Egyptians rise up


The poster resembles so many others gracing the storefronts and walls of Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron. The strong lines and colors of the Palestinian flag form its background, framing political slogans scrawled in red curls of Arabic. At center is the image of a bloody hand rising from the ground, clutching a stone and wielding the victory sign with two intransigent fingers.

Another image shows a figure masked with a kuffiyeh and hoisting a Palestinian flag, apparently rising from the rocky ground where he or she had fallen. The upper corners of the poster bear wallet-sized portraits of martyrs, young faces captured at a local studio – small mementos to have been shared with friends.

But in place of sponsorship by a Palestinian faction, the poster is signed by the Popular Committee in Support of the Palestinian People’s Intifada. The pictured martyrs are both Egyptian, one killed by Egyptian security forces during a demonstration in Alexandria on April 9 of last year and the other slain by “Zionist enemy bullets” on the Egyptian side of Rafah City on April 16, 2002.

The political slogans comprise a list of ways to support the Palestinian uprising from Egypt – closing down the Israeli embassy and expelling the ambassador, halting the provision of Egyptian oil to Israel, cutting all relations with the “Zionist enemy” and boycotting all Israeli products and companies.

The poster is but one of many expressions of popular Egyptian solidarity with the Palestinian people and its struggle to end the Israeli occupation. While Egypt has a long history of showing support to its Palestinian neighbors, popular activities have been conspicuously on the rise since the start of the Intifada in late 2000. Some argue that the burst of activity has contributed to a reawakening of popular participation in politics and civic life – a people’s victory for which some have paid dearly.

Power to the people

Egyptian solidarity with the Palestinian people goes back as far as the beginning of the last century, when the Zionist movement began to target the Levant as a homeland for the Jews, explains Abou Elela Madi, a longtime Palestine activist and coordinator of Egyptian solidarity committees. In the 20s, 30s and 40s, Egyptian militants took part in joint operations with the Palestinian resistance, and Egyptian popular support has continued over the decades in the form of conferences, donations and acts of resistance, he says. “Egyptian solidarity with Palestine has had its ups and downs, but it remains continuous,” Madi describes.

Solidarity committees were established during the attacks on Beirut’s Sabra and Shatila Refugee Camps in 1982, and a strong movement was formed at that time, recalls Magda Adly, of the Nadim Center for the Management and Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence and a Palestinian solidarity activist. But these were mainly organized through political parties, civil society organizations and professional syndicates, and the movement largely faded away when the first Intifada ended with the beginning of the Oslo peace process in 1991, she explains.

In a rapid response to the Aqsa Intifada, however, a group of intellectuals and activists met in Cairo during mid October of 2000 and formed the Egyptian Popular Committee to Support the Palestinian People’s Intifada, of which Adly is a co-founder. This group, like the many other committees that have sprung up across Egypt since then, is truly popular in the sense that it is not tied to parties, unions or non-governmental organizations. Indeed, the new wave of Palestinian solidarity in Egypt is characterized by a wide popular base that cuts across socio-economic classes and boasts rare coordination between Islamists, communists, and every political shade in between.

The popular movement now comprises an array of committees focusing on three forms of resistance, explains Madi – opposing normalization with Israel, supporting the Intifada through the supply of food and medicine, and boycotting Israeli and US products. In terms of the Intifada solidarity committees, there are at least 11 neighborhood committees in Cairo alone, as well as regional committees in 12 governorates across the country, all of which coordinate with each other in forming positions and staging activities, including petition and letter campaigns, demonstrations and sit-ins, popular boycotts and the collection of material donations.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these actions have been the convoys to Sinai, lines of trucks loaded with goods and buses filled with activists making their way to the border of the Gaza Strip. These have all been capped by demonstrations and conferences, by which the participants have loudly turned the gesture into a political event. At one such street action, participants contacted a concurrent demonstration in Gaza by cell phone, remembers Abdel Aziz El Hosiny, coordinator of the Egyptian General Boycott Committee. The trips have all been coordinated with Palestinian NGOs and social movements, who have sent delegations to Al Arish to pick up the goods and circumvent interference by the Palestinian Authority.

“We don’t call them aid convoys, we call them support convoys, because we consider this to be our cause – that the Palestinian cause is our cause,” El Hosiny says. “We’re not providing aid from a humanitarian sense, but rather are providing support because the issue is Egyptian, just as it is Palestinian.”

The simplicity of collecting foodstuffs makes the convoys something that all Egyptians can participate in, Adly adds, by donating simple items such as a bag of rice or a bottle of oil. The action empowers the average person by allowing them to contribute whatever they can, she says, stressing that while the donations fail to adequately address Palestinians’ needs or solve their problems, the significance of the act is found in the political message of support and solidarity.

“This popular approach allows any average Egyptian, regardless of their economic situation, to participate – it is not limited to the wealthy or to politicians. For example, there was a destitute peasant woman from a village in Mit Ghamr who didn’t have any money to contribute for food aid, and so she donated the duck she had raised in order to support the Palestinian people. It was sold and flour and sugar were bought with its price to add to the convoy,” she tells.

Boycott fever

In trendy downtown Cairo, the words “boycott your enemy” are spray-painted in red next to a clothing store called “Crazy Geans” that sports a cowboy on its logo. And in underground metro stations throughout this sprawling metropolis, one finds boycott stickers tagged onto wall advertisements. The colorful signs invariably feature photos of targeted products – Coca Cola, Marlboro and McDonalds for example – against a backdrop of flames and a call to shun US and Israeli products. One such sticker declares, “Their weapon is resistance; our weapon is boycotting,” while another reads, “Boycott these products and save a Palestinian.”

The popular boycotts in Egypt have been so effective, says Adly, that some companies are producing lengthy television commercials reassuring consumers that their products are 100 percent Egyptian and created entirely with Egyptian capital. Two McDonalds stores have closed down since the boycotts began, and Coca Cola lost more than 50 percent of its local capital after the Jenin invasions, El Hosiny boasts. But the boycott’s goal is not really economic at the end of the day, he insists. Rather, it aims to instill a “culture of resistance” among the people, and to reclaim Egyptian culture through invigorating the popularity of indigenous drinks and foods and local products, he explains.

“If we refuse to drink Pepsi Cola, this won’t solve Palestine’s problem, and it won’t affect the American economy,” says Anis El Biya, head of the Egyptian Red Crescent Society in Damietta and a regional coordinator for the people’s Intifada solidarity committee. “Our goal is not economic in itself, in boycotting American products, but rather, it has a political and psychological goal for the people. And when we announce a boycott, the Egyptian government can’t stop us, like it can when we hold demonstrations,” he adds.

We are all Palestinian

While solidarity movements with Palestine have blossomed around the globe since the outbreak of the Aqsa Intifada, the Palestine question is more than an issue of principle for most Egyptians. Sharing a border and history with a people considered “brothers,” many Egyptians recognize that the Palestinian conflict is not just close to home, but is actually a shared cause.

“This stems from a conviction that the Palestinian cause is not merely an issue of liberating a nation far from us – this is taking place on our border,” explains Gamal Abdel Fattah, a pharmacist and Palestine activist who has been jailed numerous times for his political views and activities. “The Zionist project itself is a threat to Egypt,” he continues, citing the 1956 Israeli occupation of Sinai and the Suez Canal, and subsequent occupation of Sinai in1967 as evidence.

“Egypt has always been attacked from the east,” he reasons. “During the Crusades, and before that by Alexander the Great, and the Persians – for 3,000 years we have been attacked from the east via Sinai and Palestine. And so in our view, the presence of a colonial project in the region always forms a threat to us.”

“In Egypt, the Palestinian cause means defending ourselves and the future of our country and its independence, while the Palestinian people are also an Arab people and must be liberated. When we support Palestine, we are defending ourselves,” Abdel Fattah goes on.

But the similarities between the Palestinian and Egyptian “causes” do not end with resisting Israeli aggression. An essential factor of both movements has been a quest for freedom and democracy, and the Palestinian solidarity movement in Egypt has proven to be a catalyst for popular mobilization on more than one front. As the United States geared up for a war on Iraq this spring, activities in solidarity with the Iraqi and Palestinian peoples rose to a fever pitch, culminating in a 40,000 strong demonstration in Cairo on March 20, Adly remembers.

“It broke the barrier of silence,” she says, her face glowing as she remembers the energy of that day. “We practically occupied Tahrir Square for 24 hours, with all the different political directions coexisting, lighting candles, singing, praying, expressing themselves,” she recalls.

“These demonstrations were very useful in terms of expressing political solidarity, but also in breaking the barrier preventing Egyptians from going out in the street,” Adly continues. “Since 1977, Egyptians haven’t really demonstrated because of the emergency laws. But with the Intifada, Egyptians have gone into the street – workers and intellectuals and students, even elementary school students, who would draw Palestinian flags in their notebooks before demonstrating after class.”

And although popular street actions appear to have stretched their limits that day in March, leading to mass arrests by the Egyptian authorities and reports of torture and abuse, conflict with the government has empowered Egyptian activists by temporarily shifting the focus to domestic issues, asserts Abdel Fattah. While the movement has calmed in the wake of government efforts to quell it, and frustration over the war in Iraq, the lull will only be temporary, he says.

“With the defeat of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, people were struck with debilitating frustration,” a psychological state Abdel Fattah compares to that which befell Egyptians after their defeat in the 1967 Six-Day War with Israel.

“But during this same time we’ve been focusing on cases of torture, imprisonment, detainees, the emergency laws of Egypt, etc,” he adds, stressing that activists are regrouping themselves, and already planning their next convoy. And as Iraqi popular resistance continues and grows, the Egyptian people will regain hope and their protest activities will pick up again, Abdel Fattah predicts.

“We have also benefited from this movement – in addition to aiding the Palestinians – by empowering the masses to express themselves in the street,” Adly concludes simply. “We need to keep doing this,” she says.