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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?

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.