Between anti-Hamas media coverage and invisible public solidarity, where is Palestine in Egypt today?
With Israel’s military operation in Gaza coming up to a month in duration, solidarity actions with Palestinians and Gaza have spread both in the Arab World and worldwide, but not so much in Egypt.
Taste for Palestine solidarity here has not been pronounced in large-scale protests, shattering political dreams of pan-Arabism and socio-religious traditions of “the neighbor before the house.”
Political groups and parties including Dostour, Bread and Freedom, Karama and the Popular Current issued a joint statement condemning the Israeli offensive and demanding President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi open the Rafah border crossing permanently and adopt a position that "genuinely represents the pulse of the Egyptian street."
But this pulse is barely visible.
On July 13, the Popular Campaign to Support the Intifada of the Palestinian People, an independent initiative founded to support the second Palestinian Intifada and revived with the start of the current Israeli offensive on Gaza, organized a protest at the steps of the Journalists Syndicate. Dozens participated in the stand, which turned into a march into adjacent streets shortly before the organizers dispersed it.
A smaller number had organized a solidarity protest in the same place that morning, and dozens had taken part in another small protest in front of the Palestinian Embassy in Cairo a few days before.
On July 19, a convoy of some 1000 activists headed to the Rafah crossing to deliver humanitarian aid. The convoy was stopped at a checkpoint near Arish in North Sinai, and after scuffles with army personnel there it was sent back to Cairo with the aid, having become one more incident of activists clashing with the military. A week later, the collected aid worth LE2 million was successfully delivered to Rafah, with no significant delegation to accompany it.
Silence prevailed thereafter, leaving space for a local anti-Palestine chorus in the media, now directed toward Palestine activism.
Beyond the convoy, many mainstream and pro-military media outlets in Egypt focused their coverage in July on Hamas, seen through the local lens of being a Brotherhood offshoot and collaborator. With the banned Brotherhood’s position as the primary evil rival of pro-military voices, Hamas emerged in Egypt’s media as the enemy in the war on Gaza.
On July 31, the main state mouthpiece Al-Ahram ran its “analysis” of why a cease-fire proposal had not been agreed on by Palestinian factions, just as the war entered its fourth week and fatalities topped 1500.
Highlights of the analysis included a description of the factions’ failure to agree on a delegation to be sent to Cairo to negotiate cease-fire terms. “This floundering and clear hesitation in Hamas’ policy and that of other Palestinian factions reflects disagreement and a failure to hold a one-man stand in the face of the Zionist enemy,” Al-Ahram wrote.
The analysis quickly eroded into little more than moral condemnation: “The number of martyrs before the Egyptian cease-fire initiative was put on the table was 12, but now the number is nearing 2000.” The initiative announced by Egypt’s Foreign Ministry in early July had stipulated an almost unconditional mutual cease-fire, upon which other terms would be negotiated such as the lifting of the blockade on Gaza. Israel accepted; Hamas rejected.
Al-Ahram closed with an ominous note that even when a cease-fire is agreed on, there is no hope for stability in Gaza, not because of the potential renewal of the fighting by Israel, but because of Hamas. “Other resistance movements such as the Islamic Jihad are expressing reservations about many of the positions of Hamas, which has taken control of the strip all this time leading to what it has become today. Voices are rising to demand Hamas leaders’ accountability for all the destruction that has prevailed in Gaza.”
This was Al-Ahram’s attempt at analysis. Elsewhere in the media, not just state media, there have been a wealth of opinions and unsolicited advice on offer for the Palestinian people.
“You have two occupations: Israeli occupation and Hamas occupation. Hamas is the reason for what’s going on now,” TV host Ahmad Moussa told Palestinians in a mid-July show.
“These are the real martyrs,” he said, showing images of 17 Egyptian soldiers who were slain in North Sinai in 2012.
Moussa demanded in January that Egypt’s Armed Forces attack Gaza and purge it from terrorism, because this is “a call for justice.”
The fiery Okasha followed suit. "Gaza can go to hell, we've been knee deep in blood since 1948 because of people who sold out their case with their own hands," he said, tapping into the myth that Palestinians willingly sold their land. Many in Egypt believe this to be true, ignoring the historical conditions of land expropriation: that by 1948 the Jewish National Fund had purchased only 7 percent of the land in historic Palestine, and that most land sales were done by absentee landlords without consultation of the sharecroppers who farmed the land and had a different idea of property altogether.
Okasha blamed Gaza for starting the war and provoking Israel. He called Gazans “chained dogs who, if unchained, would be too fearful to leave their houses,” for throwing rockets into Israel and not conducting ground offensives.
TV host Amany al-Khayat sorted out the riddle for us. In her show, she explained how the current war is ultimately manufactured by Hamas, which is in need of some political gains to sort out its ongoing financial crisis by forcing the April reconciliation agreement with the Palestinian Authority to be implemented, upon which salaries for the Strip would be paid.
Palestine solidarity and Egypt’s local politics
Beyond the peculiar moment of post-Brotherhood rule in Egypt, this anti-Palestine coverage sits in a deeper context.
The waning popular support of the Palestinian cause in Egypt is traditionally traced back to the 1978 assassination of Culture Minister Youssef El Sebai in Cyprus by a group of Palestinians opposed to the Camp David Peace Accords. “Death to the Palestinians” was an iconic chant on Cairo’s streets in the aftermath.
The sentiment grew to permeate collective consciousness, with the fading out of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s pan-Arabism and its slow replacement with a post-peace brand of local nationalism, whereby the motto is “Egypt first.”
But although analysis since the 1970s has typically pointed to the lesser existence of popular Egyptian fervor for the Palestinian cause, the eruption of the second Palestinian Intifada in 2000 and the Egyptian solidarity that followed unsettled these comfortable conclusions.
In late 2000 and early 2001, large solidarity protests swept most Egyptian cities. They incorporated the traditional suspects of dissent, but also many ordinary Egyptians. Primary school students were seen roaming the streets enthusiastically and chanting as loud as their small throats would allow.
For Abdelrahman Ayyash, a writer and activist who was then a Brotherhood member, to historicize the Egyptian revolution is to start with Palestine activism.
“And for us to be able to chant against Mubarak, we had to start by supporting the Palestinian Intifada,” he says.
He adds that Palestine activism was the only way for Islamists and leftists to come together despite their differences, which would prove handy during the January 25 revolution a decade later.
Leftist activist Alaa Abd El Fattah has also repeatedly said that the intifada protests were the rehearsal for Egypt’s revolution.
Besides this, Palestine solidarity is often portrayed as an enabler for local opposition politics here rather than a movement on its own.
Critics, including some from within the movement itself, speak of how Palestine activism was a proxy for opposition in domestic politics at a time when a restrictive political context made direct public expression of opposition against the Hosni Mubarak regime impossible. Instead, Palestine solidarity permitted criticism of the regime’s position on the Middle East conflict. By extension, much of this solidarity was expressed through the lens of the ideologies of the opposition movement.
Atef Said, a University of Illinois visiting professor who focuses on Egypt’s political movements, says the tying of Palestine solidarity to the pro-democracy movement in Egypt positively meant the inseparability of the two causes. But he points to the domination of Arab nationalism and political Islam in the opposition movement prior to Hosni Mubarak’s departure. Since Palestine has been a core part of opposition politics, the solidarity movement often fell within these ideological frameworks, which tainted the understanding of the cause and the activism around it.
“[The solidarity] was dominated by battles and competition [between opposition groups], thus strategies became limited and the solidarity question was stuck in internal politics,” he says. “There is no creative or bold imagination on this issue.”
With the opposition movement stepping up and raising the ceiling for dissent in 2005, the protest movement shifted to local politics and direct calls for the end of the Mubarak regime. Palestine took a back seat.
In the aftermath of the revolution and more particularly around last year’s June 30 quest for de-Brotherhoodization, the militarization of Egyptian politics meant another blow to Palestine solidarity. In a sit-in by the Ministry of Defense in the lead up to the June 30 protests demanding the Brotherhood’s ouster from government, protesters carried signs reading, “Hamas = Israel” and “death to Gaza.”
"We are now at the highest point of propagating hatred towards Palestinians,” says Wael Khalil, an activist who was at the forefront of the solidarity movement in the early 2000s. “After more than a year of mobilization and negative propaganda against them, holding them responsible for the killing of our soldiers on the borders and other accusations, Palestinians are paying the price in a form of collective punishment.”
Deliberate anti-Palestine campaigning aside, the ongoing economic crisis also means domestic issues occupy people’s minds today, argues Khaled Abdel Hamid, founding member of the Revolution Path Front and a longtime Palestine activist.
"The Egyptian street is drowning in other problems, such price hikes, decreasing subsidies,” he says. “These factors together got us to where we are today."
Protesting in Egypt has also become costlier than ever before.
"During the current crackdown, I can't expect to have solidarity in the form of protests and marches, because all these manifestations of solidarity are repressed. Levels of madness and tyranny are high and their limits are not known," Khalil says. "The regime could take all the protesters and sentence them to death or life in prison, or it could open fire on them."
On a more popular scale, being pro-Palestine has become a confused position. Said brings it back to today’s local liberal politics in Egypt and the military campaign against the Brotherhood and, by extension, Hamas. “The outcome of this is that many people have been confused and say we are pro-peace but we support Palestinians, only as a humanitarian cause. But they are not critical of occupation and colonialism, and that is the basis of the problem.”
“It is the ambivalence around the occupation and colonialism that is most costly at the present time and has at the same time historical roots,” says Sherene Seikaly, a historian and professor at the University of California. “For this reason, from an Egyptian nationalist perspective it is possible, indeed common, to be anti-Israel and anti-Palestinian.
“Conventional wisdom holds that Egyptians gave hundreds of thousands of lives to the Palestinian cause and that now we must return to an ‘Egypt first’ policy.”
“I don't think we’re at a state of no solidarity, but the level is low," says Abdel Hamid.
“We have to be more accurate. There is definitely a popular response, but it isn’t necessarily in the form of protest. The lack of street movement doesn't indicate an absence of solidarity, especially as political forces are not making mobilization efforts except for attempts to revive the popular campaign," he adds.
Khalil agrees that there's more to the situation than meets the eye. He believes that both those supporting Palestine and those propagating hate toward it are always present, but that the latter group is currently louder.
Ayyash points to a moment that challenges the narrative of the subordinate nature of Palestine activism to local contentious politics in Egypt. “On February 11, the day Mubarak stepped down, I saw Palestinian flags rising. People chanting ‘The revolution is in Jerusalem next.’ To say the cause has fallen from public consciousness is a misrepresentation.”