CAIRO, Egypt --
In a colossal museum here, Egyptians
relive the desert war that destroyed "the
myth" of Israel's invincibility on the
battlefield 25 years ago today.
Miniature tanks roll stealthily across
man-made bridges that span a replica of
the Suez Canal. Toy-like planes zip along
guy wires in a replay of Egypt's startling
attack on Oct. 6, 1973. It was Yom Kippur,
the most solemn holy day for Jews, when
Israel virtually shuts down.
Egyptians visiting the October war
museum watch grainy film footage of
Israeli prisoners of war with the Egyptian
flag flying over the Sinai Desert,
territory that had been occupied by Israel
after its victory in the 1967 Middle East
war. They walk through a display of booty
captured during the October war -- Israeli
tanks, howitzers, even a jagged scrap of
an Israeli fighter plane.
They follow every step on "the road to
victory" except for the final outcome --
Israel's eventual about-face and military
rally that paralyzed the Egyptian army,
retook the Sinai and resulted in a
For many Egyptians, the
October war is remembered only as a moment
of victory and vindication, and a step on
the road to peace that ultimately enabled
Egypt to reclaim all of Sinai.
"If there wasn't the October war,
Israel would never have talked about
something called peace," says Mohammed
Abdel Al as he bags pomegranates at a
fruit stall in Cairo. "It changed the
history of Israel, this whole myth that it
can't be defeated."
But it has been a rocky peace.
Israeli-Egyptian relations, ranging from
euphoria to disdain, have mirrored the
mercurial character of Middle East
Israel's first peace treaty with a
former Arab enemy was signed in March
1979, by Anwar el Sadat, the
Egyptian leader who launched the 1973 war.
The Camp David accords gained Egypt $ 2.2
billion a year in aid from the United
States and the return of the Sinai. But it
also earned Egypt the immediate enmity of
the Arab states, which stripped Egypt of
its membership in the Arab League.
Sadat envisioned Camp David as a
prelude to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli
peace. But he was assassinated by Islamic
extremists in 1981 on the anniversary of
the October war.
Mohammed Salmawy, a well-known
Egyptian journalist, remembers the heady
early days of peace when fellow Egyptians
chanted "Long live [Menachem]
Begin" during the Israeli prime
minister's visit to Cairo in 1979.
Merchants in Cairo's teeming bazaar
refused to take money from Israeli guests,
Salmawy recalls. "But gradually, and
especially under this [Israeli]
government, things have become very
Salmawy, chief editor of the
French-language al-Ahram Hebdo, is one of
the Egyptian journalists at the center of
a flap that illustrates the current
Last month, the Israeli government
issued a report entitled "Anti-Semitism
and Holocaust Denial in the Official
Egyptian Press." Citing cartoons,
newspaper excerpts and magazine passages,
Israel charged that anti-Semitic themes
"permeate" the official Egyptian
A cartoon depicted Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a
Nazi uniform. Zionism was described as a
"racist political movement." A magazine
excerpt alleged Israeli involvement in a
blood-tainting scheme to spread AIDS.
Salmawy calls the Israeli report
"politically motivated." He points to its
citation of him for this Feb. 2, 1998
passage on the Holocaust:
"There are no findings to indicate the
existence of mass graves, because the size
of the ovens makes it impossible for many
Jews to have been killed there."
report failed to say, Salmawy says, that
he was quoting British historian David
Irving in a piece on Holocaust
Egyptian media criticism of the
Netanyahu government's intransigence in
the Middle East peace process, he says, is
political, not racial. "We Arabs do not
know anything of this anti-Semitism,"
Salmawy says. "We are Semites. We are not
guilty of the persecution of Jews. The
Holocaust, we have to admit, is a Western
phenomenon. It is not an Arab
Then why would the Egyptian media liken
Israel to Hitler's Nazi regime?
Salmawy suggests that "racist policies"
toward the Palestinians and a "belief in
the superiority" of the Jewish people
reminds one of "the worst excesses of the
history of man, one of which was
Abdel Moneim Said, the director
of the al-Ahram Center for Political and
Strategic Studies and founder of a Cairo
peace group, says: "Nobody in Israel or in
the West talks about Israel's
anti-Semitism." He says Arabs are
characterized in Netanyahu's book "A Place
Among the Nations" and elsewhere as dirty,
aggressive and bloodthirsty.
The Israeli-Egyptian relationship
fluctuates with Israeli actions in the
region, Said says. The euphoria of peace
cooled when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982
and again during the Palestinian uprising,
or intifada, a few years later.
Then came a warming period during
which, Said says, "Israel gradually became
our second trading partner in the Middle
East. In terms of official visits, Israel
was among the highest."
Since 1996 the momentum for a Mideast
peace settlement has stalled, Said says,
and tensions are rising again. The results
could be seen in a recent movie that
portrayed nationalist students at the
American University in Cairo burning an
Israeli flag. The audience applauded and
off 10% Commerce,
too, has been affected. Trade between
Israel and Egypt has dropped by 10
percent, according to an Israeli
Magdi Abu Samra, an Egyptian
businessman, has felt the effects
firsthand. His Cairo firm, Agroland Group,
has been selling Israeli agricultural
products in Egypt for 15 years.
When the Egyptian media denounce
Israel, he says, "Our competitors use this
and start attacking goods of Israel and
business people working with Israel."
Dalia Nazme, 28, of Cairo, has
visited Israel twice. She was apprehensive
initially but her first trip three years
ago went so well that she visited a second
time. "It was wonderful. We went to Tel
Aviv and Eilat. They were very friendly,
especially when they knew we were
Nazme doesn't believe she could repeat
that experience today. She says the
Egyptian government is "putting limits on
Egyptians who visit Israel because of the
situation right now."
Despite the ups and downs of the past
20 years, says a senior Israeli diplomat,
Israeli-Egyptian peace "has weathered all
the crises and the problems we have
"On the elementary level, there is
peace," he says. "It is quiet on the
borders. There are routine flights.
Israeli ships go through the Suez canal.
There is free movement of people and
goods. There is an Israeli embassy in
Cairo with a flag and the Egyptians are
[in Tel Aviv] and in Eilat."
"To get a warm peace it takes years,"
the diplomat says. "We expected more but
if you ask me, I wish we would have such a
peace with Syria." © 1998
The Baltimore Sun Company