About the only positive development in Egyptian-Israeli cooperation during the past year has been the quiet opening here of the Israeli Academic Center, whose survival seems to have depended heavily on its obscurity and nonpolitical status.
The center, funded by seven Israeli universities, is tucked away in a third-floor apartment next to the Sheraton Hotel. Except for a single Egyptian policeman standing guard outside its door with an automatic rifle, there is little to indicate it is there.
In charge of the center is Shimon Shamir, 49, an Arabic-speaking Israeli historian and a student of Egyptian history, with a doctorate from Princeton.
Shamir said in an interview that the center had long been a dream of his and that he had discussed the idea with the late president Anwar Sadat during his historic trip to Jerusalem in 1977.
"He told me there was no possibility of having one until the last Israeli soldier left the Sinai," Shamir recalled.
So it was. The center opened in May just after the final Israeli evacuation from the Sinai and just before Israel invaded Lebanon. It has managed to survive the chill in relations ever since by sticking to apolitical matters like Egyptology and Hebrew literature.
Still, the center has suffered from a boycott by most Egyptian academics who, Shamir said, still continue to voice "strong criticism" of any Israeli presence in Cairo, "to put it mildly."
Shamir said that the center was initially regarded "with some suspicion as a propaganda center" of the Israeli government and that so far it had been unable to arrange any joint projects between Egyptian and Israeli universities.
"This is really the great difficulty we are facing," he said. "We cannot have any formal, institutionalized project. But short of that, there is a lot of interest in what we are doing."
Personal cooperation between academics of the two countries has developed, Shamir said, and many of the 1,000 Egyptians in Hebrew studies at universities around Cairo come to the center for assistance.
"They have great need for books and studies, and we are very glad to help them," he said.
The center, set up with less than $100,000 provided by the sponsoring Israeli universities, has a small library and a large study table.
The main activity so far has been providing assistance to about 50 visiting Israeli scholars doing research in Egypt.
Shamir seems uncertain about the long-term prospects for the center, saying that "everything we are doing is constrained by political realities. But within this we are doing our best."
He noted that there was a lot of mutual respect between the two academic communities because the two countries' history had been interlinked for centuries and Jewish philosophy had once flourished in Egypt.
"It is my personal hope that what we are doing will counterbalance a little the negative aspect of our relationship," he said. "I would like to see the center as a small island of good will no matter the political circumstances."