Palestine in Egypt: From Solidarity to Fear to Common Struggle

“[N]o single issue has been as unifying over the decades for these people than their long intensely felt opposition to the injustice, suffering, and exploitation that the Palestinian people have endured for the past century as a result of the encroachments of the Zionist movement on their lands.”
Richard Falk

It is commonly argued that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the source of most social, economic, political and religious troubles in the Middle East and North Africa and that a solution for the conflict would therefore also solve the challenges of the war-torn region.

Today, any connection is being pushed to the margins. Already during the Arab uprisings a possible influence of the Palestinian struggle on the motivations of protestors was ignored or underrepresented: analysts as for example Olivier Roy highlight how demonstrators did not burn any US or Israeli flags and make no reference to any geo-political conflict.

Three years later a possible connection seems even less likely: the official Saudi Arabian newspaper claims “there is no more Israeli-Arab conflict.” The Egyptian government has started to build a buffer zone on its border to Gaza without facing much uproar. Egypt in general seems to have become fiercely anti-Palestinian with TV presenters praising the Israeli army’s fight against Hamas. During the latest round of Israeli aggression against Gaza, Operation Protective Edge, no Arab government showed more than superficial support for Gaza. What is worse neither did the populations in the surrounding Arab states demonstrate visible support. The question is now why it seems that any solidarity with the Palestinians has disappeared in Arab states.

Instead of accepting the narrative that there is no connection between the struggles of the Palestinians and their Arab neighbours, I argue that they are all closely connected and that obscuring the link between them is a deliberate attempt to hide the common interests of those actors who deny Palestinians’ their rights as well as those who suppress their neighbouring populations – and of course their international allies. These connections, common interests and the resulting convergence of the different emancipatory struggles are what I address in this paper. I specifically focus on Egypt, Israel, Gaza and the international as well as regional players involved. The interplay of these actors is exemplary of a wider regional development.

The first part of this series is dedicated to explaining, firstly, the role Palestine played during and before the Egyptian uprising, and secondly, I delineate how the Egyptian regime has used Palestine both as tool to delegitimize dissent and criticism as well as to externalize the blame for economic, social and security problems.

In the second instalment, I argue that the role Palestine has played in Egyptian politics in the last years is indicative of a convergence of interests of the Egyptian current regime under al-Sisi, its supporters in Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf and the West and, finally, Israel. Thus, the old argument that fulfilling the Palestinian struggle for justice will solve many of the regions problems holds more weight today than ever: the struggle for justice in Palestine cannot be achieved without a simultaneous fight for economic, social, political and religious rights in the surrounding countries which tacitly condone or openly support Israel’s policies and atrocities.

Palestine and the Uprising in Egypt

“[F]or us to be able to chant against Mubarak, we had to start by supporting the Palestinian Intifada.”
Abdelrahman Ayyash

Contrary to the argument that the Egyptian revolution was detached from regional geopolitical realities and, thus, the Palestinian question, Palestine played a distinctive role in the uprising. According to Attalah and Zalat, the Palestinian struggle was for many activists and protestors the one issue which politicized them. Especially, the solidarity protests during the Second Intifada were practically a rehearsal for the 2010 uprising and taught many activists strategies and tools of mobilization. Moreover they also allowed activists from secular, liberal, Islamist and other backgrounds to come together. One core demand of the uprising pertained to the issue of dignity – personal human dignity but also collective dignity: What I mean by that is the fact that the Egyptian government was regarded as more concerned with the needs of the United States and Israel than with caring for and representing the view of its own citizens. Liberating Egypt from these foreign pressures was also a motivator for demonstrators.

Attalah and Zalat stress furthermore how criticizing the Egyptian government’s policies towards Israel was an enabling factor for the opposition as a whole even before the uprising. This already is indication of how both cases have been connected in the past.

Fear Mongering: Palestine as Tool for Delegitimisation and Shifting Blame

“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.”
Toufik Okasha

While Palestine was enabling and politicizing of the opposition, the position of the Egyptian state towards Palestine has varied greatly – from vocal support to anti-Palestinian propaganda. But regardless of how the different Egyptian regimes have portrayed Palestine and Palestinians, Egyptians remained surprisingly supportive of Palestine and deeply antagonistic towards Israel. This indicates an instinctive feeling about connectedness and a common fight.

Under Nasser, Egypt’s support for the Palestinian cause was never questioned, as it was the centrepiece of his pan-Arab ideology. But his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, initiated the anti-Palestinian propaganda. This changing attitude is precipitated by a general shift in ideology from Nasser to Sadat in economic, social and political terms. Egypt terminated its neutrality in favour of a close alliance with the United States, which culminated in Egypt signing of the Camp David peace accord with Israel in 1978. This isolated Egypt from other Arab states but brought the country closer to Israel and the US. The pan-Arab ideology was replaced with a fiercely chauvinist Egypt-First nationalism with anti-Palestinian undertones. At the same time a shift in economic ideology took place, characterized by the introduction of neoliberal economic policies, growing inequality and the rise of a new class of extremely rich Egyptians closely connected to the state. It was mainly this group and Sadat who led the vicious campaign against Palestinians, both within and outside Egypt. This campaign only intensified after the Egyptian culture minister was assassinated by a Palestinian splinter group in 1978 and as a consequence the Egyptian Prime Minister at the time declared “No more Palestine after today.”

Sadat’s successor, Mubarak, continued the anti-Palestinian propaganda, also because Sadat’s assassination was tied to the widely unpopular peace accord he had signed with Israel. He maintained superficially pro-Palestinian image by for example sending his wife Suzanne to Gaza during Israeli incursions, while at the same time, his propaganda focused on Gaza and Hamas painting them as dangerous enemy connected to the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). The regime sought to exploit this connection because the MB and its growing presence in the Egyptian parliament posted a serious challenge to the regime, due to the fact that the MB was non-violent, very popular and dedicated to carving out an ever-growing role in the Egyptian political system. This propaganda also has to be seen as part of the strategy of secular regimes in Arab countries to portray themselves as bulwark against Islamism in order to justify the suppression of their population to Europe and the US. After Hamas’ electoral victory in the 2006 elections to the Palestinian National Council, the Mubarak regime intensified its propaganda and implied that the Brotherhood could plan a violent takeover like Hamas did in Gaza. As a consequence, Egypt was also provided with an excuse to enforce the blockade of Gaza demanded by Israel – the threat from Hamas and the MB.[1]
Thus, step-by-step the Egyptian regime’s interests became closer and closer aligned with those of the Israeli state.

With every accusation, the regime positioned itself more firmly against the Palestinian people: in January 2011 the Alexandria Church bombing was blamed on Hamas and in the same month as the uprising had begun, demonstrators on Tahrir Square were denounced as Hamas agents and Palestinians. Even more absurd, on 8 June 2014 Egypt’s former interior minister stated in court that Hamas with the help of Hezbollah and a range of militant organisations from Gaza attacked Egyptian prisons in order to bust out prominent Islamists – when in fact the more realistic version of events tells a tale of how prisoners simply managed to escape due to the absence of supervision.

After Mohammed Morsi from the MB was elected President the anti-Palestinian propaganda grew even more ridiculous but also more harmful, especially to Palestinians in Egypt.[2] Most rumours were spread in order to question Morsi’s allegiance to Egypt or to blame Palestinians for internal Egyptian problems. Egypt’s problems with long and stifling power cuts especially during the summer months are a prime example: Rumours were spread that the power cuts were caused by Morsi’s government transferring too much electricity to Gaza instead of giving it to Egyptians. In this case the allegation that Morsi cared more for the Palestinians in Gaza than his own people was used to question his patriotism and at the same time blame was put on the Palestinians for stealing electricity and causing shortages. There are many further examples. When in August 2012 sixteen Egyptian border guards were killed in an attack, many TV pundits – still loyal to the ancien régime – instantly blamed Palestinian groups for the attack and indirectly also Morsi for opening the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Instead the attack was most likely committed by another militant group active in Sinai. Another example occurring during the Israeli Operation Pillar of Cloud against Gaza, when Morsi negotiated a ceasefire and at the same time took several steps to demonstrate his solidarity with Gaza: he recalled the Egyptian ambassador from Tel Aviv and dispatched his prime minister to Gaza. At the time many Egyptians were disappointed by his timid and careful approach but showed their solidarity with a convoy and donations. The remnants of the old regime reacted by spreading further rumours that Palestinians were planning to occupy parts of the Sinai Peninsula and that the Egyptian prime minister was a Hamas agent because he had a Palestinian mother and wife.

This is by all means not an exhaustive list of the anti-Palestinian propaganda in Egypt. But it shows clearly how far the Egyptian rulers were and still are detached from the concerns of its people and to which lies they have to resort in order to legitimize their selfish policies and maintain their power. Since Morsi was deposed by popular protests – where signs saying “death to Gaza” could be seen – and the military, the demonization of Palestinians has reached sickening levels.

In the second instalment, I will argue that the role Palestine has played in Egyptian politics in the last years shows how the interests of the Egyptian current regime under al-Sisi, its supporters in Saudi-Arabia, the Gulf and the West and, finally, Israel have converged. This development has gone so far that Avigdor Liberman, Israel’s Foreign Minister and member of one of the country’s far right parties, has recently stated:

“This is the first time that the moderate Arab world understands and internalizes the fact that its real threat is not the Jews, not Zionism and not Israel, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Jabhat al-Nusra and Hamas and the Islamic State and al-Qaeda and all the terrorist factions of the different denominations over the generations.”

[1] In fact this blockade is not merely a reaction to Hamas’ electoral victory and subsequent violent take-over of the Gaza Strip but a policy Israel has already pursued when it withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Back then, the implementation failed because of Mubarak’s refusal, as Egypt has always tried to deny any responsibility for Gaza.
[2] For instance, one of the first measures the Egyptian state took after Morsi was deposed was to ban Palestinians from entering Egypt. 

Stefanie Felsberger  is a Cairo-based researcher at the Access to Knowledge for Development Center at the American University in Cairo and one of the head editors at Shabka.

This article is part of the series “Palestine in Egypt”. Read part II HERE.

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