Synagogue makeover exasperates Egyptians

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?

On the streets of Cairo, Egyptians express conflicting reactions to their government’s agenda. While some don’t mind the government remodeling synagogues using state coffers, others find the regime’s decision distasteful. And while most seem to agree with the government’s decision to cancel the public ceremony, some don’t think it’s nearly enough.

“It’s a holy place, so it should look like a mosque. It’s better to renovate it,” said Um Hesham, 50, as she walks to pray at the neighborhood mosque near the Ben Maimon synagogue. Hesham does not have a problem with the use of state funds to rebuild the country’s temples. “We’re all brothers and sisters,” she said, “we’re all related.”

Others see renovating synagogues as an obvious political overture to Israel. “It’s more monumental. It’s about the civilization, not about the religion … in order to keep the relations between us and Israel, because there are mutual interests, there are common interests between us and them,” said Ahmed Ali, 22, an accountant in central Cairo, who is pleased the government cancelled the public ceremony, “because it’s kind of a protest about what the Israeli people are doing in Palestine.”

But others disagree with the entirety of the project, regardless of whether or not the public ceremony has been cancelled, claiming the cancellation is an insufficient reaction to Israel’s actions.

“We are Muslims and we don’t want Jewish people here,” said Khaled Saaid, 34, a kiosk manager in downtown Cairo. “We are Muslims and as long as there is money they should use it for renovating mosques, building new mosques, and donations for the cancer hospitals, for building new schools, for building new hospitals, things that can be for the Muslims' interests.”

Indeed the use of state funds appears to be the most controversial aspect of the government’s plan. While Egyptians, like Saaid, may look askance at the use of state money, experts say the state may be hoping to send a different message to the international community.

“Egypt needs considerable sums of money to renovate its cultural projects, the fact that the state is devoting a proportion of its meager resources tells me it’s a political decision,” said Gerges of the London School of Economics. “The decision coming at this particular moment is designed to impress the international community, in particular the United States and Israel’s friends in the United States that Egypt is playing a highly positive role in the region, especially on the Arab-Israel theater.”

Regardless of the conflicting messages, the cancellation of the public opening of Ben Maimon and the reaction of the Egyptian public, Hawass maintains that Egypt will continue restoring the country’s synagogues. “There is no difference between a Jewish or a Coptic or an Islamic monument, all of this belongs to Egypt, it’s a part of our heritage. If I neglect the Jewish temples, I neglect the history of Egypt,” he said. With seven synagogues still under renovation, it appears the government will continue its tenuous balancing act.