Connect to share and comment

Synagogue makeover exasperates Egyptians

With anti-Israel sentiment running high, what's behind Cairo's decision to renovate all the city's Jewish heritage sites?

An Egyptian worker uses chemicals to restore detail on a marble piece of the Moses Ben Maimon synagogue in the el-Gamaliya area of old Cairo on Aug. 20, 2009. The structure was built in the late 18th century to honor Moses Ben Maimon, a philosopher and doctor born in 1135 in Cordoba, Spain, who died in Cairo. (Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images)

CAIRO, Egypt — Through a maze of narrow stone alleyways in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, the Ben Maimon synagogue is surrounded by churches — a remnant of Egypt’s diverse and religiously tolerant past. This month, a private ceremony inaugurated the renovated synagogue as part of a greater government initiative to restore all 10 of the country’s Jewish temples.

The small, private rededication of the Ben Maimon synagogue passed without incident, but on Sunday the Ministry of Culture called off the temple’s public inauguration scheduled for the same day, saying the cancellation was a protest of Israel’s plans to list two Muslim shrines in the West Bank as Israeli heritage sites as well as Israel’s restrictions on Muslim access to the Al-Aqsa mosque over the weekend.

“I can restore our monuments,” said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, “but I can’t announce a big celebration while the Israelis are attacking the Palestinian monuments.”

Initially, the Egyptian government wanted to tell the world of its initiative to nationally finance the restoration of Jewish heritage sites — a concerted effort, experts say, by the regime to promote itself to the West as a moderate ally in a turbulent region.

Behind this international facade, the ministry’s decision to cancel the public inauguration appears to be yet another instance of the unpopular regime’s struggle to juggle its international image with rising anti-Israel sentiment inside the country.

“President [Hosni] Mubarak and his close advisors have been trying to position Egypt and portray Egypt to the world in particular as a moderate state,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of political science at the London School of Economics. “While the Iranian president [Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, basically denies the holocaust ... you have Egypt saying, ‘here is Egypt, not only do we acknowledge our complex cultural heritage, but we will basically renovate the synagogues using state money.’ This is really a message much more designed for the international community … that does not really garner any support for [Egyptian president] Mubarak internally. In fact, it’s a liability.”

The regime is now trying to turn that political liability into an asset. Fallout from Israel’s recent actions may have forced the regime to try to recast the domestically controversial project in a more popular light by taking a public stand with the synagogue rededication.

“They are trying to use this issue,” said Emad Gad, political analyst at the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-funded think tank in Cairo. “They are speaking about the Palestinian issues, solidarity with Palestinians, solidarity with Arabs and Islamic holy places in Jerusalem. They are using this issue to get support from the [Egyptian] street because [Egyptians] have a public opinion of dealing with the issue of Palestine as an Islamic and as an Arab issue.”

Anti-Israel sentiment in Egypt remains high, despite the country’s 1979 peace treaty with its neighbor. With the government’s apparent about-face on cultural restorations, has it managed to win this round of the media cycle or are its actions too little too late?