Egypt-Israel love fatwa highlights split on peace

An Israeli Arab woman sent an e-mail some weeks ago to Sheikh Farahat Al-Mongy, an Islamic scholar from Egypt, complaining that her Egyptian husband, who
used to live with her in Israel, had decided to break up their marriage and leave Israel for good.

News of the broken marriage thrilled Al-Mongy. To him, this meant that his latest fatwa, or religious edict, about the “sinfulness” of Egyptians getting married to Israelis, which he issued a month and a half ago, was having an effect.

“Egyptians who get married to Israelis and live in Israel turn into spies for the Zionist state when they come back,” Al-Mongy said in his edict, published in local newspapers in Egypt. “That is why Islam considers this knot unholy.”

When Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin shook hands with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1979 after signing a peace treaty in the United States, both men might have thought that they were setting their countries on a normal course of relations. But 28 years after reaching peace, the situation on the ground proves their hopes far-fetched. In Egypt, Israel is still viewed as an enemy.

And little symbolizes the rockiness of this relationship better than the fatwa against Egyptian-Israeli love.

The peace between Egypt and Israel is proving to be a mere government to government affair. Egypt’s media has never balked at portraying Israel as a warmongering state since the peace agreement was signed.

Demonstrations, either on university campuses or on the streets demanding the dismissal of the Israeli ambassador from Egypt, are a frequent occurrence here, uncovering the total disconnect between official and public attitudes.

Al-Mongy’s dictum produced a groundswell of acclaim in this country of 80 million people with a Sunni Muslim majority in a way the sheikh himself never expected to happen. It became fodder for talk shows and made headlines in local newspapers. A weekly newspaper, Sawt al-Ummah, called the edict “beautiful” and even pressed al-Azhar, the strongest religious institution in the Islamic world, to adopt it.

Recently, a group of three members of the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s Parliament) embraced Al-Mongy’s edict by presenting a draft law that would strip Egyptians married to Israelis — whether Jewish, Muslim or Christian — of their Egyptian citizenship and deny them entry into Egypt.

The draft, if made into a law, would instruct the courts to consider marriage between Egyptians and Israelis illegal.

One of the members of Parliament who presented the draft law is Mohssen Radi, who is a member of Egypt’s largest Islamic organization, the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Israel is a country that should be wiped off the map,” Radi said in an interview two weeks ago, repeating pronouncements Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made about Israel two years ago.

To Radi, for an Egyptian to get married to an Israeli would usher in a new generation of “traitors” who would be “corrosive” to Egypt’s national security.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928 to explain religious texts to Egyptians, emerged as a formidable power on Egypt’s political scene in 2005, when its candidates, who ran as independents in the legislative elections, managed to win 88 seats in the 445-seat legislature.

Now, having given birth to groups like Hamas in the Palestinian territories and boasting branches everywhere in the world, the Muslim Brotherhood is a headache for the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for the last 26 years.

The Brotherhood had already prepared a political platform it would present to Egypt’s Political Parties Committee, a government body that licenses political parties, to start a new party. Egypt’s constitution does not allow the creation of political parties on religious backgrounds.

Many in Egypt and outside it cower at the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power in Egypt. The group is generally known to be inimical to peace with Israel.

“If we come to office, we will hold a referendum on the peace agreement with Israel,” said Mohamed Mehdi Akef, the supreme guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, in an interview last month. “Then we will abide by the desire of our people.”

Arabs branded Sadat a traitor for his 1977 visit to Israel and boycotted Egypt when, in 1979, it signed the first peace treaty between an Arab country and the Jewish state.

Peace with Israel was said to be Sadat’s biggest political gamble and his death sentence. It was Muslim militant soldiers who assassinated him in 1981, while he was watching a military parade that was held to celebrate the Egyptians’ October victory over the Israelis in 1973.

One reason why Al-Mongy calls the marriage between a Muslim and an Israeli “graceless” is that this marriage might result in disputes over properties in Egypt when the Egyptian father dies.

“Similar disputes happened in Palestine, and that was how the Palestinians lost a big part of their lands to Israel,” Al-Mongy, 70, said, repeating a general misperception in Egypt about how Israel came into existence. “At the same time, Israelis, both men and women, are conscripted into the army, and a Muslim should not get married to a member of an enemy army.”

In 2000, the Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs put the number of Egyptians married to Arab women with an Israeli passport at 17,000, but other officials claim that number is far too high.

But what is unquestioned is the growing presence of Egyptians in Israel proper. According to a recent article in al-Ahram newspaper, 6,000-7,000 Egyptians are legal residents of Israel, while an additional 5,000-6,000 reside there illegally. The Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Population Administration told al-Ahram that 5,463 Egyptians living in Israel hold an expired visa, while 643 hold a valid one. The ministry could not say how many Egyptians hold citizenship and permanent or temporary residency cards.

Part of the antipathy toward accepting these marriages is the widespread misconception that Israel is a state without a large non-Jewish minority. Many Egyptians assume a marriage to an Israeli is a marriage to a Jew.