Cairo fears a ‘boomerang effect’ of pro-Palestine protests

Egyptian protesters rally at Cairo's iconic Tahrir Square, saying they will organise a sit-in untill the borders with the Gaza Strip are open. October 20, 2023. Screenshot from a video by AFP News Agency. Fair use.

This post by Haneen Shoukry was first published by Raseef 22 on May 8, 2024. An edited version is republished on Global Voices as part of a content-sharing agreement. Our MENA team added the links to provide further clarification.

On Tuesday, April 23, protesters in Cairo were detained while participating in a peaceful demonstration in support of women in Sudan and Gaza. Ironically, this event coincided with Sinai Liberation Day, a public holiday celebrating the return of the Sinai Peninsula from Israel to Egypt.

The detentions were anticipated, given Egypt's history of suppressing protests since 2013, under President Abdeh Fattah el-Sisi. This is not the first time that activists have been arrested for showing support for Palestine since the conflict began last October. In early April, demonstrators assembled outside the Journalists Syndicate in downtown Cairo to denounce the Zionist aggression towards Palestine. The government accused the protesters of spreading false information and of belonging to a terror group — accusations that are used in almost every instance of the government suppressing free speech.

In this most recent wave of arrests, the protestors were all women, protesting in solidarity with women in conflict zones. Among the protesters were well-known figures in Egyptian revolutionary society, such as Eman Ouf, Rasha Azab, Mahienour El-Masry, Ragia Omran‌ and Lobna Darwish. The feminist activists involved assembled outside the regional headquarters of UN Women in Cairo, which is responsible for promoting gender equality and empowering women as a United Nations entity.

The detainees were released the day after their arrest.

The human cost of Gaza's blockade

Despite expressing disapproval of Israel's repeated public statements about relocating displaced Gazans to Egypt, and requesting greater assistance from the US in securing the border, Cairo has not taken direct action against the Israeli aggression since it started, over six months ago. This has led to significant frustration and resentment among Egyptians.

Although it claims otherwise, Egypt has played a role in the blockade on Gazans. The majority of those who have been able to cross the borders hold dual citizenship in both Palestine and Egypt. Others have had to gather an exorbitant amount of money in order to leave, due to the actions of Ibrahim Al-Organi, a leader of a government-approved militia in the Sinai region. Since the start of the Gaza war, Al-Organi has had significant control over the movement of people and goods between Gaza and Egypt through his companies. One of these companies, Hala, charges Palestinians thousands of dollars to help them leave Gaza. It has strong ties to the Egyptian security forces.

A majority of Arabs generally regard Israel as a representation of tyranny. Egyptians have voiced their disapproval towards their government for granting Israel any control in the transportation of crucial aid into Gaza through an Egyptian border crossing. Sisi fears the boomerang effect, as speaking out about the Palestinian issue during protests might motivate the public to rally against him, which did in fact occur last October.

State-controlled protests?

In October, Sisi's authoritarian regime allowed the public to express their frustrations, by calling on people to gather in the streets. However, demonstrators soon moved to Tahrir Square, the iconic site of the 2011 Egyptian revolution and the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak.

According to an article by The Tahrir Institute For Middle East Policy on December 12, 2023:

State-controlled media called on people to congregate in certain locations on October 20, to show support both for Gaza and the president. However, at least one of the demonstrations strayed from this state-approved scenario, as it made its way to the iconic Tahrir Square, after starting at Al Azhar Mosque. Videos of the demonstrations showed police trying, to no avail, to prevent people from reaching Tahrir Square. It was the first time demonstrations had reached the iconic square in 10 years.

Following the demonstrations, the Egyptian authorities unlawfully arrested and charged numerous peaceful protesters.

The people of Egypt stand firmly behind Palestine and the movement for Palestinian liberation. As an 89-year-old grandmother from Alexandria told Raseef 22:

The Palestinian cause runs in our blood. I watched The Nakba unfold in my youth, and I was left confused about why there were masses of people crying on our streets. It wasn't until I grew up that I truly understood the ugliness of it all. I saw what the occupation was capable of after I saw my brother-in-law return from war in 1967, bloodied and in ripped clothes, only to enter his room and start hysterically crying.

The erosion of artistic freedoms

As Cairo tightens its grip on pro-Palestine protests, the influence of state control extends beyond the streets and into the very heart of Egyptian cultural life, notably impacting the once vibrant landscape of cinema.

Once a cinematic powerhouse in the Middle East and North Africa, in ‌recent years, Egyptian cinema has died. El-Sisi founded the United Media Services Company, which oversees all creative, TV, and news production in the country. It is under the control of the General Intelligence Agency, giving the military a significant impact on artistic creation.

Before this, many iconic examples of Egyptian film and television touched on the Palestinian issue.

One of the most well-known films in contemporary Egyptian cinema that addresses the Palestinian conflict is “El Sefara Fel Omara.” This film follows the journey of Sharif Khairi, who is compelled to come back to Egypt after two decades of working for an oil company in Dubai. To his surprise, he finds out that the Israeli embassy is situated right next to his apartment. Initially, he attempts to sell the property, but his unsuccessful attempts lead him to handle the situation in a different manner.

Through the lens of Egyptian cinema, the Palestinian cause has been a recurrent theme, resonating deeply within the cultural fabric of the nation. Films like “El Sefara Fel Omara” have not only depicted the struggles of Palestinians but have also served as a platform for exploring themes of justice, resistance, and solidarity. As Hossam El-Hamalawy articulates in an article for Spectre Journal, the cause is deeply ingrained in the cultural identity of many Egyptians:

The Egyptian regime’s position is understandable if one takes into consideration how the powers in Cairo perceive the Palestinians: as a source of threat, instability, and inspiration for Egyptians to revolt. The Palestinian cause has always been a radicalizing factor for the Egyptian public. Most, if not all, turning points in the history of dissent of the most populous Arab nation were, either directly or indirectly, the product of a chain reaction triggered by Palestinian resistance and popular mobilization.

The recent crackdown on pro-Palestine demonstrations underscores not only the government's determination to quell any opposition but also its reluctance to openly challenge Israeli aggression. This suppression of free expression reverberates throughout Egyptian society, touching even the cultural sphere, where historic solidarity with Palestine in films has also declined under el-Sisi's regime.

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