Photo: Tal Cohen
Ali Salem
Photo: Tal Cohen

Egyptian Author Sees New Era in Relations

Salim says new winds are now blowing from Egypt. People even stop him in remote alleyways and congratulate him for not caving in to pressure

BEER SHEVA - A new era in Israeli-Egyptian relations has begun, says Ali Salim, an Egyptian writer often criticized in his native land for backing peace with the Jewish state.


"All at once, the Cairo press has ceased to express its hatred towards Israel, and anti-Semitic caricatures are no longer appropriate," he says.


Salim was in Israel recently to speak at a conference on new media in the Arab world held at Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva.


"I can now hold my head up high when roaming the streets of Cairo," he says.


According to Salim, new winds are now blowing from Egypt. People even stop him in remote alleyways and congratulate him for not caving in to pressure.


"The frozen peace is beginning to thaw," he says.


The recent signing of free trade agreements between the two countries, coupled with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's call to do business with Israel without asking his permission is a revolutionary step after 30 years of cold peace between Egypt and Israel, Salim says.


Salim, like Mubarak, says he is convinced Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is the only one who can make peace.


"I am a great believer is economic solutions," he says. "I have come to Israel as a proponent of the free trade agreement."


Providing employment to the hundreds of thousands of unemployed would remove them from the cycles of hate towards Israel, Salem says.


To deal with the Arab Boycott Office in Damascus, which blacklists businesses working in Israel, he suggests founding a bureau for the protection and supervision of trade agreements, and to punish anyone who attempts to threaten its employees.


"I have detected a conflict between the man on the street and the associations, whose time is up," Salim says.


Moreover, he points to Egypt's new Prime Minister, Ahmed Nazif, and Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, who is active on the peace front and the economic cabinet that supports cooperation with Israel, as signs of the new atmosphere.


"These are my new sources of power," he says.


Salim, however, is concerned about the suspicion he has detected among Israelis, who, he says, argue "it all derives from economic interests" and "Mubarak would not have melted the ice if he were not concerned about the dire economic situation in Egypt."


Israelis have also told Salim the new state of mind in Egypt is probably temporary, he says, and the Egyptian street is not ready to part from the hostility it has harbored during the years of cold peace.


Salim, whose strength as a writer and commentator lies in his humor and satire, turns serious in an instant.


"I take pleasure in watching how Sharon and Mubarak have learned to overcome their communication problems," he says.


Salim says Mubarak believes Sharon will implement the disengagement plan from Gaza and prefers it be carried out bilaterally.


"From my experience as a man of words, I can detect the building of trust among top government echelons," he says.


Despite his optimism, mention of Salim's name among Egyptian intellectuals still provokes harsh reactions befitting one who has befriended the loathed Israeli state.


On Arab TV he is frequently depicted as "the Zionist devil's advocate," who is set against Egyptian opponents of peace.


Salim appears to derive special pleasure from his media debates with Khaled Mashal, Hamas political bureau chief.


When Mashal once complained the Mossad keeps sending agents in an attempt to assassinate him, Salim warned the Israelis would indeed "cross him off their list" if he doesn't fall into line with U.S. President George W. Bush.


His initial ties with Israel were forged out of a great curiosity. Ten years ago Salim got into his battered car, and drove to the border crossing at Rafah, without telling his family, eventually finding himself in Tel Aviv.


"I wanted to see who the Israelis were and what they do," he wrote in his sensational book,

"A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors,"which became a best seller in Egypt.


Salim provided colorful accounts of random conversations he had on the streets, telling readers that "when I said I was Egyptian, they jumped at me in joy." He wrote about his visits to Arab villages and recounted the thoughts and fears that evaporated in an instant.


About 600,000 copies of "A Drive to Israel" were sold within two months throughout the Arab world, yet the book prompted the Egyptian writers' association to declare Salim a "persona non grata."


Indeed, Salim has paid a heavy personal toll for his unshakable struggle for peace. The writers' association in Cairo banished him from their ranks; the association of TV producers canceled two series that were about to be aired; actors told him they were not permitted to work with him because of his ties with Israel; leaders of the writers' association demanded he appear before members to apologize for a controversial visit he had paid to Israel and the subsequent book he had written.


Salim took them to court and won. After the court forced the writers' association to take him back into their ranks, he presented his resignation with a big media bang.


The association's management decided to get its revenge. It canceled his monthly pension and sent him to "beg for charity," or "make a living among his Israeli friends."


Salim says he been invited to appear on Arab TV shows to increase ratings and do battle with the enemies of peace until recently.


"All at once, all the curses have stopped," he says. "Eventually, I believe I will be granted recognition for my efforts, which I didn’t dream of giving up even during the most difficult times."


פרסום ראשון: 01.10.05, 17:21
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