Palestine in Egypt: Common Struggle against the Status-Quo

Thank you [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, may God bless you and those like you so that you exterminate Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood traitors.
Azza Sami, deputy editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram newspaper

This is the second part of the series “Palestine in Egypt.” In the first article I have both demonstrated how Palestine played a central but underrepresented role in the Egyptian uprising and how the consecutive Egyptian regimes have positioned themselves on the opposite side of the Palestinian struggle. In this second part show that Egypt’s new and old rulers in Egypt are now part of an alliance which is moving heaven and earth to take back every single right and every shred of dignity wrestled from them during the Arab uprisings. This alliance consists mainly of Saudi-Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Jordan, Egypt and Israel.[1] While the alliance is not formalized, its members are united by their common interest to stamp out the uprisings, which terrified them to the core, and the threat they posed to the status-quo – or more precisely to their hold over power and their privileges. The alignment of these actors’ interests nowadays proves how closely connected popular struggles in the region have become. Thus, challenging the Egyptian government today means challenging Israel, their regional counter-revolutionary partners and their American and European allies. I shall explain why.

Shocked at how fast the US dropped Mubarak when faced with a popular uprising, Saudi-Arabia and the Gulf states have since done everything in their power to support the new/old Egyptian regime: from large amounts of financial support for the weak Egyptian economy,[2] vocal support for the regime’s fight against terrorism and political Islam, to lobbying the West to accept the coup in Egypt. Even Israel put its weight behind the new Egyptian regime under al-Sisi with AIPAC lobbying Congress not to stop US aid to Egypt and Netanyahu persuading Europe to work with al-Sisi.

The latter is doing all he can to portray the current crackdown on any challenge to the government as fight against terrorism: this age-old strategy subsumes all politics under the logic of the fight against terrorism and enables the ever-present yet elusive “national interest” to eliminate all space for criticism, dissent or even questioning. Concretely, the regime continues to portray Morsi and the MB as Palestinian and the Egyptian media spread rumours according to which the MB was following the same strategy as Hamas in Gaza: a violent takeover after successful elections. To support this claim, reports of the infiltration of Hamas militants and rockets have been spread. All the while, this connection between Hamas and terrorism in Egypt complicates the actual challenge by Jihadist and extremist groups active in the Sinai. Furthermore, Sinai’s population is impoverished and excluded from most income from the tourist industry. Many are forced to make money in the drug trade. In addition, a large human trafficking circle used to entertain torture camps in the Sinai. All of these problems are ignored in favour of the supposed threat by Hamas which ends up reinforcing the insecurity in Sinai and does nothing to alleviate the very real grievances of the Bedouin population. Instead the state is step by step criminalizing and marginalizing them: recently, more than 1,156 families on the Gaza border have been forced out of their homes in order to make space for a buffer zone which is supposed to further isolate Gaza.[3] After the coup the army destroyed all tunnels which had served as Gaza’s only lifeline to the world which wasn’t closed at the whims of Israel or Egypt. The Egyptian state, thus, copies the Israeli logic that Hamas is same as the MB and that both are terrorist organisations.

This obviously does not mean that the MB is, therefore, inextricably linked to pro-Palestinian activism or that it can in any way claim to stand for Palestine but that the new Egyptian regime and the military, firstly, regards both the MB and pro-Palestinian activities as challenge or threat to their interests and, secondly, they position themselves on opposite endings of the political spectrum. Again this only represents the Egyptian regime’s stance and does not depict reality: when the MB was in power in Egypt during Operation Pillar of Cloud, Morsi fulfilled exactly the same role as every previous President before him – the role as mediator.


The narrative of the fight against terrorism has also enabled the recent atrocities in Gaza (Operation Protective Edge). At the same time Egypt’s position during Operation Protective Edge has made obvious how decrepit the Egyptian state has become: while the Israeli military was killing at least 2,189 Palestinians, Egyptian TV pundits most with close connections to the old regime were encouraging Israel to finish off Hamas. At the same time Egypt’s allies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states were giving Israel the green light to go after Hamas.

Egypt, then, assumed its role as mediator between the Palestinians and Israel, a role which was increasingly difficult to maintain, as Egypt was more than clearly biased against Hamas. The best example hereof is the ceasefire proposal Egypt put forward after consultation with Israel and Tony Blair but without any contact to Hamas. In the aftermath the US even attempted to put Qatar and Turkey in charge of a mediation attempt. Egypt fulfilled its designated role as mediator in the end, but not without pushing Hamas as far away from the negotiations table as possible by ensuring that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was the official representative of Palestinians during these negotiations.[4] While it could of course be argued that the PA would naturally act in the interest of its own people, this completely disregards the extent to which the PA has become dependent on American and European actors: Nathan Thrall succinctly explains that,

“[n]o successful national liberation movement has depended so heavily—in the realms of finance, security, diplomacy, and mediation—on the closest ally of its occupier. US funding to the Palestinians is an obstacle to, or excuse for refraining from, just about every means of leverage against Israel that Palestinians might employ.”

This unhealthy dependence has sparked protests against PA police forces during the recent upheavals in the West Bank because increasingly Palestinians regard the PA as ‘subcontractor of the occupation.’ Especially, the PA’s close cooperation with the Israeli occupation forces in security matters – which includes arrests and detention of activists and resistance fighters – is seen as humiliating and infuriating. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, however, has called this cooperation a “sacred duty“. This stark example proves how even the PA has become engulfed in the alliance of status-quo forces and shows how bringing in the PA as representative during negotiations served more American, European, Israeli and Egyptian interests than anything else.

Egypt after all is Israel’s closest partner in the blockade of Gaza and a strong ally who supports Abbas’ strategy for achieving Palestinian statehood characterized by negotiations, security cooperation, state building and donor-supported programmes to develop the economy which all reinforce further dependency and seem to remove Palestinians further and further away from their declared goal of an independent state. This struggle becomes ever closer connected to the struggle for “popular sovereignty” because Israel has openly declared on which side it stands.

Nathan Thrall describes how the aim during ceasefire negotiations was to alleviate the plight of Gaza while neither making Israel look like the defeated nor Hamas the victor of their most recent confrontation. Granting Hamas a victory could be interpreted as a victory for the Muslim Brotherhood – at least in the eyes of Egypt and Israel where every measure has been taken to confound the two. Also Ramzy Baroud warns how according to this logic a “victory for Palestinian resistance can also be considered equally as dangerous for those who want to maintain the status quo throughout the region.”


These forces seeking to maintain the status-quo have thus come together to stifle every challenge to their privileges and to suppress any popular challenge to their absolute hold on power.

And it is especially the excuse of fighting radical Islam or terrorism which unifies Egypt, Israel, the PA, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Jordan and their European and American allies. Richard Falk calls it an “invaluable political blessing” and Baheyya “an existential threat to be crushed.” In the past the Arab states would have named Israel as the existential threat to peace in the Middle East, but the country moved from being seen as threat to being regarded as essential part of the regional outlook of the pro-Western Arab elites. Israel itself of course has for a long time regarded political Islam and its Palestinian representative, Hamas, as leading threat. But why are the MB and political Islam being singled out as this existential threat? The key word for understanding the targeting of political Islam by the Arab regimes is legitimacy, more precisely grassroots legitimacy. Legitimacy is the one thing all current Arab regimes lack.[5] Most cling to power with brute force, by spreading fear, promising stability, paying off their citizens or due to their family ties. But none of the regimes are accountable to or representative of their population. This is precisely why the Muslim Brotherhood, who does enjoy a large grassroots support, is deemed so threatening.[6] Arguably, the more radical alternative, represented by the leftist, secular and religious revolutionary activists, is also a big threat especially since it was them and not the MB who sparked and initiated the uprisings. But, firstly, political Islam has a much larger number of followers which makes it in the eyes of the Arab regimes a bigger threat, and, secondly, it would be infinitely harder to devise a narrative which could directly target those secular activists in a comprehensive way and at the same time be accepted and – partly – supported by the alliance European and American allies.


I have started this series with the well known argument that the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is the source of war, conflict and human suffering in the Middle East and that a solution for the conflict would therefore also solve the challenges of this war-torn region. While this old argument does not quite explain how and why the Palestinian struggle is connected to war and suffering in the wider region, it already hints at the link between them.  In the course of this series I have highlighted precisely this link and showed how intricately and inseparably the Palestinian fight for self-determination is connected to the emancipatory struggle of their Arab neighbours. Palestinians have to challenge not just Israel and its allies in the West, but also the regimes led by pro-Western Arab elites who condone and support Israel and are in turn supported by Europe and the States. These are precisely the actors who are doing all they can to counter the fight for self-determination, dignity and a say in politics in the Arab states.

I am well aware that it could be argued that I do not provide fundamentally groundbreaking insights, especially when it comes to the argument that Israel’s staunchest supporters are the US and Europe. But at the first time there have been popular uprisings in the entire MENA region, which have challenged and questioned the decrepit, corrupt, stagnant and reactionary rule of the old regimes – most of which have enjoyed support from the Europe and the United States. The fight for popular sovereignty, dignity and social justice in the region has now coalesced into one struggle with the Palestinian aspirations for self-determination. There is a growing awareness about the “sameness” of this fight. Activists and people have learned their lessons during the uprisings, as for instance, that they cannot count on support from the “cradle of democracy.” Instead they have formed networks among each other. Thus, the current quiet in the neighbouring Arab states in the face of the atrocities committed during Operation Protective Edge signify the absence of solidarity but also testify to the intensity of the crackdown of the status-quo powers.

There is one lesson we should learn from the Arab uprisings: we cannot and must not rely on the old assumptions that nothing will change in Arab societies. Things have changed – fast and radically. At the moment, the status-quo powers have come down on the forces of change with all their might and it seems like they have won a decisive victory. But it is a temporary one. Therefore, it is not a very smart choice for Europe to be solely regarded as a supporter of the status-quo powers who at the same time only pays lip service to Europe’s own democratic values.

I end this essay with a quote by Iyad El-Baghdadi who is one of the few intellectuals still optimistic and outspoken about change. He argues that focusing on regional threats such as the Islamic State are in the end useful to both the US and Europe and the Arab regimes because the Islamic State allows them to move the conversation away from the emancipatory movements of the Arab uprisings back to the more familiar vocabulary, of threatening civil war, sectarian differences and terrorism.

However, the real challenge is constituted by those people who starve themselves on hunger strikes, vanish in prisons, those who are forced into exile, silenced, or suffer from torture:

They are afraid of us.
They are not afraid of those with guns. After all they have bigger guns.
But they are afraid of those with ideas.
Iyad El-Baghdadi

[1] Strong statements can be found denying and denouncing the existence of such an alliance: especially the inclusion of Israel is seen as rather embarrassing for the Arab states. Saudi ambassador to the UK already found such rumours troubling enough to write a public letter denouncing a possible alliance or convergence of Israeli and Saudi interests. But there are already historical examples of Israeli and Saudi collusion: in the 1960s both supported an uprising against the Egyptian occupation.
[2] The economic ties between Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states go far beyond economic support for the former: Falk describes the ties between them in the black-economy where billions of dollars are invested which results in corruption, nepotism and the exploitation of cheap labourers, i.e. conscripts from impoverished areas.
[3] According to an Al-Monitor Correspondent the buffer zone was initially supposed to cover “an area of 500 meters (0.3 miles) by 13.5 kilometres (8 miles).” Residents were given 48 hours to leave their homes before they were demolished. In November the buffer zone was extended to 1 km.
[4] After 30 Egyptian soldiers were killed in an attack in Sinai, Egypt even prevented the Hamas delegation from travelling to Cairo for the continuation of the negotiations which were scheduled days later. Nevertheless, the Middle East Monitor reported that “a number of Palestinian negotiators arrived in Cairo from the West Bank to join the talks.”
[5] Laudable exceptions might be the Oman and Tunisia.
[6] This is not to argue that the representatives of political Islam such as the MB, the political wing of Hamas or the Tunisian En-Nahda party are any “better” at realising more inclusive and progressive politics. On the contrary, after they were voted into power through popular elections (MB and En-Nahda after the uprisings, Hamas in 2006) the populations under their rule were disappointed by the same old corruption, nepotism, harsh security measures and conservative economic as well as social policies. Both in Egypt and in Tunisia Islamist parties faced widespread popular protests against their policies – a sign that the uprisings were about actual change and not just about a different face in power.

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.

Read the first part of the series HERE.

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