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Arab Peace Movement Tottering

November 22, 2000

CAIRO, Egypt (AP) _ Rida Hilal helped found the Cairo Peace Movement because he saw better relations with Israel as the key to prosperity and democracy in Egypt, one of only two Arab countries that has a peace treaty with the Jewish state.

Today, Hilal is a peace campaigner without a campaign.

His group and similar ones in Jordan, another Arab country at peace with Israel, had never made much headway persuading the public to expand ties with their neighbor. Since September, violence between Palestinians and Israelis has sent waves of demonstrators onto Arab streets with denunciations of Israel that have drowned out any calls for peace.

On Tuesday, Egypt recalled its ambassador, accusing Israel of using excessive force against Palestinians, but stopping short of cutting diplomatic ties as demanded by some Egyptians.

Hilal suspended his membership in the peace movement a few days after the clashes began.

``In the end, you cannot challenge the feelings of the people,″ the 42-year-old writer explained.

``It is a difficult position, to be stuck between hard-liners in Egypt and hard-liners in Israel at the same time,″ he said. Leftists and Islamic militants ``describe us as traitors, Zionists, and all these hated slogans.″

In the 23 years since Egyptian President Anwar Sadat broke the ice with his momentous journey to Jerusalem, Arab grassroots peace movements have never gotten off the ground. Both sides have long feared that the few Mideast peace treaties in existence have been made between leaders, rather than between peoples.

The latest violence is ``the death certificate of these movements,″ said Wahid Abdel-Meguid, a political analyst at Cairo’s independent Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, and Jordan followed in 1994. The Cairo Peace Movement grew out of a gathering in Denmark in 1997 of Middle East lawmakers, religious leaders and intellectuals.

Secretary general Marwan al-Kholi said the Cairo group mainly was involved in exchanging visits by artists and intellectuals. These were always difficult, because most professional unions in Egypt banned their members from visiting Israel. The exchanges have now been suspended.

``For now we have no base from which to work,″ al-Kholi said. ``We have to wait and see what happens.″

Hilal said now was the time for his movement to act, but its members failed.

``For me the peace movement should act when peace is in danger,″ he said. ``There is no need for a peace movement when peace is solid.″

He said he was disappointed with his Israeli counterparts, who were ``silent except for maybe two or three small demonstrations″ against the violence in the West Bank and Gaza Strip

Indeed, the Israeli movement appeared frozen for the first month of clashes. Since then, Israeli peace campaigners have become active again, but nothing reciprocal has come out of the Jordanian and Egyptian peace movements.

Last month Amal Dabbas, a popular Jordanian actress, publicly apologized for having performed in Israel. A coalition of 13 powerful professional unions has warned their 80,000 members to shun Israel or be blacklisted.

On Nov. 19 _ the anniversary of Sadat’s Jerusalem journey _ the unions published a list of 22 journalists, academics, artists, companies and schools that advocate cultural and economic ties with Israel.

The Egyptian government has tended to push cooperation with Israel where it can benefit its struggling economy, while doing little to encourage the people-to-people ties that would make the peace feel real.

But as calls spread to boycott American and Israeli products, Egyptian officials are warning that Egypt could be hurt.

``I think that in practice, over 21 years (since the Egypt and Israel signed peace), common interests have developed. There are projects here and connections which cannot be cut″ on a whim, said Ayellet Yehiav, press attache at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo.

Amr Waly, whose Cairo agribusiness company imports Israeli fertilizer ingredients, reports a sales drop of at least 20 percent over the past year.

``We have a problem now of course. We have become the black sheep of the country. A lot of our clients have stopped dealing with us,″ said Waly.

His uncle, Youssef Waly, Egypt’s agriculture minister, was himself the target of a yearlong campaign claiming he was sabotaging Egyptian agriculture by dealing with Israel.

Amr Waly is undeterred.

``I can’t shut down a plant,″ he said. ``Officially, borders are open for us.″

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