Banking on bombast

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Last week, during yet another rally, the opposition parties decided to open a bank account so as to be able to accept donations to support the Palestinian Intifada. It is very unlikely, though, that such an account will be opened. Even as I write, the idea has probably already been consigned to that mountain of forgotten resolutions, dire warnings and good intentions that make up the collective subconscious of Egyptian political society.

Whether or not the bank account materialises is not, however, the point. More significantly, and far more bewildering, is the fact that no one seems to find it in the least embarrassing that the idea should be suggested a full seven months after the outbreak of the Intifada.

Last week’s was the second joint opposition rally in support of the Intifada. It was, predictably, as dull and vacuous as the first, held shortly after the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising. The first, however, had the dubious distinction (especially if you have a taste for the macabre) of resurrecting from oblivion the dim-witted notion of “driving Israel into the sea” — and this by the then new leader of the (“liberal”) Wafd Party, no less.

There is a double irony in this. Under Nasser (who despite the widely held belief never actually made that particularly gruesome and patently impossible call) veterans of the then defunct Wafd wiled away the years of their enforced political (and often, economic) retirement at the Gezira Club’s Lido, Groppi’s and other hangouts of the (temporarily, as it turned out) impoverished rich, bemoaning how Nasser’s foolhardy bellicosity towards Israel and its American allies was ruining the country. For a Wafd leader to adopt radical Nasserist rhetoric is irony in itself; for him to adopt the extravagantly exaggerated version of that rhetoric, mediated by both the ’60s Sawt Al-Arab and the Zionist propaganda machine, smacks of burlesque.

The real point, of course, is that none of it is serious. The Wafd leader, I am certain, has not given a minute’s thought to how exactly we’re supposed to throw Israel into the sea; and — even worse — no one really expects him to. Rhetoric is all, and the more bombastic, irrational and vacuous, the merrier. It’s no different than the 800 million guns that one Egyptian newspaper promised Sharon soon after his election, in a banner headline, or the (I don’t know how many) other tens of millions of human bombs that our Jihadist friends keep threatening to unleash against the Jews and their Crusading allies. No different, for that matter, than the calls for a general Arab/Islamic war against the Zionist enemy. In each and every Arab-Israeli war during the past fifty years Israel had more forces in the field of battle than the combined Arab forces. Yet we — no less than the Zionist propaganda machine — love to reiterate the hundreds of millions of Arabs (even Comoros at the other end of Africa is a member of the League) and Muslims, supposedly at our beck and call for a final showdown with the enemy.

It goes on and on. The same drab, unbearably hot and smoke-filled conference halls. The same aged and aging leaders (with the odd minor change, at the hand of God) lined solemnly, if somewhat ungracefully, behind panels that are often too small to accommodate either their numbers or girths. The same overheated “youth” activists, shouting the same slogans. And everyone enacting the same, long-rehearsed, farce.

Usually, it goes something like this: The youth (many of whom are now well past middle age) eventually begin to hysterically insist that the few hundred attendants should “march out on the street”, presumably to “awaken the masses”, most of whom — this particular drama usually takes place around 11pm — are getting ready for bed or are already in it. The older and allegedly wiser party functionaries insist, no less hysterically, that emergency law is in force, and that to go out “on the street” would be adventurism and provocation in the extreme. Shouting matches are engaged in; accusations hurled, the odd scuffle breaks out. And yet, for all its heatedness, both parties to the fracas must be fully aware that it is futile.

Everyone is play-acting, including the state. The streets around the party offices hosting the rally are a battle zone, except that there is no battle. Truckloads of helmeted anti-riot squads are everywhere. Other police trucks hold dozens of civilian-clad, stick-wielding “special” anti-rioters, who appear even more fearful, if only because they are better nourished and less bewildered than their black-uniformed counterparts. Walkie-talkies gripped tightly in their hands, police officers, from generals down, move hither and thither, looking grim and busy. And, of course, there are the inevitable plain-clothed State Security Intelligence officers, sitting around, smirking and exchanging the odd joke with passing activists.

The few hundred solidarity rally activists like to think of themselves as “the vanguard of the nation”, and as such, take themselves extremely seriously. The police, for reasons of their own, are happy to oblige. They tend to deploy something in the order of two dozen anti-riot personnel per potential demonstrator. There is a bitter irony in all this. Arguably, the Egyptian people’s solidarity sentiments with the Palestinians have never been stronger than they are today. The energy expressed by university and high school students during the first weeks of the Intifada, and the general sentiment on the street until today have been without parallel since the early seventies — and then it was occupied Egyptian territory, rather than solidarity with the Palestinians, that topped people’s concerns. The nation’s political and cultural intelligentsia could not hope for better conditions to organise an effective and powerful solidarity movement. Seven months after the outbreak of the Intifada, though, it continues to show a decided preference for hot air.

Presumably, we’re going to shout the Israelis into the sea.

Mr. Hani Shukrallah is Managing Editor of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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