We stood outside the Journalists Syndicate last week. There were about 200 people, some on the steps, some up pillars, some with flags, some with stickers. Nearly all were young. Most were men. It was a press conference against the Protest Law and it had the rather inspired idea of holding the presser on the entrance steps themselves, not in the usual fourth floor conference hall.
I kept glancing up and down the road. Checking the traffic for signs of the police’s arrival. The dutiful line of television cameras gave a little comfort. They would normally keep unannounced violence away. But the rules are different these days. The new martyr mural of Mayada loomed over us. I watch the traffic patterns.
The first time I stood on those steps was in 2008. Operation Cast Lead. The crowd was smaller, older, calmer. Ringed by hundreds of riot police. It was hot (so was it not Cast Lead?) and bottles of water were being passed out. My mother holds two out to the front line of young, malnourished conscripts. A genuine offer. They, of course, could not accept. They were too embarrassed, even, to decline and instead cast their eyes to the ground for the burning sun and their unjust orders and cast-iron class to bear down the heavier on their lowered necks.
A day or two later we all climbed into two buses and headed for Gaza. After a day arguing and protesting through sit-ins we were closing in on Arish when the bus suddenly lurched to a stop. The road ahead was bisected and blocked by dozens of soldiers, shotguns, APCs. We turned and for a while they gave half-hearted chase.
I would try and fail twice more to get to Gaza before we managed to get in with the 2012 Palestine Festival of Literature. The first thing that struck me was how orderly things were, how clean the cities are kept. The biggest refugee camp, Jabalia, is cleaner than any street in Zamalek. Israeli fighter pilots fly low and loud every day, breaking the sound barrier, shaking the populace with sonic booms. At night, the fishing limit is marked out with floating floodlights. Every border is lined with a dead zone, a wall, watchtowers and snipers. Sitting and staring at the illuminated, limited sea I wondered whether it’s better to be imprisoned by your enemy or drowned by your neighbor?
Egypt’s policy on Gaza serves no one except Israel. The absence of morality is beyond question. But the absence of strategy is inexplicable. Egypt is in economic free fall. Why, then, does it aid Israel in this economic siege? There are, if we put our cynical capitalist caps on, a million people in Gaza who could in fact be part of Egypt’s economy. Why not flood the economy with currency instead of the supply tunnels with sewage water? Instead, Palestinians in all parts of historical Palestine are kept the captive economy of the shekel.
There was an argument being made in 2008 that if Egypt were to open the border, then Gaza would become its responsibility, thereby fracturing Palestine further. But the Palestinian nation is not defined by Gaza and the West Bank. It stretches from Venezuela to Canada, South Africa and Australia. It is not the possibility of unity between the corrupt futilities of Fatah and Hamas that keeps Palestine alive but the insistence of Palestinians around the world that they will one day see the sea at Yaffa again.
Egypt, though, knows only how to build walls. And now it seems that they are building a wall around Arish. They are imprisoning their own population for doing business with Gaza while terrorizing all of Sinai using tactics from the Israeli playbook: Attack helicopters, collective punishment, restriction of movement, plundering of resources, land annexation, mass detentions etc. ad infinitum. This playbook, of course, is Israel’s great commodity, refined and defined and perfected for export over decades. Anyone that’s ever been to Palestine has contributed to it. On entering any zone of Israeli officialdom (which includes the border crossing into the West Bank) you are instantly assimilated into an international network of martial transaction: Your behavior is monitored in its every detail and your responses to authority, weaponry, intimidation and escalating levels of violence are analyzed, processed and repackaged into products ranging from predictive CCTV software on the London Underground to police training from Liberia to Chiapas to multi-billion dollar deals with cornerstones of the US Academy.
The extent of Egypt’s consumption of such products is — obviously — unclear. The mirroring of tactics may be due entirely to the American military academies that Sisi and his generation of compatriots have mostly passed through. But there are points of transaction that we know about. Most notorious, of course, is Hussein Salem’s gas sale, in which Israel was supplied with 40 percent of its total natural gas needs at below market price. The revolution rose up and the pipeline through Sinai was blown up. But Israel, as luck (or, perhaps, God) would have it, discovered Leviathan: A gas field big enough to power Israel for the next 50 years. And in a stroke, the apartheid state’s Achilles heel vanishes while Egypt lurches between ever-increasing power cuts. The situation is so bad that Egypt may even start buying gas from Israel. Their sale price? Four times the market rate.
Egypt hosts several Qualified Industrial Zones where Egyptian laborers work Israeli goods for untaxed export to the USA. Over a billion dollars of revenue is made annually, thanks to “low factor costs as well as a huge supply of labor force.” Multinational corporations like G4S work in dark parallel with both governments. In Palestine a man was tortured to death in a G4S prison in February. In Egypt, they now secure the Metro and several upscale buildings (the Egyptian police, for now, are too addicted to torturing and killing people themselves to outsource it). And, just downstairs, the vegetable seller on Hoda Sharawy sometimes sells garlic with Hebrew labeling.
Four unlisted flights pass between Cairo and Tel Aviv each week.
Thirty five years have passed since the Camp David agreement was signed. The domestic consequences of Egypt’s submission to US foreign policy and the neoliberal agenda has been disastrous to the country’s autonomy and any possibility of self-determination. But Sadat signed away more than just Egypt’s future. For an annual suitcase full of tank coupons Egypt sold its position of leadership in Africa, the Arab world, the non-aligned movement — in the entire Third World. Egypt’s capitulation opened the back door to an entire continent, as dictators, governments and businessmen across Africa opened their doors to Israel, and a bloody network of mercenaries, weapons and blood diamonds seeped into being between the killing fields and Tel Aviv’s Diamond Exchange District. Congo, Angola, Liberia, Sierra Leone: Countries rich in resources with regimes low on hardware and skills, countries whose names are now synonymous with grief, have all turned to the Israeli war manual. Even Qadhafi, in his final days, hired an Israeli weapons broker.
And yet Egyptian politicians make blustering threats against Ethiopia for its alleged relationship with Israel. Their hypocrisy would be shocking if it were not so gruesomely consistent. Alongside Egypt’s obvious financial and political relationship with Israel, it has also exercised similarly toxic behavior in Africa: When the Hutu genocidaires were arming themselves in preparation for the massacre of the Tutsi they received their weapons from France, South Africa and Egypt. Rwanda paid Egypt six million dollars for a range of artillery shells, grenade launchers, guns and three million rounds of ammunition. Up to a million people were killed in the carnage that followed.
I was sat at a bar in Ramallah, once, with a friend visiting from Egypt. He said he didn’t think what the Israelis were doing was any worse than the Egyptians. Land grabs, house demolitions, political suppression, administrative detention, torture, police and military brutality, discrimination in services, house arrests, night raids, networks of informants and collaborators. In Egypt, he said, the Palestinians are the poor. The allegory only falls down because Israel also discriminates against non-white Jews, Druze and Africans. Two years later I’m filming a resident of Ramlet Bulaq talk about how Naguib Sawiris and the police were trying to force them off their prime real estate: Withholding of services, random arrests and harassment, administrative detentions, night raids. What are we? He asked. The Palestinians?
Perhaps the key difference is that Israel’s project is clear: The complete colonization of Palestine and the ethnic purity of Israel. What is Egypt’s? What is all this repression and filth and violence in the service of? You cannot simply drive the poor out of existence.
The Egyptian state, with the Army at its head is an enormous (though malfunctioning) corporation that employs a private police force. It is opaque, unaccountable, with vast and obscure business interests and transnational relationships. Like the Founding Fathers of the USA its fortune’s foundation lies in the claiming of land at a historical point of rupture and the displacement and disenfranchisement of a people. Only unlike Washington’s descendants, Egypt has no sense of purpose, of manifest destiny. Great harm has been done to a great many people over history in the name of progress. But Egypt manages to harm its people, manages to act, without ever going forward. In fact, the whole enterprise seems invested in going backwards. The state is currently morphing from an internationally pliant corporation to a Victorian factory on a national scale. A populace of workers are kept in a state of perpetual wage labor in conditions that are unhealthy, unclean and unsafe. Entire neighborhoods, cities even, are coated in blackening layers of smog and dirt. Only the elite have anything resembling rights or the provision of municipal services. Child labor is endemic. Occasional roads or trainlines are presented as being for public use but were in fact built to transfer goods and raw materials. Strikes and collective action are punishable with lethal force. Individual expression of any kind is abhorrent and suspicious. Fealty is pledged to a deified ruler who emanates a grim nationalism. Even energy, soon, will be ripped from coal.
And what will the coal feed? The cement industry. The industry that is already the most profitable in the country pours out millions of tonnes of cement each year for miserable buildings to be thrown up by speculators and left uninhabited. At the last census there were six million uninhabited units in Cairo. Last week the Minister of Agriculture announced that thousands of houses built “illegally” since January 25 are to be pulled down, claiming they are needed for agricultural land. Not more than a week later the same minister tells us that 25,000 hectares are to be rented out to Arab investors to feed their domestic populations. Meanwhile, new buildings will be built by Sisi’s economic bulwark, the UAE, with whom a deal was signed for $40 billion to build one million housing units. Whether it will be with coal-powered Egyptian cement or not is still to be seen.
There is another wave of cement flooding across what remains of Palestine, leaving its hilltops covered in uniform, red-roofed houses filled with settler colonists. Each is placed to have a specific, detrimental impact on a Palestinian community. They are designed with the cold malice of the totalizing planner. And yet they share strikingly similar characteristics with the chaos of Cairo’s gravitational belt of gated compound cities: They divert resources — chiefly water — away from the surrounding, unplanned communities; they suck wage laborers into their orbit doing unskilled work for low rates with no security; they create supra-economies that are inaccessible and don’t engage with the local economy; they build walls and private roads that divide and threaten pre-existing communities. These cities are where the vast majority of all governmental planning and investment has been directed for decades. The 800,000 or so elite living in these cities have received millions of dollars in services and investment while the 11 million residents of Cairo’s informal neighborhoods get nothing.
Sat in that bar in Ramallah in 2011 I asked my friends what had gone wrong. Why had Palestine not risen up after Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya? What was the hold up? The night was passed with theories: It needs to start from inside ’48, people aren’t poor enough, the scars of the second intifada still burn, we have to overthrow the PA first, it’s coming, we are too divided. We too, are divided now, in Egypt. Along many axes. And while Israel moves with a plan that is blunt and unsparing, Egypt’s naked submission to capital and corruption breeds random catastrophes and a state of permanent regression. History does not move forward for everyone.