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EGYPT: A handshake, then trouble

December 3, 2008 |  8:08 am

Sheikh Two old men -– an Arab and a Jew -- shook hands in passing. An uproar quickly ensued.

Israel and Egypt made peace in 1978, but that historic treaty has never felt right to many Egyptians. So when Mohammed Sayed Tantawy, the grand sheik of the Al Azhar Mosque in Cairo, shook hands recently with Israeli President Shimon Peres, the Arab media spun into collective titter.

The handshake took place at an international religious dialog conference last month in the U.S. The United Nations-sponsored meeting was intended to promote understanding between different faiths, but the handshake, which was photographed and circulated, highlighted the animosities and divides defining the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Shaking hands with the president of an occupier who usurped a Muslim land cannot be justified. The problem is that people consider Tantawy's positions as representative of Al Azhar," Muslim Brotherhood parliamentarian Ali Laban told the Al Jazeera website.   

For his part, Tantawy said he didn’t recognize Peres, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate: “I shook his hand without knowing what he looked like,” the sheik told the Egyptian media. “The handshake was in passing ... because I don’t know him to begin with.”

Sayed Askar, a senior Azhar cleric, told the Arab media that the sheik “uses a void justification, which is that the Egyptian regime is in a state of peace with the Israelis. He considers himself a state functionary and sees no problem in receiving or shaking hands with the Jews.”

One critic suggested Tantawy should hire better handlers the next time he heads to an international gathering.

--Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Sheik Mohammed Sayed Tantawy. Credit: Islamic Republic News Agency

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