4 - 10 July 2002
Issue No. 593
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Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Recommend this page

'All our destinies'

The Palestine solidarity demonstrations may have faded for now, but not the spirit they awakened. Whatever the coming period may hold in terms of solidarity activism, Amira Howeidy finds 'the Palestinian dimension' firmly entrenched in Egyptian national consciousness

As the posh Heliopolis dinner party dissolved into rounds of drinks, one guest noticed that some of the crystal glasses, the butler was carrying on his silver tray, were filled with Pepsi. As if at a signal, polite conversation suddenly gave way to a fervent debate about boycotting the US.

Opinions were divided: some argued that boycotting American franchises in Egypt achieved nothing, and only contributed to the unemployment crisis. Others argued that this was not only a symbolic gesture, but an effective way of practicing civil resistance. Neither side won the argument. But what was most striking, was the fundamental agreement in the sentiments of those who took part. They were all looking for ways to show their solidarity with the Palestinians and express their anger at America's pro-Israeli bias. They even discussed how they might themselves help defy the Israeli war machine. Most of those present knew the boycott lists by heart. They referred knowledgeably to the Palestinian, Israeli and American officials involved in the conflict, and were familiar with the names of Palestinian villages, towns and refugee camps. An array of peace 'plans' and 'principles' -- Camp David, Madrid, Gaza-Jericho, Oslo, Mitchel, Tenent, Camp David II and the Arab initiative -- were paraded before the assembly, to be vilified, supported, or treated with indifference. After a while, the topic was dropped, without any sense that the subject or their passions had been exhausted, and the conversation shifted effortlessly to the World Cup.

Outside, the street was quiet, save for the rustle of branches swaying in the cool breeze of the summer night.

Two months ago, several dozen students from Koleyet El- Banat (the Girls' College) had stormed out of their campus and into that same Heliopolis street. Against them, were arrayed row upon row of riot police. Shocked by the sight of this impromptu rally, the police quickly moved to try and block the girls' path, showering them with blows as they came within range. Undeterred, the young women continued to seek a way through to their objective -- the president's residence. Had they succeeded, this would have been the first time in modern history that demonstrators had come so close.

In retrospect, their action may seem impossibly foolhardy. But at the time, it hardly came as a surprise. Back then, massive demonstrations were a daily event, as for six weeks solidarity with Palestine took Egypt by storm. In schools, universities, mosques and syndicates, in alleys, on street corners and in public squares, tens of thousands were demonstrating for Palestine and against Israel and the US. Some took their protest even further, denouncing the Arab governments, demanding effective action and attacking mealy-mouthed official summits and "defeatist" peace agreements.

Throughout April and into mid-May, Egyptians were part of an unprecedented public outburst that seemed likely to engulf the entire country, from central Cairo's Tahrir square to the smallest village in Upper Egypt. Donations to the Palestinian cause soared. Everyone, it seemed, was joining in the action: the state- run Egyptian Radio and TV Union, Mrs Suzanne Mubarak, the Arab League, universities, solidarity committees, businessmen, dot coms, sports clubs and housewives. At the same time, the boycott spirit made an impressive comeback. Popular shows on state-run TV urged viewers to show their solidarity and patriotism by abandoning politically incorrect consumerism.

Meanwhile, some young men and women, driven by the urge to join their fate with that of their Palestinian brethren, tried to cross the Egyptian-Israeli border to enter Gaza. Some were killed by Israeli border police, and others drowned trying to swim to the Gaza shores. But others, apparently, made it to the other side.

For almost two months, Egypt ate, drank and slept Palestine.

This wave of demonstrations, which sometimes brought as many as 300,000 people out, was more than unusual. Indeed, the last time the country had witnessed popular outcry on such a scale was during the 1977 bread riots. A few months after those riots, Sadat embarked on his "historic" trip to Jerusalem.

Yet although they lasted for so long, and voiced such obviously powerful feelings, the April-May 2002 demonstrations, along with other forms of solidarity, finally came to an abrupt halt as Israel lifted its siege on Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. Once again, the rhetoric of compromise and settlement came to reign supreme over the regional diplomatic arena.

The audiovisual media, which had been such a powerful mobilizing force during the demonstrations, led the way in the stampede back to diffidence and normalcy. In place of the round-the- clock pro-Palestinian-struggle broadcasting, intercut with nationalist songs and non-stop news updates on the situation in Occupied Palestine, including poignant footage of Israel's atrocities, which had dominated since 29 March, viewers were left with a luke-warm blanket of coverage focusing on the regions' leaders' "active" diplomatic efforts.

Suddenly, the issue of Palestinian struggle and suffering seemed to have been buried beneath the rubble of Jenin and Ramallah, alongside the bodies of those who died there. Not only did the popular outcry go mute, but so did all forms of more organised activism. And although Israel was still killing Palestinians on an almost daily basis, somehow this continuing horror no longer seemed to resonate with the Egyptian street.

For a moment it appeared to be over. The pessimists had won the argument: solidarity had proved, once again, short-lived and sensationalist. The Egyptians let their Palestinian brothers slide back into oblivion. Nothing had changed.

Speaking for the pessimists, Political Science Professor Mustafa Kamel El-Sayed puts it this way: "Feelings of solidarity amongst Arabs are usually short-lived," he told Al-Ahram Weekly. "They are succeeded by complete apathy, and even resignation to the continuing injustices to which the Palestinian people are subject."

The solidarity "movement", according to El-Sayed, failed to leave a "mark". Instead, its legacy would be "a taste of bitterness in the mouths of young Arabs and the Arab world. [Such movements] lead to nothing".

But is the situation really as bleak as El-Sayed would have it? The Heliopolis dinner party boycott debate came some two months after the solidarity hype had died out. The fact that it erupted naturally, without being guided by media mobilisation or prompted by traffic-blocking street demonstrations, may offer some insight into the position the Palestinian question still occupies today in the collective consciousness.

In the solidarity movement's aftermath, many observers, activists and politicians are still trying to understand and evaluate the political and psychological impact of events which took so many of them by surprise.

The Egyptian Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (ECSPI), which was formed immediately following the outbreak of the second Intifada, was one of the main activist groups represented in the solidarity movement. Today, much of ECSPI's time and energy is engaged in a process of self-assessment, with a view to renewing its tactics in readiness for the next stage of resistance. "The regional scene is being prepared to accept a strike on Iraq, and [unfair] settlements for the Palestinian people," Adel El-Mashad of ECSPI told the Weekly. "We are now debating our position as regards all this, and whether or not we need to change our previous stance of not interfering in Palestinian-Palestinian politics. With the way things are going, we may have to abandon our cautiousness and voice our views."

But critics are already accusing ECSPI and other activist organisations involved in the solidarity movement of abandoning the cause, ineptitude and inability to act independently of the shiftng mood of the masses. If the events of Spring 2002 did nothing else, they succeeded in breaking the people's fear of the emergency law (which has been in force since 1981), and gave them the courage to go down into the streets and openly defy armies of anti-riot police. Some now fear that such "gains" may be lost, as the solidarity movement 'softens' and retreats into introspection. Moreover, critics warn, the present silence from the activist groups may well have a demoralising effect. Indeed, some have gone as far as to accuse activists, popular committees and political parties of riding the Palestine solidarity bandwagon simply to promote themselves. Now the school and university students, who formed the bedrock of every demonstration, are either on their summer vacations or busy sitting for their end-of-term exams, and the activists and politicians are "sitting at home sipping tea" as one observer put it. It is not an accusation which the activists are prepared to admit. "Even the vanguard," objects El- Mashad, "need time to catch their breath."

For other analysts, the problem runs far deeper. "Continuity in a movement is only possible when the political environment is not corrupt," says Diaa Rashwan, a senior researcher at the Al- Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies. "And the accusation of corruption here applies to both the government and the opposition."

Rashwan sees this situation reflected in the contradictions of the student demonstrations. "The tradition which existed in the 1970s student movement, where committees were formed, and some did sit-ins while others negotiated with the government -- these traditions faded in the '80s and '90s. The government succeeded in turning the opposition into a mere façade. So today's students weren't able to acquire this expertise from their predecessors. That was one weakness."

However, the students were not the only ones who suffered from naivety, in Rashwan's view. A number of more "seasoned" activists and opposition groups acted stupidly, he claims, by declaring a hunger strike and demanding the expulsion of Israel's ambassador to Egypt. "They never completed the strike, of course, because there is no such thing as expelling the ambassador," Rashwan points out. "There are other forms [of activism] where you won't be accused of failing."

Rashwan also criticises the lack of "bonding" between "the movement, which was the fuel, and the leadership, which had the experience. This is why it remained semi-spontaneous".

Others, however, go much further in their criticisms, questioning the right of the solidarity demonstrations to be termed "a movement" at all.

"One significant aspect of a movement," according to Asef Bayat, Professor of Sociology and Middle Eastern Studies at the American University in Cairo (AUC), "is turning passive agents into active participants. This we saw. But a movement also has other characteristics." And it is not clear that the Spring demonstrators would qualify by these criteria.

"Was there a specific network, connecting the different actors and segments within this totality of activism?" Bayat wonders. "There was certainly a collective conscience and collective sentiments, and I think that the state being in some ways sympathetic meant these could be articulated. But did the 'movement' have an identifiable leadership? That was not clear to me. Usually social movements have organisations behind them: it is clear who are the ideologues, who are the leaders, who are the activists, and so on. But in this case, it wasn't very clear. I would say it was some kind of a semi-movement."

According to Bayat, movements require continuity, they need structure. The Spring demonstrations, on the other hand, were a collective action. "But not every collective action is a social movement," he cautions. "For the moment the structure is very weak and fragmented."

The demonstrations' dynamics -- a spontaneous yet strong popular mood, lacking adequate leadership -- may partially explain this weakness. "Demonstrations are supposed to open up an opportunity for ordinary people," Bayat observes, "but in this case, I think it was quite the reverse. The activism of the masses opened up an opportunity for the activity of organised groups, such as the Islamists, the [left-wing] Tagammu party and the ECSPI."

Nevertheless, for Bayat, the lesson of Spring 2002 is not simply negative. "If the 'solidarity movement' showed anything," he concluded, "it is that the people are powerful -- very powerful."

Students clash with security forces during a Palestine solidarity rally in front of Cairo Univeristy last April photo: Khaled El-Fiqi

But how did the people finally come to recognise their power? To judge by the nation's electoral record, they should have drawn the opposite conclusion. According to independent estimates, voter turnout in the last parliamentary elections in 2000 was as low as 15 per cent. If anything, apathy has been the hallmark of Egyptian politics for the past 25 years. How then was the Palestinian question able to fire the Egyptian street, when more pressing domestic issues, such as inflation and unemployment, still leave people cold?

"I think it's an issue of dignity," says Bayat. "An issue which crosses class, gender and religious lines, so that everybody shares it, because they feel violated. Clearly, the more people are concerned by an issue, the stronger the collective action which issues from it, because it is not specific to this or that section of the population -- workers, students or intellectuals -- but is common to almost everyone. And this is one of those rare issues."

Kamal, a 70 year old bawab of a Mohandeseen residential building, didn't take part in any of the demonstrations or solidarity activism. He's had a picture of the dome of the rock for as long as he can remember, "somewhere in the trunk inside". But now he wants a Palestinian flag to hang on his door. Why, I ask? "Because Israel is slaughtering Palestinian children, Muslim children. It must be stopped. I'm too old to go to war. I wish I could. This is how we felt back in 1967."

It has taken less than two years for the second Palestinian Intifada, which erupted on 28 September 2000, to bring about such a dramatic change in the popular mood. Before that, the dynamic was largely set by the proponents of "normal" relations with Israel -- that taboo, usually referred to in the Arab political lexicon as 'normalisation'. The normalisers shocked the intelligentsia with their attempts to form an Egyptian equivalent of the Israeli peace camp. With the help of government backing, they hosted conferences, published widely in the press, appeared on state TV and even formed their own NGO. Meanwhile, Egyptian diplomacy was deeply involved in the Oslo negations. The language of "peace", and the promise of an imminent Palestinian state, dominated popular debate, despite criticism from those who warned that all the future held in store would be "unfair settlements for the Palestinians".

"We had reached a stage where lots of people actually used to say, 'What has Palestine to do with us? Its not our business'," recalls Salah Abdel-Meta'al, a sociology professor at Cairo University and member of the frozen Islamist-oriented Labour party. For Abdel-Meta'al, the connection between local Egyptian politics and the Palestinian question is clear. "Our youth needed a project to engage in. But this project, be it developmental or related to democratic transformation, simply wasn't there. So when this awakening happened [as seen in the demonstrations], the project became Palestine."

As Abdel-Meta'al describes it, "we were waking up and going to bed to news of what was happening in the occupied territories. Now there is a unanimity of understanding [in relation to] the Palestinian question. I think that a psychological change has occurred in society, and it only needs to be supported. These sentiments need rational guidance because what we have now are the seeds of a movement. Look at the number of young people who tried to cross the borders to join the Palestinian resistance."

Yet such guidance is still sorely lacking. Critics blame the absence of any credible political leadership on the emergency law which has been in force since 1981, which not only bans street demonstrations, but effectively restricts all forms of autonomous political activity. The result is a vacuum where, in the absence of any other source of ideas, the audiovisual media often play the leading role in shaping public opinion.

The relationship with the media, however, is not simply one- way. Rashwan, who was active in the street during the solidarity movement, describes the "simulations" of Palestinian suffering he saw during the 1 May Cairo University demonstrations. "We saw a young man lie down on the ground right in front of the police tank, and a girl jumping on to the tank as it moved. We saw demonstrators clashing with armed anti-riot police wielding batons and tear gas. And we saw demonstrators breaking up the pavement to throw stones at the police. I would argue that in their subconscious, perhaps, these people wanted to convey a certain image of the demonstrations -- one that would be similar in some ways to the situation in Palestine, though of course not identical to it. By doing this, they wanted to condemn the Egyptian police, as well as the Palestinian Authority."

Hussein Abdel-Ghani, head of the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera news channel's Cairo bureau, acknowledges the power of the camera. "When people are demonstrating and they see that we're covering them, they feel that what they're doing is worth it. Some accused us of inciting public opinion, but we were only doing our jobs as journalists," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

In the absence of ratings data, it is impossible to measure Al- Jazeera's popularity and influence in Egypt. But when Milad Hemeida tried to cross the Egyptian-Israeli border last April, in an attempt to join the Palestinian resistance, and was killed by Israeli border police, his family knew what to do. They telephoned Al- Jazeera to break the news of Egypt's first shaheed (martyr) of the Intifada.

"He was killed four days before the news was made public," Hemeida's cousin, Gabr, told the Weekly. "If I hadn't phoned Al- Jazeera, no one would have known about Milad." And as the news spread, others followed suit.

The power of television to shape public consciousness has been expressed in many different ways. Take Hamdi Qandil, host of the politically-charged Rai's El-Tahrir (Editor-in-Chief) TV show. Not only does he continue to lash out at Israel on a weekly basis on state-run TV, but more recently he has taken to encouraging the boycott of US products and giving boycott activists a platform to address the public. For Amin Iskandar, one of the founders of the Egyptian boycott committee, and a frequent guest on Rai's El- Tahrir, "Qandil's show is the best publicity we could ever get to promote the concept of a boycott."

Another consequence of this spring's intense political mobilisation is that, once again, issues crucial to the nation's fate are being widely debated across Egyptian society, and the establishment consensus challenged.

Thus, more than twenty years after it was signed, the Egyptian- Israeli peace treaty is once again open to criticism en bloc, amid calls to cut off all ties with the 'Zionist enemy'. And in every demonstration, slogans were heard reiterating the call for war. "Wahed, etnein, el-geish el-arabi fein?" ["One, two, where is the Arab army?"]. The "Camp David file" has, in effect, been reopened by the people. Suddenly, everyone wants to know what exactly we signed up to all those years ago, and what price we would have to pay to cancel the treaty. For weeks, debate raged in the columns of the press, as analysts vied to find "holes" in the agreement that would allow, or encourage, Egypt to withdraw from the commitments made to its former enemy.

Whatever may happen, though, there are those who are convinced that the future belongs to the street, more than it does to the Arab regimes and their armies. In a rare TV appearance on Al- Jazeera's Bela Hodoud (Without Borders) talk show two weeks ago, former deputy president of the State Council and renowned historian Tarek El-Bishri argued that "the signing of the 1979 peace agreement between Egypt and Israel marked the end of the era in which the Arab-Israeli conflict might have been resolved through conventional war. Now is the time for popular movements. Take the example of Hizbullah in Lebanon [who forced Israel to withdraw from occupied south Lebanon two years ago]."

According to El-Bishri, it was because they are part of a popular movement that Palestinian suicide operations have succeeded in taking the war inside Israel. In the past, Israel never fought its wars within its own borders, but exported them, whether to Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank or South Lebanon. By taking the war inside Israel, the Palestinian popular movement is causing Israel great damage, argued El-Bishri. And in doing so, it has shown the power of popular movements, which others will ignore at their peril.

At other times, state security officials would instantly have branded such arguments as incitement to violence or disturbing public opinion. But El-Bishri got away with it -- and more. For he went on to explain that the existence of Israel posed a threat to the national security of Egypt, the Levant and Saudi Arabia. And he explicitly linked the "independence" of these countries with the "Palestinian dimension".

"So this tripartite axis cannot, either historically or strategically, enjoy full independence unless it is fully unified?" asked his host Ahmed Mansour.

"All the historical facts point in this direction," El-Bishri replied. "This is the lesson of ancient, medieval and modern history."

Mansour: "So what is the meaning of Israel's existence, at the heart of this axis?"

El-Bishri: "It has been put there to break down this wall...:

And the former judge went on to ram his point home, in an obvious reference to the official Egyptian position vis-à-vis Israel: "It is more important to guarantee Egypt's national security than to guarantee we have bread and water. And when others threaten our national security, that is far more dangerous than threatening our bread and water."

"All our destinies," he added, very quietly, "are linked with the destiny of Palestine."

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