian issues are less prominently addressed than in the past. While the history textbook published in 2002 devoted 32 pages to the conflict with Israel and only three pages to the ensuing peace, the current book significantly alters the ratio: the conflict is accorded 12 pages, while the peace gets four.

This is not a Zionist revolution, of course. Many of the narratives taught to Egyptian children under Mubarak remain. The Land of Israel was stolen from the original Arab inhabitants of Palestine; the State of Israel was born in sin, not as the realization of a legitimate national movement. The defeat of Arab armies in 1948 was a result of the Jews breaking a ceasefire. And the wars of 1956 and 1967 were driven by Zionist colonialism. Israel rejected Egypt’s peace offering before the 1973 war, only to be taught a lesson that the IDF is not undefeatable.

Egypt has a long road to travel, as Dr. Yohanan Manor points out in Middle East Quarterly (Fall 2015). Despite Mubarak’s image abroad as a modernizer and secularist, in reality, “Islam became the basis of Egypt’s national identity with students taught that it was the only true religion, that followers of other religions were ‘infidels,’ and that ‘jihad in the path of God’ was a holy and supreme value.” His legacy was the Islamist bias that remains today in Egypt’s schools.

The el-Sisi administration has been taking on elements of this, removing some religious texts that encourage extremism, violence or racism. The decision taken by the Egyptian government in 2015 to omit the biography of Saladin, liberator of Jerusalem from the Crusaders, led to an uproar among Salafists. So, small cautious steps, it seems, are the order of the day.

These reforms then, are not taking place in an educational vacuum, but are an integral part of Egypt’s domestic politics. The tension around the meeting between Israel’s Ambassador to Cairo Haim Koren and Egyptian MP Tawfiq Ukasha – the willingness to meet on the one hand and objections by the Egyptian elite on the other – are another indication.

At a time when the Middle East is roiling, with Islamic extremism threatening the safety of whole societies with the region’s children being dragged by the thousands into hate and violence, IMPACT SE is analyzing children’s education to determine compliance with international standards of peace and tolerance and to demand change when necessary.

While one book does not indicate that peace and tolerance have taken hold across Egypt, these positive changes in relation to the importance of peace with Israel are grounds for optimism. We will be closely following further developments in Egypt and around the world.

About the Author
Marcus Sheff is CEO at The Institute for Monitoring Peace and Curtural Tolerance in School Textbooks. IMPACT-se analyzes textbooks, employing standards on peace and tolerance as derived from international declarations and resolutions.
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