Palestine and the Egyptian revolution: a view from Gaza

Palestinian children stand atop the remains of the border wall between Gaza and Egypt after it was destroyed in January 2008. (Wissam Nassar/MaanImages)

When I was asked by a solidarity activist about the impact of the end of the Mubarak regime on the Gaza Strip, my immediate answer was that it would definitely mean the end of the deadly siege that has been imposed on Gaza since 2006. Yet, we in Gaza are still waiting.

The deposed Egyptian regime made it its duty to make sure that the Palestinians of Gaza be kept within the walls of the Israeli-guarded concentration camp. The foreign minister of the former regime, Ahmed Abou Elgheit, in whose presence Israel’s winter December 2008-January 2009 war on Gaza was symbolically declared by the presence in Cairo of his then Israeli counterpart Tzipi Livni just days before the attack, became obsessed with “breaking the bones of those who trespass against Egypt’s national security.”

He was referring to the starving children, men and women of Gaza who, in an act of unprecedented heroism in January 2008, tore down the wall on the Egypt-Gaza border and flooded the streets of the Egyptian town of al-Arish to buy food, milk and medicine, and then went peacefully back to their homes. The old regime’s spokespersons and political analysts shamelessly made it their duty to demonize Gazans in order to justify the closure of the Rafah Crossing, the only official border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. Accusations of “terrorism,”“vandalism” and “threats to national security” were thrown around.

So fearful of his Gazan neighbors was Egypt’s ex-minister of interior Habib el-Adly, who is now behind bars, that he indulged in the hysterical charge that the recent popular Egyptian revolution was caused by “some Hamas infiltrators.” The same ruthless minister had also accused Palestinians from Gaza of being behind the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria on New Year’s Eve, which killed 21 persons. Indeed now it is el-Adly himself, and Egypt’s state security police, who are under suspicion and investigation of carrying out that and other sectarian attacks.

The Egyptian revolution has brought that political farce to an end. No one can deny that this uprising is a social revolution par excellence, one against corruption, despotism and tyranny. But this is Egypt after all, the heart of the Arab world, the pole of pan-Arabism. If Egypt revolts, then the Arab world holds its breath: the repercussions are immeasurable and will be felt for decades to come.

But Egypt itself is also “haunted” by the Palestinian question. One here tends to disagree with the prevailing view that the Tunisian revolution was the only catalyst inspiring the revolt in Egypt. This ahistorical approach ignores some social and geo-political facts about the cumulative nature of the factors leading to revolutions. The protests and strikes by workers at Mahalla undoubtedly played a crucial role in revolutionizing Egyptian consciousness, a consciousness that is known to be characterized by a very rich legacy of rebellions against oppression.

And the Mubarak regime relied heavily on tools of oppression provided by the United States. Not a single pro-democracy movement in the Arab world had been supported by the US, hence the confusion and contradictory statements made by US officials about the Egyptian revolution. It is, then, a revolution for democracy, personal and collective dignity, and against notorious levels of corruption and nepotism.

And yet, no matter how much the Mubarak regime and the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority tried to silence and suppress the links of sympathy and affinity between the Palestinian and Egyptian peoples, these links have always been there.

And here is where I part company with those analysts who take the great Tunisian revolution as the catalyst behind the Egyptian uprising. When one-third of the Palestinian people — those living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank — went to the polling stations in 2006, and voted against the Oslo accords and the racist two-state solution, and against the deformed mini-Arab regime to be created by these accords, in what most international observers considered the most fair and transparent elections to take place in the Middle East, bringing Hamas into office, questions were raised about the long-held orientalist idea of the incompatibility of democracy with Arab culture.

In a revealing climb-down from his June 2009 Cairo speech, US President Barack Obama has since spoken of democracy without ever affirming the right of the Palestinians to freely choose their leaders. But more serious debates and soul-searching questions had started in the Arab world itself, especially in the surrounding countries: if Palestinians, under occupation, could vote freely, why not us, then?

Needless to say, the outcome of the 2006 Palestinian elections was not what Israel, the US and their Arab allies were hoping for. Hence the imposition of an unprecedented tight siege on Gaza, out of existential fear of the spread of real democracy a la Latin America — a democracy in which people are free to elect parties whose ideologies do not necessarily coincide with US and Israeli interests.

The fiercest rejection came from so-called “moderate” Arab regimes headed by the deposed Egyptian government. Israel decided to close the six gates to Gaza, and the Egyptian regime followed suit by closing Rafah, the only exit Gaza has to the external world. This blockade has, so far, caused the death of more than 600 terminally-ill individuals whose lives could have been saved had they been allowed entry into Egypt, not to mention the devastation it has caused to Gaza society and economy in so many ways.

But the siege failed to force the Palestinians of the Gaza open-air prison to surrender, leading Israel to launch the genocidal war that was foreshadowed by Livni’s presence in the heart of Cairo. None of the objectives of the war were achieved, to the dismay of “moderate” Arab regimes.

After the war, Egypt began to build with American supervision a monstrous underground steel wall blocking tunnels beneath the border, the only lifeline Palestinians of Gaza managed to create.

Attempts by the Egyptian regime to cover its collusion with Israel and the US were, alas, supported by the Palestinian leaderships’ acceptance to start endless rounds of national dialogue in Cairo, again, sponsored by the Egyptian government. The failure of the Palestinian leaderships of all factions to dissociate themselves from the Egyptian regime and stick to the demands of the Palestinians of Gaza by declaring that, after the end of the war on Gaza, any national dialogue should be held in Gaza as long as it is under siege, helped, indirectly, to prolong the Egyptian regime’s life.

This is a reflection of the elitist nature — not to say short-sightedness — of the Palestinian leaderships with their long-held belief that ties with regimes, rather than popular forces and civil society, are the way forward. Hence the suppression of all signs of solidarity with the Egyptians in both Ramallah and Gaza in the early days of the revolution.

The Mubarak regime did not only close the Rafah crossing and erect the Wall of Shame, but also prevented any sign of solidarity and support coming from international solidarity activists determined to break the siege. The Viva Palestina convoy and the Gaza Freedom March were treated brutally by Egyptian security.

The only way for some supporters to reach Gaza was by sea, and nine Turkish activists lost their lives as a result of the cold-blooded massacre committed by Israel last May aboard the Mavi Marmara, one of the ships in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

But the question raised was about Egypt’s indirect responsibility: had the crossing been open for all, those nine precious lives would have been saved. The massacre led to the Egyptian decision to “partially” open the Rafah gate without ending the siege altogether. This step, ironically, coincided with Israel’s decision to “ease” the blockade by allowing more Swiss chocolate into Gaza!

The Egyptian people, with their lively grassroots movements, youth, syndicates and unions watched helplessly and with dismay as their Palestinian brethren endured a siege that UN Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Territories, Richard Falk, described as “a prelude to genocide,” with the complicity — if not direct participation — of the Egyptian regime. But they also saw Palestinian steadfastness in the face of this assault.

The Egyptian regime’s complicity undoubtedly played a crucial role in radicalizing Egyptian consciousness. The catalytic nature of Mubarak’s collusion with Israeli oppression has, for understandable reasons, been ignored by mainstream media. The concept of dignity, collective and personal, as we grew up understanding it, was inspired by the fiery sayings of the late Egyptian revolutionary leader Gamal Abdel Nasser after the 1952 revolution against a corrupt monarch, King Farouk, and his allies, British colonialism.

The slogan “Raise your head, brother, for the age of subjugation is over,” formed not only modern Egyptian consciousness and sense of national dignity, but that of the entire Arab world, in general, and of Palestinians in particular. Moreover, Palestine, for most Egyptians, is part of Egypt’s national psyche, a deep wound that is yet to heal, in spite of all the babble about “peace” and “reconciliation,” a fundamental part of the national self.

That, however, was supposed to change with former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s gamble — the 1979 peace treaty with Israel — that left Egypt firmly in the American camp. Official Egyptian discourse laid the blame for many of Egypt’s problems at the door of Palestinians, hence the unprecedented maltreatment of Palestinians, Gazans in particular, at the hands of Egypt’s notorious state security. No wonder, then, that the last decision taken by the deposed government was to ban all Palestinians from entering Egypt.

Now the question that begs for an answer is about the future of the Egyptian-Palestinian relationship. The Rafah Crossing is “partially” open for a few passengers but no goods, food or medicine are allowed. Some Palestinians are turned back every day, and the decision taken by the previous government not to grant Gazans entry via Cairo airport is still in force. The sentiment on the streets of Palestine has, naturally, been supportive of the revolutions in the Arab world and this is in spite of the position taken by the two controlling parties in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to ban all solidarity demonstrations.

Radical change in Egypt should mean radical change in Palestine as well: a pro-Palestine Egypt should mean the end of the siege. But when will we see that? Is it too much to ask? Do we have to “understand” the difficulties the new rulers of Egypt have to deal with, while we are starving and still besieged in Gaza? If this is the case, why do we, Palestinians of Gaza, have to pay the price? Are all other Egyptian crossings and border posts “partially” open like the Rafah gate? And are we, by posing such questions, still considered “a threat to Egypt’s national security?”

Haidar Eid is Associate Professor of Postcolonial and Postmodern Literature at Gaza’s al-Aqsa University and a policy advisor with Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network.