Earlier this month, Egyptian policeman Mohamad Salah snuck through a hole in the fence separating Egypt and Israel and shot and killed three Israeli soldiers. The attack was a rare instance of violence on the mainly peaceful border. But what it showed was unnerving. While official Egyptian policy is peace with Israel, Egyptians have other ideas.
Many Egyptians hailed Salah as a martyr. President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi attempted to contain this popular sentiment: Salah was not allowed a public funeral by the embarrassed authorities and security forces dispersed hundreds who went to his house to mourn.
While these sorts of incidents are rare, this is not the first time that Egyptians have sought to murder Israelis since peace accords were signed in 1979. And following every successful attack, the Egyptian authorities try to mitigate the popular celebration that ensues.
The peace between Cairo and Jerusalem was never extended to the population, nor the whole government for that matter. Israel has a relationship with only three Egyptian institutions: the Presidency, General Intelligence and Military Intelligence. These agencies understand that cooperation with Israel on mutual security threats such as Hamas and ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula and economic initiatives such as energy cooperation and tourism are necessary and beneficial to both countries. However, they also realize the fervent anti-Israel sentiment amongst Egyptians and play both sides.
This popular anti-Israeli ethos was formed by decades of indoctrination from Marxism to Arab nationalism to Nasserism to Islamism. The Egyptian intelligentsia, which was formed by these ideologies, ensures public sentiments remain hostile to Israel and the United States. In this societal framework, relations with Israel are seen as the ultimate taboo. The only exception is given to the state when acting purely to secure national interest. But the public and the intellectuals who are not constrained by politics maintain their duty to express the 'authentic morality' of society.
There is not much the Sisi regime can do. Dealing with constant security threats in the Sinai Peninsula, a lingering economic crisis and a disgruntled populous, warming ties with Israel is hardly seen as a priority. Nor is it a priority for the Israelis or Americans who see the current bilateral relations achieving the necessary amount of cooperation for security and energy needs.
The prospects were not always so bleak. Following the peace treaty, then Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took steps to bring about real normalization. Egyptian TV began broadcasting two hours of Israeli TV weekly, an Israeli Cultural Center was opened and Egyptian students visited Israel in high school exchange programs. However, these initiatives faltered and died following the assassination of Sadat in 1982.
Since then, the Egyptian cultural establishment has been dead set on preventing any sort of normalization. And the state has relented, playing the role to the public of cooperating with Israel purely out of necessity.
This two-faced relationship between the state and populous is best represented by the 1998 Egyptian film: An Upper Egyptian at the American University. The protagonist of the film burns an Israeli flag publicly and is picked up by a state security agent acting reluctantly to protect Egyptian interests. The agent lets the protagonist go, telling him that his heart is with him.
The public incitement can be much more nefarious. In state-censored media and at Friday prayers in mosques, Jews are referred to as subhuman beings and the eternal enemies of Islam and Israel is blamed for all the world's ills from AIDS outbreaks in Africa to wars in Asia. In this environment, it is no surprise that within a week of Salah's terrorist attack, a popular Egyptian rapper released a single praising him as the "hero of the borders" with hundreds of comments praising the attack on the song's YouTube page.
A genuine peace with Israel could bring Egypt many benefits. But for now, both governments have more pressing concerns than to help Egyptians unlearn the hatred they have been taught.
Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is a writing fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East at the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). Joseph Epstein is a legislative fellow for EMET.