Love and loathing in the Middle East

 
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By calling Egyptians who marry Israelis traitors, Egypt has betrayed a group of vulnerable people who are guilty of little more than loving across enemy lines.

10 June 2010

Loving someone against the will of your family is tough enough for many people caught in such a predicament, especially in close-knit societies. Being in an international relationship can pose certain challenges, particularly if the couple do not keep an open mind and fail to live by a spirit of compromise and accommodation. But even when a couple live harmoniously and are completely compatible, the outside world may still not leave them alone, especially if their relationship bridges the unstable fault lines of a conflict.

I know of some Palestinians and Israelis, those most intimate of enemies, who have braved the risk of ostracisation and rejection by their respective communities for the sake of love. But I can imagine that keeping the toxicity of the bitter conflict between their two peoples from seeping into their private lives and poisoning their relationship can be a tough mountain to scale.

Although I know and have heard of a number of Egyptian-Jewish couples, I’ve never actually come across any Egyptians who are married to Israelis. This is hardly surprising as there is minimal contact between the two societies as a cold peace continues to reign between them.

But they do exist and, rare as they are, they’ve become the target of a high-profile hate campaign playing itself out in the Egyptian courts, instigated by Nabih el-Wahsh, that crusading Egyptian lawyer who has brought, mostly unsuccessful, morality cases against Egyptian intellectuals, including Nawal el-Saadawi, artists, religious leaders and government ministers.

The self-righteous lawyer turned his attention to this new demographic group  last year, and launched a law suit to demand that Egypt implement an obsolete 1976 article of Egypt’s citizenship law which revokes the citizenship of Egyptians married to Israelis who have served in the army (i.e. pretty much all Israelis).

A lower court had ruled in favour of el-Wahsh but the Egyptian government appealed the verdict. Last week, the Supreme Administrative Court rejected the appeal and called on the Ministry of Interior to take the necessary measures to strip Egyptian men married to Israeli women, and their children, of their citizenship. The judge who issued the ruling made an exception for Egyptian men married to Palestinian women with Israeli nationality.

The verdict has sparked controversy in Egypt, with many applauding the court’s “patriotism”, while others believed that the government does not and should not have the right to strip an Egyptian of his or her nationality.

Against the backdrop of worsening ties with Israel due to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza caused by the Israeli blockage and Israel’s ever-tightening grip on the West Bank, some were somewhat shrill in their applause of the verdict. Sahar el-Gaara, a secular Egyptian columnist, condemned every Egyptian married to an Israeli, even Arab Israelis, as a “potential spy, since he stamped his passport with an Israeli visa”.

By this flawed logic, although I am not married to an Israeli nor did I allow Israeli immigration to stamp my passport, the fact that I visited Israel and Palestine would also makes me a potential spy, even though I was there on a personal peace mission.

I always thought that the basic principle of the legal system is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. So, call me gullible or something, but I thought that, for someone to be guilty of spying, they have to actually be caught in the act of espionage – which, in this case, would be very difficult considering that most Egyptians married to Israelis don’t live in Egypt.

Besides, and more fundamentally, marriage is not a crime, and especially not one so serious that it would entitle the government to strip you of your most fundamental right, the right to nationality. A person’s choice of life partner is theirs alone to make, and society or the government, no matter how much they disapprove, should not have the power to limit that choice.

Of course, in reality, societies do limit that choice unfairly: for instance, gay marriages are not allowed in most countries, inter-faith marriages are completely forbidden in Israel (ironically due to an obsolete Ottoman system which allowed each religious community to set its own personal laws and the disproportionate power of the Israeli rabbinate in this hybrid secular society), and Egyptian Muslim women are not allowed to marry non-Muslim men (which is presumably why this court ruling does not apply to them). But revoking someone’s nationality is taking this to another level.

Egyptian human rights activists are up in arms at this preposterous verdict. “Egyptian law says citizenship can only be revoked if the citizen is proven to be spying on his country, [so] this verdict considers marrying an Israeli an act of spying,” Cairo-based attorney and human rights activist Negad al-Borai told Reuters.

The head of the Egyptian expatriate community in Israel, Shokri el-Shazli, suggested that the verdict was hypocritical. “In Israel, there is an Egyptian embassy and consulate which welcome a continuous stream of visiting Egyptian delegations,” he told al-Masry al-Youm.

And I cannot help but think that these Egyptians – small and marginalised group that they are – constitute an easy and soft target to channel popular anger at Israel’s blockade of Gaza and Egypt’s complicity in it.

It is still unclear whether the verdict will be implemented, but el-Shazli doubts it will. “This will create social and political problems internationally, not just in bilateral Egyptian-Israeli relations,” he opined, noting that the Egyptian community in Israel was considering its options and may raise the matter to the United Nations, including the Security Council.

While I’m personally against normalising economic ties with Israel until a comprehensive peace settlement has been reached, I welcome grassroots contacts between Israelis and Arabs, and believe that, if they so choose, couples who straddle the divide can help build bridges between the two sides and aid the process of humanising that we need to replace the current demonisation.

But whether or not they can bridge the gap between enemies is beside the point. The bottom line is that, whether you love or loath thy neighbour, you must recognise that individuals are not responsible for the group and are free to marry anyone they like.

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