When Donald Trump declared that the US would recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital there was a strange strain of news item that emerged, warning of potential repercussions from Arab states and Arab streets. Imaginings of a region aflame with impassioned Muslims sparking a third intifada animated the pages of newspapers across the world; a parade of stereotypical tropes summoned by lazy journalists designed to kindle familiar fears and to hide the cold, systemic violence of Israel.
But anybody with even the slightest understanding of the region knows that there will be no significant reaction from any Arab state. In Egypt, the state media and its televisual vassals roll out formulaic declarations of rage: Al-Ahram headlines assert that “Jerusalem is Arab,” while Amr Adeeb shouts it is a “red line.” But the streets are still. In Cairo, small protests were held outside the Journalists Syndicate and Al-Azhar. A permit for a protest outside the Arab League was submitted to the Interior Ministry – and rejected.
The stillness is not a surprise. But it must be properly understood.
Before Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime took power in 2013 there was a long tradition of stage-managed theatre about Palestine emanating from the Egyptian state. Although Sadat definitively betrayed the Palestinian cause with the Camp David Accords of 1978 and his turn towards capitalism, political messaging from the government continued to exploit Palestine as a pressure-valve for popular discontent, twisted occasionally to let off steam. While Hosni Mubarak’s crony capitalists sold cheap gas and cheap labour to their Israeli counterparts, the message they broadcast continued to be of national resistance to the colonial outpost — though this contradiction grew less credible in the years leading to the 2011 revolution. The eruption of the 18 days was fermented in part by Egypt’s behaviour towards Palestine: in particular the government’s complicity with the siege on Gaza and Hussein Salem’s infamous gas deal.
Salem, one of Mubarak’s closest allies, was discovered to have been selling natural gas to Israel at half the market rate – a deal estimated to have cost the country US$11 billion. An act of treason that came to symbolize the cronyism of the Mubarak regime – and made all the more damning because it was directly antithetical to the regime’s posturing of anti-colonialism and anti-Zionism.
Authority reveals a weak spot when it is caught in a lie. When it states it would never do X and is discovered to regularly be doing X.
This continued to be true through to 2013: The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was irreparably damaged by claiming they would never spill a drop of Egyptian blood while shooting, running over and sexually assaulting their own citizens. The Muslim Brotherhood’s fatal flaw was an inversion — they carefully created the impression of being far more powerful than they actually were, sparking the panic that led to the mass mobilization of June 30 and the coup that followed.
With Sisi, however, things are different. He kills his opponents live on television. He sells islands. He tells his citizens that they will starve. He does not pretend to be anti-colonial, but instead answers as the perfect imperial subject: “We are not in Europe,” he said, when questioned about human rights, “with its intellectual, cultural, civilizational and human advancement.”
It was once said that the road to Jerusalem led through Cairo. But now, faced with a president who cedes land for cash, Egyptians are ensnared in an architecture of power similar to the Abbas regime in Ramallah: the local autocrat, corrupt to the extreme and publicly servile, who must be removed before taking on Israel.
It is a difficult position to work from, but to understand the nature of our current autocrats we must acknowledge how they have become interconnected in ways previously unimaginable.
We are witnessing the emergence of what has been called a “right-wing peace” — a term excitedly used by a far-right member of the Israeli Knesset upon Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia. The year 2017 has seen the formal recognition of a reality long in the making: a chain of US allies stretching through Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to Bahrain, whose ruling elites, once enemies, are now openly collaborating with each other.
On September 6, 2017, Benjamin Netanyahu said, “What is actually happening with [the Arab states] has never happened in our history.” There is cooperation “in different ways” and “at different levels,” and it is “much more than during any other period in the history of Israel. This is a tremendous change. The entire world is changing.” The next day, September 7, Mohamed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, paid a secret visit to Tel Aviv — the latest in a string of unannounced meetings that have taken place since 2014. On November 6, a diplomatic cable was sent to all Israeli diplomats instructing them to support Saudi political plays in the region, including the war on Yemen. On November 17, a senior general in the UAE said, “We understand that, like we are allies of the United States, Israel is an ally of the United States and we have like a big brother.” The same day, Israel’s most senior military figure was interviewed in a Saudi newspaper appealing for joint action against Tehran. A Bahraini “peace delegation” is currently in Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia has suggested that Abu Dis be the capital of a non-contiguous Palestinian state.
The discourse of anti-colonialism is entirely absent from regional politics today. Iran, with its massive reserves of oil and regional aspirations, is the current existential enemy, and makes perfect cover for the suppression of domestic instability.
Israel can assist on both fronts. It is admired, even, in the regional corridors of power for its military abilities against enemies both domestic (the West Bank) and foreign (Gaza, Lebanon).
There are striking similarities:
Israel militarily occupies the West Bank while bombing Gaza — a territory it is unable to control with ground troops. Egypt military occupies the mainland while bombing Sinai — a territory it is unable to control with ground troops. Saudi maintains an occupying force capable of occupying Bahrain while bombing Yemen — a territory it is unable to control with ground troops.
Israel is seen as the master of population control — a skill needed ever more urgently by autocrats with booming populations to subdue. Checkpoints, ID cards, collective punishment, home demolitions, military tribunals, SWAT troops, spyware, night raids, administrative detention and forced disappearances are the pillars of Israeli control. Military occupation is the future of governance: a set of skills and technologies for sale on the international market, it is a commodity refined on the Palestinian body.
Israel today is the tenth highest exporter of weapons in the world. Its services and skills are coveted by governments from Mexico City to New York to Dubai to Astana.
Saudi Arabia is the second largest buyer of weapons. And Egypt has just jumped to fourth place.
The road to Jerusalem once ran through Cairo. But there is no one road anymore. Jerusalem and Cairo. Two US-backed military regimes oversee the dispossession of an entire populace for the benefit of a moralizing upper class and the enrichment of a transnational elite who control and exploit labor and resources through the deployment of military and economic violence, the rigorous control of geographic space, the visible monitoring of digital space and a narrative grip on the media that centers around the eternal struggle between the ethical soldier and the nihilist terrorist.
And people from Aswan to Acca feel lost in parallel exhaustion.
It is no surprise that so few people took the enormous risk of protesting in Egypt. When faced with a crumbling kleptocracy whose interests are inimical to yours at every level then who is your protest appealing to?
There is no recourse within states. The nation is a unit of control. The world has drifted into the age of the elite: a transnational ruling class that controls more resources than has ever been humanly possible with the use of an exponentially powerful bank of technologies of domination. The ruling elite moves, trades, plans, banks, socializes and competes with each other with little regard for national boundaries. They leave states and nations behind them to keep us bound and fragmented.
So we must become supra-national.
The clearest first step is economic. Because this piece is in Mada Masr I will give examples for people who are physically in Egypt (and are able to circumvent the government’s digital blockade). Two years ago the French mobile operator, Orange, suddenly and dramatically pulled out of its contract in Israel. It had been coming under increasing pressure in Europe to uphold the principles of the Boycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS) movement, but the decision came when activists in Egypt informed them that Orange was to be the principle target of a new boycott movement. Egypt, with its 92 million potential customers, suddenly becomes a heavyweight player. Orange pulled out of Israel.
BDS is routinely referred to as one of the most serious strategic challenges facing Israel. Hillary Clinton wrote that, “Countering BDS [is] a priority,” in a letter to an influential donor. There are serious pieces of legislation seeking to outlaw it in Israel and across the United States.
Wherever you are, the BDS movement has an entry point.
For Egyptians, there are many more economic benefactors of Israel’s occupation that can be targeted without recourse to the illegitimate state: Hewlett Packard, G4S, Caterpillar, Land Rover, Siemens and Motorola all profit off the continuing occupation of Palestine — as do many other non-consumer facing corporations.
When protesting is a dangerous distraction we must find new ways to act and ways to break out of national confines and think instead as regional players, global consumers, nationless internet operatives whose tools are information, sabotage, boycott.
In past centuries battles over resources were framed within ideological struggles — the battle of ideas justified the violence of control. The new autocrats of today — Putin, Trump, Sisi — just deploy the violence. Faced with the final generations of the earth’s abundance, the global elite are in a frenzy of enrichment and entrenchment. Ideas are in retreat as we are left with the bitter fact of our dying planet.
It’s not about Egypt or Palestine or the US — it’s about the end of everything.
And, yet, there at the centre of the new, old world, is Jerusalem.
In the past generation religious fundamentalists known broadly as Christian Zionists emerged as a key electoral demographic in the United States. Their principal goal is to trigger the Rapture, the destruction of the world, which will lead to the chosen joining Christ in holy eternity. A key belief is that before the End Times can begin, all the world’s Jews must be gathered in Israel. Evangelical Christians turned out overwhelmingly in support of Trump, and now he is rewarding them. The signs could not have been clearer: as he signed his proclamation, Trump was flanked by two lone figures: Vice-President Mike Pence, the most powerful Christian evangelical in the world today, and a Christmas tree.
Jerusalem is the key. At its heart is the Dome of the Rock. If you enter the mosque there is a small staircase that takes you down into the Rock itself, into the Foundation Stone — the point at which physical reality was severed from the eternal, the bulwark against the floodwaters toiling underneath us and waiting to consume the earth. Jerusalem is, for some, where the human story begins. For others, it is where it must end.
The most powerful individual in human history is having his decisions shaped not only by plundering industrialists burning the planet, but by those who see him as their instrument through which to end human history.
It is not a question of which streets are enflamed, but of a planet being burnt alive. It is not just the road to Cairo’s emancipation that leads through Jerusalem, the fate of the entire world rests on its liberation. Palestine is a battle we must all be engaged in, not as subjects of crumbling states, but as a global counterculture. The battlefields surround us.