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Amid new Mideast talks, Egypt marks war anniversary


By Ben Wedeman
CNN Cairo Bureau Chief

October 2, 1998
Web posted at: 11:09 a.m. EDT (1109 GMT)

In this story:

CAIRO, Egypt (CNN) -- Another round of photos at the White House this week appears to have sparked another round of hopes for a breakthrough in the ailing Middle East peace process.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat stood together in Washington with U.S. President Bill Clinton and announced plans for more talks in October. But the Mideast leaders didn't look very happy.

While U.S., Israeli and Palestinian officials are hoping anew that they can reach agreement for the next Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, they might do well to look to Egypt for a cautionary tale.

Netanyahu, Clinton and Arafat
Clinton with Netanyahu and Arafat on Monday  

Choosing which anniversary to observe

Twenty years ago, in September 1978, Egypt and Israel reached the Camp David Accords, which led to the first peace treaty between Israel and one of its Arab adversaries.

There were no celebrations in Cairo last month marking the 20th anniversary of that historic turning point. But next week, Egypt is staging celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War.

The Yom Kippur War, or the October War or Ramadan War as it is known among Arab countries, was arguably the Middle East's "war to end all wars." In its wake, expectations soared that with active U.S. diplomacy, a new era of peace was about to dawn.

The Camp David Accords, reached with the pivotal help of U.S. President Jimmy Carter, led to the signing of a peace treaty in 1979 that technically ended the state of war between Egypt and Israel.

But trade ties between the two Mideast nations never took off the way many people hoped.

The years since the 1973 war have been some of the most violent for the Middle East. And across Egypt's eastern border, terrorist bombings and internal border closures have made the quest for peace protracted and painful.

Today, 25 years after the war and 20 years after Camp David, emotional peace between the peoples of Israel and Egypt may be as elusive as ever.

The return of a military parade

Egypt plans to mark the anniversary of the 1973 war with academic conferences, a mass wedding and a large-scale prisoner release.

On Tuesday, plans call for a military parade, the first since extremists assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at just such a parade in 1981.

Sadat, Carter and Begin
Carter with Sadat and Begin, at the March 26, 1979 signing in Washington, D.C.  

Sadat oversaw Egypt's war effort in 1973, and his people hailed him as a hero.

Perhaps more controversially, he also oversaw Egypt's peace efforts. He visited Jerusalem in 1977 to declare his willingness to make peace with Israel, and reached the Camp David Accords with Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin the following year.

This year, many Egyptians believe the 1973 war's "Silver Jubilee," as it's being touted in the Egyptian press, is worth celebrating. Many also question why peace should be celebrated.

"All the dreams from Camp David have disappeared," says Hamdi Sayyid, who leads the 130,000-strong Egyptian Doctors' Syndicate, a group that rejects normalization with Israel. "What is there to celebrate? This miserable situation?"

Dwindling optimism, and blame for the weather

Some Egyptians blame Israel for a wide variety of life's ills, such as inclement weather, the spread of AIDS, the outbreak of plant diseases and the rising price of food.

While leaders are clear such accusations are unfounded, they warn that such sentiments are symptomatic of the depth of bitterness over the peace with Israel.

Unhappiness with the peace process may largely explain mounting internal calls for Egypt to achieve military parity with Israel. There's even talk in some quarters of the idea of trying to embark on a nuclear weapons program.

When I was a student in Cairo in the early 1980s, what stuck me then was a pervasive sense of optimism. The memories from the 1973 war were still vivid, but Egyptians seemed to be ready to focus on the future.

Today I find the optimists are a minority, and a shrinking one at that. And while Israelis and Egyptians may not agree on much, both call the peace between their countries a "cold peace."

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