CAIRO -- An Egyptian celebrity has sparked an uproar after a photo of him with an Israeli pop star was posted online, prompting angry rants from newscasters and Ramadan’s suspension from a stage and film professionals’ union.
The outcry over Egyptian actor-singer Mohamed Ramadan’s photograph with Israeli crooner Omer Adam highlights anti-Israel sentiment among most Egyptians who view any direct interaction with Israelis as taboo.
The controversy began over the weekend when an Emirati journalist, Hamad al-Mazroui, posted a photo of Ramadan with his arm around Adam while both were in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this month.
“The most famous artist in Egypt with the most famous artist in Israel. Dubai brings us together,” al-Mazroui wrote, before deleting the photo.
An Arabic language twitter account for the state of Israel quickly retweeted the photo with the caption: “Art brings us together.”
Ahmed Moussa, a well-known TV presenter loyal to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, slammed Ramadan’s action as “a full-fledged crime.” He called for the union to take “deterrence measures” to stop further interactions with Israelis.
Ashraf Zaki, head of the Theatrical Professions Syndicate, said late Monday in video comments that the union decided to suspend Ramadan pending an investigation which will take place the first week of December since the actor is currently in Dubai.
Under the suspension, Ramadan is banned from acting and singing until the probe is complete.
Egypt became the first Arab country to make peace with Israel in 1979, and the two governments work closely together on security issues. But many Egyptians are still deeply opposed to what they call “popular normalization” with Israel. Jordan signed its own deal with Israel in 1994.
The UAE agreed earlier this year to establish full diplomatic ties with Israel, followed shortly after by Bahrain and Sudan in U.S.-brokered normalization deals known as the Abraham Accords.
The breakthrough reflects a changing Middle East in which Israel and the Gulf countries view Iran as a shared threat that eclipses the decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.
Though the normalization deal with Israel is just months old, the UAE and Bahrain have been working to advance cultural ties and other exchanges between the two countries.
Since the photo and other footage showing Ramadan with Adam spread on social media, many users called on the union to suspend Ramadan.
Ramadan insisted that he did not know that Adam was Israeli. After the outcry, he posted a photo of the Palestinian flag, and a video with what he said was a young Palestinian man.
“I don’t know nor do I ask about the nationality of everyone I take a photo with ... I never ask about his color, religion, or nationality. All of us are human,” he said.
A journalists’ union also decried Ramadan’s violation of a years-old decision by the Union of Artistic Syndicates that prevents members from normalizing ties with Israel. The journalists’ union urged its members to boycott the actor until the end of the ongoing investigation, warning of penalties against those who violate its decision.
Following his suspension, Ramadan said in a Facebook post that he would have declined to be photographed if he had known Adam’s nationality.
There was no comment from the Egyptian government.
Egypt and Israel closely coordinate on security issues, particularly those having to do with the Sinai Peninsula, a mostly desert area that borders Israel and whose northern part is torn by a years-long insurgency waged by Islamic militants.
But most Egyptians associate Israel with the four wars the countries fought against each other from 1948 to 1973. They are deeply opposed to Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and stand against what they call “popular normalization” with Israel.
The backlash against Ramadan isn't the first of its kind. In 2016, the Egyptian parliament expelled lawmaker Tawfiq Okasha from the chamber after his meeting with Haim Koren, then Israel’s ambassador to Egypt.
In the 1990s, Ali Salem, a famed Egyptian satirical writer, was banned from the national writers' union following his visit to Israel. Salem, who died in 2015, drove a car across the border after Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo peace agreements.