IThe ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza is shaking relations between states and citizens across the Middle East. In Egypt, the events have thrust the political regime’s comfortably hidden cooperation with Israel into the spotlight and distracted millions of Egyptians from their focus on daily survival amid spiraling inflation and unemployment. They now face Israeli plans to recolonize Gaza using Egypt as a conduit, forcing the Palestinians south toward the Sinai. The Egyptian state and its citizens vehemently reject this idea, but for different reasons. These differences reflect a gulf between the regime and the population opened by the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1978, and that events are widening day by day.
Egyptians have long supported the Palestinian cause, within the context of a shared Arab national identity. Public opinion first opposed the Zionist colonization project in the 1930s, and the army fought in the Palestine War in 1948. In the 1950s, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser offered the state support for the Palestinians and achieved a political victory after the Israeli, British and French attack in 1956, but suffered defeat in the war against Israel in 1967. His successor, Anwar Sadat, won a quick victory in the 1973 war, when Egyptian troops crossed the Suez Canal to liberate the Sinai, and Israel was only able to regain its balance after an airlift of American weapons.
Nevertheless, Sadat then steered the Egyptian state toward “normalization” with Israel. American aid offered in exchange for what became the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel dissuaded people from protesting. Meanwhile, Palestinians have lost their central place in Egyptian public discourse and have even been vilified by some as responsible for their own misfortune. For more than 40 years, successive Egyptian regimes worked to establish Israel’s presence as a reality. The justification was Sadat’s assertion that “the United States holds 99% of the cards in the Middle East” and therefore it was futile to resist. The aim was to end years of political, social and cultural intimacy between Egyptians and Palestinians, united in resistance to British colonialism years before the founding of Israel.
However, this project never came to fruition and demonstrations of solidarity with the Palestinians continually broke out. Hosni Mubarak’s wise leadership authorized these protests in order to divert attention from the people’s domestic problems. Yet they ultimately set the stage for the January 2011 uprising against him. Under current President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, all mass gatherings have been banned. The Egyptians havewere prevented from expressing sympathy for the Palestinians, while being told to focus on making ends meet. As some have astutely observed, this left Egypt a regional anomaly, with no demonstrations of solidarity during the May 2021 Palestinian uprising.
However, this was not the case in October 2023: Israel’s violent impunity triggered a popular reaction in Egypt that cannot be contained. For Egyptians, the events of October 7 meant for the Palestinians the lifting of their siege, which pierced the constant flow of information about abuses, detentions, executions and land grabs in Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Egyptians then felt a sense of helplessness when the bombings began, particularly given their geographic proximity to Gaza. Israel has repeatedlybombed the Rafah crossing, on the border between Egypt and Gaza, and prevented the passage of humanitarian convoys. As the stream of devastating images continues, the grief and fury of Egyptians has increased. Mosques host ongoing prayers for the dead, becoming spaces for collective processing of unfolding horrors.
This powerful wave of sympathy transformed into a desire for active support. In Egypt’s suppressed political atmosphere, many have turned to the tool of boycott, targeting Western companies known to support Israel. For Egyptian youth in particular, Israel’s brutality and the West’s unwavering support have been a wake-up call. Since the Camp David Accords, many young Egyptians have turned to Western popular and consumer culture, rarely questioning the credibility of the political language of human rights and democracy. Almost overnight, these myths have been shattered for millions of Egyptians, as they see support for Israel pouring in from Washington, Brussels and London, while the carnage in Gaza continues. Some of those working in the NGO sector would debate alternatives to Western funding and express deep discomfort with their reliance on the latter.
So do many Egyptians who understand the complicity of regional powers, particularly signatories to the Abraham Accords like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, who were preparing their own deal.A recent arts festival in Riyadh was boycotted by Egyptian artists; those who went were heavily criticized. This month, the Egyptian Journalists’ Union began organizing a Palestinian event featuring songs from the 1956 Suez popular resistance. It has since launched the “global conscience convoy,” calling for a International coalition of the willing travels to Rafah to pressure Israel into allowing more aid and to demand an end to the war. It goes without saying that before and since the temporary truce, Egyptian public opinion opposed the Sinai plan, considering it a new stage of ethnic cleansing in Palestine.
This is the atmosphere of mobilization and frustration that envelops the Egyptian regime. Leaders have long feared that Israel wants to “export” the conflict to Egypt – these fears were confirmed by the leak of an Israeli intelligence document dated October 13, proposing the “transfer” of Palestinians from Gaza to the Sinai Peninsula. This would mean hosting thousands of refugees and pose the risk of drawing Egyptians into the ranks of Palestinian armed groups, inviting Israeli strikes, or worse. With the full support of the United States, Israel pressured Egypt to accept, but Sissi convened Arab summits and spoke with American and European leaders, each time repeating the message of refusal.
The regime tried to achieve this with the help of the Egyptian people. On October 18, without any irony, the president declared that “millions” could be mobilized to resist American-Israeli pressure.The designated locations were quickly shared online. Sisi planned to use this to absorb popular anger and to send a message to the US, EU and Israel that he simply could not accept the Sinai plan without risking his position.
As it turns out, many participants ended up going off-script and heading towards Tahrir Square. Some even chanted the slogan of the 2011 uprising, “Bread, freedom, social justice”, and insisted: “This is a real demonstration, it is not a mandate for anyone. » Police made more than 100 arrests and Tahrir Square has since been fortified with armored vehicles. Yet figures such as Sheikh Muhammad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azhar have spoken out, supporting Palestinian resistance and demanding a reassessment of Egypt’s relations with the West.
Palestine’s popularity is such that the regime has been able to exploit it – despite its own track record – to exert domestic and diplomatic influence. Yet this popularity means he must also stay ahead of the curve, whether through containment or repression, lest Palestinian activism turn into domestic protest as it has before. In the absence of organized opposition, this process may take years to develop, but there seems to be a sense in which the lessons of the day – distinguishing friend from foe, truth from lie, the power of resistance – sharpen popular grievances. According to a friend, Egyptians are questioning themselves after years of post-revolutionary defeat: “We are like someone who gets up after a hard blow. »
Reem Abou-El-Fadl is a lecturer in comparative Middle Eastern politics at Soas, University of London.
Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.