Gaza war divides Arab governments from people

CAIRO (IPS) - Street protests against Israel’s assault on Gaza continue to be held almost daily. The anger has not ended with the ceasefire called.

In Cairo, and in many Arab capitals, much of the anger is directed at the Egyptian regime, seen by critics as complicit in the Israeli campaign.

“The escalation of popular protests across the country indicates unprecedented levels of popular outrage over both Israel’s aggression and Egypt’s official position,” Ibrahim Mansour, political analyst and managing editor-in-chief of independent daily Al-Dustour told IPS.

On Saturday night, 17 January, Israel declared a unilateral ceasefire. Israeli troops and armor, however, remain deep inside the Gaza Strip, and it remains unclear whether the move represents a definitive cessation of Israeli military operations inside the territory.

After three weeks of punishing assaults from air, land and sea, the Palestinian death toll has soared past 1,200, most of them civilians.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, has come under increasing criticism both at home and abroad for keeping its 14-kilometer border with the Gaza Strip closed — with a few minor exceptions — to humanitarian aid convoys.

“By keeping the border closed to humanitarian aid, Egypt is complicit in Israel’s aggression against the people of Gaza,” Mansour said, echoing a common sentiment. “Egypt’s shameful position does not represent the Egyptian people or Egypt’s political opposition.”

Ever since Hamas took control of the interior of the Gaza Strip in 2007 (after winning elections a year earlier), Egypt — like Israel — has kept its border with the territory tightly sealed, geographically isolating the coastal enclave and depriving its 1.5 million inhabitants of desperately needed food and medicine.

Since the Israeli military campaign began 27 December, local sources say that only about 10 percent of the humanitarian aid that has accumulated on the Egyptian side of the border, donated by sympathizers from around the world, has been allowed entry into Gaza.

Egypt maintains that it cannot reopen the border in the absence of Palestinian Authority (PA) officials and European Union observers, as is stipulated in a 2005 security agreement. Egyptian officials also cite the security situation at the border — the Palestinian side of which came under frequent Israeli attack in past weeks — as a reason for the closure.

In the last three weeks, popular protests against both Israeli aggression in Gaza and Egypt’s border policy have increased in size and intensity throughout the country.

According to independent daily Al-Badeel, Friday, 16 January, witnessed demonstrations in rural provinces countrywide involving “tens of thousands” of participants. “Twenty thousand people protest in Daqheliya; 15,000 in al-Qalioubiya,” the paper reported the following day.

Along with severing diplomatic relations and the immediate halt of natural gas exports to Israel, protestors demand the permanent reopening of Egypt’s border with Gaza. “Mubarak, you’re responsible … Why is the Rafah crossing closed?” demonstrators asked (referring to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak).

Other “moderate” Arab regimes, namely United States allies Jordan and Saudi Arabia also came in for criticism from angry protestors. “Cowardly Arab regimes … there’s either resistance or betrayal,” they chanted, according to local reports.

“The eruption of demonstrations countrywide signifies the extent of popular outrage over the criminal attack on Gaza,” Hamdi Hassan, MP for the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group, told IPS. “It also reflects the people’s total rejection of the position of most Arab governments, which refused to use the means at their disposal to pressure Israel to halt its aggression.”

Protests in the capital, meanwhile, have been far more restricted, due primarily to an extremely heavy police presence. According to Al- Badeel, a demonstration held on Friday, 16 January, on the outskirts of Cairo involving hundreds of participants was cordoned off by several thousand security personnel.

“Demonstrations are given relatively free rein outside the capital,” Diaa Rashwan, analyst at the semi-official Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies told IPS. “But in Cairo, security forces are very careful to keep protests under very tight control with a view to securing state institutions.”

“For this reason, the biggest demonstrations in Cairo have not surpassed 5,000, while some rural provinces have seen protests involving more than 100,000 people,” Rashwan added.

Demonstrations have been accompanied by a fresh wave of arrests directed mainly against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has taken the lead in organizing protests in solidarity with the people of Gaza and the Palestinian resistance.

On Tuesday, 13 January, 12 Brotherhood members were arrested in the Delta province of Sharqiya, according to independent daily Al- Masri Al-Youm. The next day, the newspaper reported that a total of 860 Muslim Brotherhood members were detained for organizing protests since the outset of Israel’s campaign.

“The arrest of people for holding peaceful protests is a way of effectively terrorizing citizens from expressing their opinion,” said Hassan. “It also clearly reveals the degree of the regime’s complicity with the criminal policies of the Zionists.”

The war on next-door Gaza has also dominated parliamentary affairs. Recent sessions in the national assembly have witnessed fierce exchanges between opposition MPs — who have repeated the basic demands of street protestors — and those of Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party (NDP).

According to Mansour, opposition in parliament — no matter how vocal — stands little chance of changing unpopular government policy.

“The NDP majority thoroughly monopolizes all parliamentary decision- making,” he said. “Opposition and independent MPs would be better off tendering their resignations in protest.”

All rights reserved, IPS - Inter Press Service (2009). Total or partial publication, retransmission or sale forbidden. Jim Lobe in Washington contributed to this article.

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