Al-Ahram Weekly Online
4 - 10 October 2001
Issue No.554
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A year of solidarity

A year into the Intifada, Amira Howeidy asks whether Egyptian solidarity sentiments with the Palestinian people remain as strong as they were when the uprising began

Do we relate to the Intifada as passionately as we did a year ago when it first broke? Apparently the answer is "no". In TV news bulletins and the printed media alike, the first anniversary of the Intifada, which came last Friday, ranked fourth or fifth in the order of news priority. Nevertheless, though the 11 September attacks against the US overshadowed events in this part of the world, a handful of celebrations marking the Intifada were held this week and were well received. Last Sunday, the Press Syndicate organised a seminar attended by its chairman, Ibrahim Nafie; Said Kamal, assistant to the secretary-general of the Arab League for Palestinian affairs; Hamdi El-Sayed, chairman of the Doctors Syndicate; and Abdel- Halim El-Ghazali, deputy chairman of the Syndicate of the Graduates of Commerce Faculties. Similarly, the Egyptian solidarity committee marked the anniversary by organising a seminar at the headquarters of the Arab League on Sunday.

This positive support for the Palestinians was met with relief after security forces arrested Farid Zahran, an active member of the Egyptian People's Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (EPCSPI), a week earlier. Although Zahran was released on Tuesday, his arrest raised eyebrows and triggered fears of a government clamp down on shows of solidarity with the Palestinians.

Of course, Egypt's official position of support for the Palestinian struggle for independence has not wavered; nor is it in danger of wavering. But there have been signs that popular mobilisation in support of the Intifada is no longer as strongly encouraged as it was. What seemed an unstoppable wave of pan-Arab sentiment on the state- run TV stations has been toned down. The outcry had taken the form of nationalist songs, movies and, more importantly, poignant footage exposing Israeli brutality against unarmed Palestinian civilians. Observers interpreted the shift as part of the government's policy of palliating people's anger while intensifying diplomatic efforts and pressure. These included recalling Mohamed Bassiouni, Egypt's ambassador to Israel, last November. The post remains vacant to date.

In the first week of last October, some 6,000 Cairo University students attempted to march from their campus to the nearby Israeli embassy, but were prevented by police. This type of protest did not recur, but an active, though less obvious show of practical solidarity crystallised. Anguished by the plight of Palestinians, a large number of intellectuals, activists and public figures quickly formed the Egyptian Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (EPCSPI) which aimed to provide logistic support for the Palestinians. EPCSPI members say that throughout the past year the committee raised approximately LE5 million for the Intifada and sent six "solidarity caravans" loaded with medicine, food and other basic supplies to the Palestinians.

At another level, the call to boycott Israeli and US products gained momentum as millions across the nation exchanged lists of "boycott" companies in the hope of exercising practical economic pressure. This proved effective, though possibly in the wrong direction. British supermarket giant, Sainsbury's, was said to be owned by Zionists who donate money to Israel. Several branches of the chain were attacked. Despite front-page newspaper adverts pleading with the public to sympathise with Egyptians working for the chain and not to believe "the vicious rumours," Sainsbury's was forced to leave Egypt in the summer.

But Palestinian suffering was here to stay. As the year wore on reports of Israeli fire killing Palestinians became routine news - daily. But just as public outrage began to mount, everything changed. On 10 September, over 1,000 Egyptians marched through Tahrir Square in downtown Cairo in protest at US military and political support for Israel. But just a day later, anti-American sentiment would be interpreted in a completely different way.

The EPCSPI's Farid Zahran, whose committee was preparing to mark the first anniversary of the Intifada, was later arrested and accused of spreading false information. A number of demonstrations broke out following last Friday's noon prayers at the Al-Azhar mosque and similar protests took place at the universities of Alexandria and Menoufiya.

But sanctioned support did take place. Under the theme "Jerusalem in the heart," speakers in last Sunday's Press Syndicate seminar applauded the strength of the Palestinian people and their ability to resist Israeli occupation throughout the past year, despite the massive military disparity between the sides. "The Palestinians staged their uprising in defence of the Al- Aqsa Mosque which, at this stage, symbolises their usurped national rights," Press Syndicate Chairman Ibrahim Nafie said. Observers might disagree on the level of practical Arab solidarity with the Intifada, argued Nafie, "but there is a consensus on the amount of sympathy for the Intifada which fills the hearts of Arabs and Muslims."

But less official shows of support remain nervous. Although Zahran was released on Tuesday, the attitude of security authorities remains unclear. On Monday, security forces banned a celebration, which EPCSPI had called for in El- Hanager Theatre. According to EPCSPI, security forces pressured the theatre's administration to cancel the celebration. However, some 300 young people, including artists, decided to celebrate the anniversary, nonetheless, and chanted songs outside the theatre "that touched the softest spot in our hearts," one attendee said, "and this is where Jerusalem is."

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