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Voices from Egypt weigh in on the Israel-Hamas war


Israel's war against Hamas is closely felt in Egypt, which shares a border with both Israel and the Gaza Strip. The support that Israel is getting from the U.S. as death tolls rise in Gaza has impacted views of the U.S. and the prospects of building peace in the region. NPR's Aya Batrawy was in Cairo and has this report.

AYA BATRAWY, BYLINE: Noha Bakr has lived through wars between Egypt and Israel in the 1960s and '70s. She's also seen what it takes to build peace. As a political science professor in Cairo, she teaches young Egyptians about a speech in 1977 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in which he told Israel's Knesset that Arab and Israeli lives are of equal value. That speech helped lay the groundwork for Egypt and Israel's peace treaty two years later in 1979.

NOHA BAKR: Every time I teach Egyptian foreign policy, I used to make my students listen to it and make content analysis because this is how you build peace. This is how you build confidence. I come from a generation that we were talking about regional peace.

BATRAWY: But Bakr says that goodwill is being undone now by Israel's war on Gaza, a war that's displaced more than 1.7 million Palestinians from their homes and killed thousands of people, most of them women and children according to health officials in Gaza.

BAKR: What's happening now has eradicated all our efforts, me and others, working on peace-building and conflict resolution. We're going back. We're going back on all this. It took years to be able to build confidence. It took years for us to see that we can live together.

BATRAWY: Egypt and Israel's ties are a cornerstone of stability for both countries, but the war is straining relations. Israel says the war is in response to the October 7 attacks by Hamas that Israeli officials say killed 1,200 people, including women and children. It's vowed to destroy Hamas and says the war will continue until every hostage Hamas holds is freed. But for weeks now, Egyptians have watched images of Palestinians suffering and of children being pulled from the rubble of Israeli airstrikes.

H A HELLYER: They're not targeting simply Hamas, or, at least, to be incredibly charitable, let us say the impact of their bombardment is not remotely limited to Hamas. It is the complete entirety of the Gazan population.

BATRAWY: That's H.A. Hellyer, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a longtime Cairo resident. He tells me that even the most anti-Hamas voices within Egypt express solidarity now with the Palestinians, and this fuels opposition to Washington.

HELLYER: I have never seen this amount of disconnect between the feelings that I see among people in the region and the sentiments being expressed by the policy establishment in the beltway.

BATRAWY: Bakr says U.S. support for Israel's war on Gaza, including sending weapons, erodes Washington's projection of itself as a human rights defender.

BAKR: Part of the United States being a superpower is its soft power. It's the films. It's the human rights. It's the dream. You are losing - the United States is losing on its brand, its duties - on its soft power.

BATRAWY: And while that luster fades, contempt towards U.S. policy in the Middle East is rising.

LINA ATTALAH: I honestly feel very bad for the amount of work that American diplomats will have to put in our region because it's a major challenge. There is so much hatred. There is so much repugnance.

BATRAWY: Lina Attalah oversees a newsroom of around 40 staff at Mada Masr, one of Egypt's only independent news outlets. They've run afoul of government censors but have defenders in the West.

ATTALAH: Because of certain circumstances, I managed to become the protagonist who helps a country like the U.S. defend its claim for protection of human rights all over the world.

BATRAWY: In October, Egypt blocked Mada Masr's website for reporting that the government was considering accepting Palestinian refugees from Gaza for resettlement in the Sinai Peninsula, something opposed here and seen as enabling Palestinian dispossession. But Attalah says she's not interested in Washington's advocacy for press freedoms in Egypt - not while the U.S. is supporting Israel in a war that's killed at least 45 Palestinian journalists in Gaza.

ATTALAH: What the U.S. has done and the failure of the U.S. in this war in terms of the human rights record undoes everything they did to support me or support other journalists in the region or human rights defenders or human rights in general. You know, we always knew that we have to fight our fights with whatever tools we have right now. Definitely, support from a country like the U.S. right now is not one such tool at this point.

BATRAWY: So while U.S. policy in the Middle East is deeply unpopular among Egyptians right now, it's clear from talking to people in Cairo that it's the people of this region who will be the ones bearing the consequences of this war for years to come. Aya Batrawy, NPR News, Cairo.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Aya Batrawy
Aya Batraway is an NPR International Correspondent based in Dubai. She joined in 2022 from the Associated Press, where she was an editor and reporter for over 11 years.