Monday,16 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)
Monday,16 July, 2018
Issue 1243, (23 - 29 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Activists turn to Palestine

Egypt’s first anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign provides activists with a space to mobilise as well as a reminder of who the region’s historic enemy is, writes Amira Howeidy

Al-Ahram Weekly

Palestinian kuffeyas were folded casually around necks. “Down with Israel” chants roared across the hall. A performance of songs from the 1970s extolling resistance to Israeli occupation enthused the audience.

The scene inside the Press Syndicate’s downtown headquarters might well have been a replay of the Hosni Mubarak years when the same venue hosted endless similar events. It was a time when Palestine operated as a clarion call for opposition activists, whatever their political stripe, if only because the regime showed zero tolerance for anything else.

All that changed following Mubarak’s ouster in 2011. A period of intense political engagement unfolded over two years during which many overdosed on street protests and there was no room, amid all the revolutionary fervour, for the Palestinian question.

And now the wheel has turned again. A broad coalition of political parties, groups, student unions and professional syndicates has rediscovered its solidarity with the Palestinians, and is rallying around a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israeli occupation.  The Egyptian Popular Campaign to Boycott Israel (BDS) seeks to name companies operating in Egypt that also work in Israel or do business with the occupation army. Its aim is to pressure them to either stop doing business with the Israelis or to leave Egypt.

“The campaign will soon announce specific objectives and boycott mechanisms that can be applied in Egypt,” says BDS campaign member Haitham Mohamadein.

Palestinian calls for the boycott and divestment of companies doing business with Israel kick-started a global BDS movement in 2009, but it reached Egypt only recently as a result of the challenges activists are facing on both the regional and domestic levels.

Egypt is now part of the Saudi-led coalition against the Yemeni Shia Houthi movement which is supported by Tehran, Riyadh’s regional nemesis. Cairo’s pursuit of Arab alliances that prioritise perceived sectarian and ideological enemies over Israel served to aggravate the political sentiments of the forces that have now united around the BDS campaign.

In the regional chaos that followed the Arab spring “we have forgotten that Israel is the enemy,” says Rami Shaath, one of the event’s organisers. In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power and their subsequent ouster in 2013 saw the Palestinian cause increasingly conflated with Hamas, the Brotherhood’s Palestinian ally. Opposition to the Brotherhood quickly translated into a wave of hostility towards anything Palestinian, resulting in what Shaath describes as a “defamation campaign against Palestinians.”

It is “absolutely necessary to redirect the political pendulum so that Israel, not other tactical enemies, is again recognised as the threat,” he says.

Egypt has been at war with Israel four times since 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied the Sinai, Syria’s Golan Heights and the Palestinian West Bank. It wasn’t until 1982 that Israel began withdrawing from Sinai, following the signing of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in 1979 and after Egypt agreed to leave the peninsula demilitarised. Rejection of the peace agreement remained the single issue over which Egyptian opposition movements could agree, even after deal’s architect Anwar Al-Sadat was assassinated by Islamist military officers in 1981.

The birth of the dissent movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak can be traced back to the nation-wide protests which in 2000 broke the emergency law banning street demonstrations, and the solidarity campaigns launched to support the second Palestinian Intifada. It was then that the notion of boycotting both Israeli and American companies was first mooted in Egypt. It was a form of political mobilisation the regime allowed, if only because the regime was not the target.

The movement that emerged from the Palestine solidarity years evolved into the anti-war on Iraq lobby in 2003, attracting along the way activists of different age groups and varied political experience. On 20 March 2003 thousands of demonstrators took to Tahrir Square and blocked traffic till nightfall to protest the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq. Many of those who witnessed the protest and, eight years later, participated in the 18 days of demonstrations in the same square that led to the removal of Mubarak, describe the anti-Iraq war demonstrations as a rehearsal for the 2011 uprising.

Four years after mass demonstrations forced Mubarak to relinquish the presidency and protests are once again banned by law. Those who take part in demonstrations risk hefty prison sentences. Critics of the regime complain that freedom of expression is being squeezed and any space for political dissent closed down. The authorities deny it. Yet it is impossible not to feel an unhappy sense of déjà vu as Palestine emerges as the only political cause around which people can mobilise without being thrown into prison.

“We are living in a time of defeat, the defeat of the revolution,” says Amr Al-Shoura, a member of the Doctors’ Syndicate board and of the BDS Egypt campaign. “It’s now almost impossible to engage with the street, even if you’re a legal and licensed political party.”

BDS Egypt began preparations for their first conference in October 2014 and chose the 8 April, the 45th anniversary of the 1970 Bahr Al-Baqar massacre when the Israeli air force bombed a primary school in Port Said killing 45 children, to launch their campaign. But when they failed to find a single venue willing to host them the launch had to be delayed. It was eventually held on 20 April, the date on which the Press Syndicate, under a newly elected chairman, said they could rent a hall on the fourth floor of its downtown headquarters. The group also struggled to find a printing house willing to print the BDS logo and ‘Be with Palestine’ slogan on T-shirts and stickers.

“At a time when the media gives us no space and there is a growing sense of fear we have to shift tactics and work around issues that can command a consensus rather than those that divides us,” says Al-Shoura.

According to the Shaath 11 political parties, four political movements, seven professional syndicates, eight student unions, dozens of NGO’s and hundreds of public figures have signed the BDS Egypt statement. The BDS campaign itself comprises activists from across the political spectrum. It is probably the only political grouping in which an Islamist/anti-Islamist divide doesn’t exist. 

Present during Press Syndicate launch were veteran figures from the anti-Mubarak Kifaya Movement like George Ishak and unknown faces from student unions whose first brush with political activism took place during the 2011 uprising and who are now getting their first taste of Palestinian solidarity. 

Inside the hall one speaker was interrupted by a young, clean-shaven activist in a grey sweatshirt who roared the decades old chant: “Generation after generation will say this: We will do battle with you Israel!”

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