Rarely in history has a peace settlement seemed so dismal. The Treaty of Washington between Egypt and Israel was signed on March 26, 1979. Since then there has been little excitement in Egypt about this new era in the nation’s contemporary history. There were several more or less spontaneous gatherings organized when President Anwar al-Sadat returned to Cairo. Otherwise there has been almost no sign of enthusiasm from a population victimized by four wars and usually quite ready to express itself.

Furthermore, none of the regime’s actions during recent months have conveyed a sense of the benefits of peace. Quite the contrary. The climate has worsened with the government’s repressive measures against the various currents of public opinion which might comment on this historic moment.

The referendum on the peace treaty drew the support of 99.95 percent of the people’s vote, but the Egyptian regime moved against both the Muslim Brothers on the right and the leader of the Progressive Assembly of National Unionists (PANU) on the left. (The referendum questions were the following: a) Do you approve of the peace treaty and its annexes between the Arab Republic of Egypt and Israel, as well as the special agreement aiming to establish total autonomy on the West Bank (of the Jordan) and in the Gaza strip? b) Do you approve of the dissolution of the People’s Assembly and the principles aiming to reorganize the state, as they were outlined in presidential decree 157 of 1979?) Why would a regime, assured of a popular support bordering on a national consensus, be so concerned about an opposition that is seemingly weak, marginal and divided? Could the support of the Egyptian populace be less unanimous than the figures indicate? Could the opposition in fact pose a threat? In the ambiguities of its promises and repression, the regime draws attention to its own fears of the future, as if the many fabulous hopes Sadat announces to the Egyptian people in support of his policies may sooner or later prove limited indeed.

Until the signing of the treaty, official statements focused on the symbolic value of peace — peace as something to dream about, especially for a people that has suffered through four wars since decolonization. Little if anything was said about the nature of this peace and its political repercussions. “Peace” was reduced to an abstraction that held the eventual solution to all problems. A vehicle of hope contrasted with war, the root of all evil, the pursuit of peace spared the regime the responsibility of facing present difficulties.

The logic was the same as that behind the policy of infitah (“open door”) announced shortly after the October war. Egypt’s opening up to foreign capital, both Arab and Western, and the rapprochement with the United States and its allies, was to have solved the domestic economic crisis and result in the recovery of the occupied territories. The infitah had the advantage of sustaining people’s hopes and proposing a solution based on external factors. Even before January 1977, when the failure of this policy became obvious, the government and the press named the culprits in the growing domestic unrest. Nasser (the culprit from the past) and then the absence of Arab aid (the present culprit) were denounced.

A third culprit, the state of war, also served to explain the deterioration of the country without questioning the basic political line of the regime. The audacity and the challenge of the trip to Jerusalem paved the way for a new exorcism that, like the preceding ones, was to give a much-needed boost to the authority of the regime. Like the infitah, peace was associated with prosperity and abundance. And once more the solution to domestic problems was linked to new foreign policy orientations.

As propagated by the state-owned media — with the help of the Western press — the idea of peace quickly became a panacea to sustain the desires and hopes of an increasingly despairing and disoriented population. The impossibility of expressing a dissenting point of view in the press has obviously limited the freedom of judgment of the vast majority of the population, desirous above all of finding a rapid remedy to the economic problems of their daily lives. Thus manipulated by the media, public opinion cannot but rally behind the claims of the government. And the opposition can emerge only from a minority with the means to grasp the political meaning and consequences of the peace process. Given the inaccessibility of the press, only the narrowest institutional channels remained open to the opposition; in the People’s Assembly a few voices opposed to the treaty were able to stir up debate. What happened on April 10, when an overwhelming majority of deputies (329 out of 360) ratified the Washington treaty? Thirteen deputies voted against it! [1] They included the two deputies of the PANU (‘Abdallah Qabari and Khalid Muhi al-Din), one independent leftist (Ahmad Taha), one independent Nasserite (Kamal Ahmad), two independent liberals (Mumtaz Nasir and Mahmoud al-Qadi), two independent religious deputies of the New Wafd party and two deputies formerly with the Misr party. [2] However numerically weak this parliamentary opposition, at no time since the advent of the regime has it been as large. Even more significantly, it consists largely of political elements favorable to the government at the time of the investiture of the current Assembly in November 1976.

Unable to pursue their arguments within the parliament, these thirteen deputies gave a quasi-clandestine press conference and became a veritable coalition opposed to the treaty. The event — ignored by the local and international press, who had been invited to participate — is revealing of Egyptian political life. It effectively set into motion the beginnings of a national front uniting a wide political spectrum, from Islamic fundamentalism on the right to the Marxist left. This type of coalition, for the moment limited to a hostility to the peace treaty, is not new in the recent Egyptian history. Such coalitions can be found at other times of crises threatening the country, in which nationalism took precedence over ideological differences, as in 1946 and 1954. The threat to the regime that such a coalition implies is behind the dissolution of the Chamber of Deputies.

Ripe for Repression

Why dissolve this Assembly in the middle of its term? Didn’t the referendum prove the unanimity of the population’s support for the treaty? The answer is simple: The regime now enjoys a degree of support it may not have in 1981, when the term of the Assembly would normally expire. Present conditions are favorable to the regime, and new elections would allow the investiture of an absolute majority of loyal deputies and the silencing of the parliamentary opposition in the process. Several times in the past the Islamic current has been the target of government repression. In the universities, where it is very influential, all political activity is now banned. The Muslim Brothers’ official monthly publication al-Da‘wa (The Call) was banned in April — precisely the edition which commented on the peace treaty. (Al-Da‘wa, published since 1976 with a circulation of 100,000, was one of the few newspapers not belonging to the state.) The formal prohibition against the propagation of opinions relating to religious or spiritual values deprives Islamic fundamentalists and the Muslim Brothers of any opportunity to express their views.

PANU, the official left party, was deprived of its only two parliamentary deputies and denied permission to make known its point of view. Even its internal discussion papers were seized at the party headquarters. The indictment of Khalid Muhi al-Din exhibits the pattern — the head of the leftist party was not able to run in the legislative elections. (He was charged with “collusion with Arab milieux hostile to Egypt” after various kinds of pressure were exerted on his party. For more than a year, the distribution of the party weekly al-Ahali has been continuously prohibited.) A May 5 presidential decree prohibits any individual opposed to the treaty from declaring his candidacy for the election under penalty of law and court action. Those desiring to start a new party must apply to a commission composed of three ministers and three magistrates under the direction of Sayyid Zaki, interim secretary-general of the sole party, the Arab Socialist Union. [3] Once again the regime is attempting to forestall the future by eliminating any potential alternative. The technique was tested in May 1971 with the eviction of the ‘Ali Sabri “clan” and in May 1978 with the elimination of the New Wafd Party.

During the summer several dozen members of PANU were imprisoned, accused of belonging to the clandestine Egyptian Communist Party. The press had already been purged several times. Although it helped form public opinion favorable to the positions of the regime, it became the object of yet another purge, far worse than the previous ones. In August the journalists’ union was banned.

Strikes and demonstrations are punishable by forced labor for life, according to a law passed by referendum just after the January 1977 riots. Doubtless that explains, at least in part, the relative social calm.

Control of the street has remained a priority. The organization, methods and tasks of the police have taken on a new dimension over the past months under the direction of Interior Minister Nabawi Isma‘il, with the collaboration of foreign police forces. Faced with a double threat, both internal and external, 10,000 members of the national police have received special training and anti-riot gear. An anti-terrorist brigade of 1,000 men, with helicopters and sophisticated equipment, was created eight months ago. And, also according to official sources, a review of the national police has resulted in the dismissal of the “unfit” and the selection of 150,000 men for a revitalized force. [4] For some six months now, the Egyptian police have become accustomed to asking anyone to verify their identity under the cover of the campaign against the depravation of morals. Its numerous recently acquired radio cars traverse the streets of Cairo and other major cities in order to dissuade even the smallest gathering under any pretext.

Peace, presented as synonymous with abundance at the beginning of the infitah five years ago, has been slow in revealing its economic advantages. Since the Treaty of Washington, the authorities’ only initiative on the economic front is asking for more foreign aid. This was the subject of a report on “Policies and Needs for Foreign Assistance” presented to Japanese and Western leaders at the Tokyo summit in June. This request for $18.5 billion, which the government estimates is necessary for the country’s development needs over the next five years, remains so far without any response. Even if Egypt continues to get $1 billion in US economic assistance annually, augmented by $300 million in economic assistance plus some $1.5 billion in military aid over the next three years in conjunction with the treaty, it has lost the aid of the Arab oil countries which, since the riots of 1977, have kept the breakdown of the Egyptian economy at arm’s length.

One of the essential goals of the regime was an improvement in the Egyptian economy. The peace which was accepted, however, may aggravate an already critical economic situation. To the earlier difficulties have now been added the effects of the Arab boycott decided at the Baghdad summit in March. The government has announced the 1979 trade balance will show a deficit of $4.3 billion ($3.3 billion for 1978), while the balance of payments will be in deficit by $5.4 billion ($1.4 billion in 1978). [5] Although these figures speak for themselves, they do not describe the impact on the living conditions of Egyptian citizens. Even though the regime will try to minimize the consequences of the Arab aid cutoff, the population will realize sooner or later its drastic effect.

In deciding to ally itself with Israel under the aegis of the United States, the Egyptian government has increased its opponents. Its room for maneuver in foreign affairs has shrunk dramatically, restricting Egypt to a defensive diplomacy. Pilloried by its closest partners — the Arab world, Africa and the non-aligned nations — and isolated by the countries of the pro-Soviet socialist bloc, Egypt has not found in the West the massive unrestricted aid that it counted on.

One is led to wonder about the meaning of the peace Egypt has chosen, since the concept of “peace” here seems to make such little sense. But in fact this is not really strange at all, given the distortions in Egyptian political language over the last few years.

Since it came to power nine years ago, the regime has steadily moved away from its own stated political program. It has continued to preach Nasserism and Arab unity, for instance, while abandoning them in practice. The ideological foundations of the regime are increasingly contradictory to reality. The regime has stressed morality and piety — through Sadat’s strong identification with the simple peasant values of his home village of Mit Abu al-Kawm or through the mark on his forehead, which is supposed to be a sign of constant prayer. Yet in fact the regime has been systematically undermining these traditional values, and corruption is even greater than before. The regime also continues to toss about the slogan of “democracy,” first used to justify the purge of ‘Ali Sabri and his group in the May 1971 “movement of rectification.” But while “democracy” is heard often in the speeches of the president, real democracy is less and less evident. “National unity” is another official slogan used often since May 1971. It frequently comes up in speeches these days, but material conditions move in the opposite direction and class struggle is actually accentuated.

What more need be said about infitah, this magic slogan first used after the October war which was supposed to offer Egypt’s people a better future? Its effect has been exactly the opposite of what was advertised. So also with the October war, celebrated as such a great victory. Six years after breaking through the Bar Lev line, what remains? Arab unity emerged during the conflict but soon began to disintegrate under the impact of the Sinai Accords and the complicit silence during the war in Lebanon. Nor did the Egyptian army profit from its victories. It has been kept on the sidelines of the negotiations and has hardly benefited from the economic developments. Its most prestigious leaders, from Gen. Shazli to Gen. Gamasi, have been fired one by one. Even the recovery of the occupied territories has proven a chimera. For this war was fought and the peace treaty signed, but the result has been only the institutionalization of the loss of sovereignty over them. One only has to look at the text of the military annexes to the treaty, in particular Annex 1, Article 2 on “Determination of Final Lines and Zones.”

It seems clear that the peace has become the opposite of what it was promised to be. Yet was that not the inherent logic of the underlying policies? Has not this peace made even more difficult the solution of Egypt’s most fundamental problems?


[1] One deputy abstained and 17 others were absent for the vote. “It is thought that for the most part they kept apart from the voting to indicate their opposition to the treaty.” Le Monde, April 12, 1979.
[2] “Independent” deputies are those who did not run within the framework of the three “tribunes” created by the head of state as elements of the country’s sole party. See M. C. Aulas, “L’Egypte et l’ouverture politique,” Le Monde Diplomatique, November 1976. The New Wafd Party was created in January, 1978 by virtue of the law on political parties passed on June 20, 1977 and valid only during the term of that legislature. The New Wafd Party was forced to dissolve June 2, 1978. The Misr party is the name given to the pro-government “tribune” of the center. It was headed by former Prime Minister Mamdouh Salih. The vast majority of this party’s members left it when the head of state founded the National Democratic Party, which he leads.
[3] The three ministers are the minister of interior, Nabawi Isma‘il, the minister of justice, Ahmad Musa, and the minister of state for the affairs of the Council of Ministers, Sulayman Mitwalli.
[4] International Herald Tribune, March 28, 1979.
[5] Financial Times, July 30, 1979.

How to cite this article:

Marie-Christine Aulas "A Very Strange Peace," Middle East Report 82 (November/December 1979).

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