In late December 2009, Arab TV channels aired footage of throngs of demonstrators, surrounded by the usual rows of riot police, on the streets of downtown Cairo and in front of foreign embassies. Street protests in Egypt have been sharply curtailed in the last few years, but the scene was familiar to anyone who had been in the country in 2005, when protests against President Husni Mubarak’s regime and in favor of judicial independence were a semi-regular occurrence. Yet there was something unusual about these protesters: They were all foreigners.
The demonstrators were Palestine solidarity activists from 43 countries, and they had come to Egypt planning to cross the Egyptian-controlled Rafah gate into Gaza and participate in the Gaza Freedom March, a peaceful procession to the border of the tiny coastal strip with Israel. The march was scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead — the winter 2008-2009 Israeli military assault that, according to Amnesty International, killed some 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza — and to protest the ongoing international blockade of the territory.
But the international activists, who started arriving in Cairo on December 27, found that the Egyptian authorities had no intention of letting them into Gaza. Bus companies that had been hired to transport the would-be marchers to Rafah were told by state security to cancel their agreements; activists who made their way to the Sinai Peninsula on their own were turned back or detained.
Hence, the protests. Several hundred French activists headed to the French Embassy, where they briefly blocked traffic, and then staged a five-day sit-in on the sidewalk. Americans tried to reach the US Embassy, but were held up by Egyptian security forces and eventually allowed to enter in small groups to confer — fruitlessly — with State Department personnel. The activists also took more creative tacks. Giant Palestinian flags and banners were unfurled on three separate occasions on the steps of the Pyramids. About 30 people undertook a hunger strike, led by 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein.
The Egyptian authorities finally offered to let 100 of the 1,400 internationals into Gaza. On the morning of December 31, after bitterly contentious meetings and a fair amount of soul searching, 85 activists departed; the rest rejected the offer, seeing it as a shallow public relations maneuver antithetical to the march’s fundamental demand: free access to Gaza.
Those still in Cairo held a vigorous, day-long rally in Tahrir Square — just across from the Egyptian Museum — and, later, a candlelit New Year’s Eve vigil. The demonstrators held signs that read “Free Gaza” in English; they alternated chants of “Resistance,” “Viva Palestina,” “We are not afraid” and — in a reproach to the Egyptian police — “Shame on you!” They were hemmed in by large contingents of state security forces, who shooed away curious passersby and aggressively discouraged media coverage.
Then, a few days after the Gaza Freedom Marchers left Egypt, another convoy of internationals going by the name Viva Palestina — made up of hundreds of volunteers and vehicles delivering medical aid — reached the Sinai port of al-‘Arish. They entered Gaza on January 6, after clashes with police left 50 activists injured. A Palestinian protest at the border in support of the convoy also turned violent, leaving one Egyptian border guard dead and several Palestinians wounded.
The rallies and aid delegations took place a few weeks after the discovery that the Egyptian authorities have commenced building a subterranean steel wall along the border with Gaza, in order to block the tunnels that Gazans have used to undercut the international embargo upon their territory. Quickly dubbed “the wall of death” by Hamas officials and “the wall of shame” by Egyptian critics, this latest measure to enforce the blockade of Gaza has sparked another heated round of recrimination in Egypt and the Arab world. The debate over the barrier, the foreign protesters in Cairo, the clashes near the Gaza border — all this has focused renewed, intense and, as far as the Mubarak regime is concerned, unwelcome attention on Egypt’s policies toward the besieged Palestinian enclave.
Gaza has been under one degree or another of “closure” since the outbreak of the second intifada in the fall of 2000, but Israel and its allies imposed an import embargo after Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006. The blockade was tightened considerably in June 2007, after Hamas fighters seized the Palestinian Authority (PA) security and administrative apparatus in Gaza from loyalists of the rival Fatah faction. Israel permits only a very restricted list of items to pass through the crossings it controls; most construction materials, much needed to repair the damage of Cast Lead’s bombardments, are not allowed. According to the BBC, the average volume of imported supplies has dropped to a quarter of its 2005 level. UN agencies estimate that at least half of all Gazans suffer from “food insecurity.”
The blockade of Gaza would not be possible without Egyptian cooperation. After Israeli soldiers left Gaza in 2005, the Bush administration sponsored a deal whereby the Rafah crossing — the only gateway to Gaza not on the Israeli border and hence no longer physically controlled by Israel — would be jointly monitored by Egypt and the Presidential Guard of the PA. In practice, Egypt and the PA continued to accept Israeli remote control of the crossing via closed-circuit television. When Hamas ousted the Presidential Guard in 2007, Egypt closed Rafah — claiming that it could not enforce an agreement one of whose parties was absent — and has opened it only sporadically since.
In January 2008, Hamas militants blew up part of the long-standing wall above ground along the Egypt-Gaza boundary and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians streamed into the Egyptian town of Rafah. For 11 days, until the Egyptians were able to seal the border again, the inhabitants of Gaza went on a joyful shopping spree, leaving the shelves of Rafah stores bare.
Otherwise, Gaza has weathered the blockade thanks to the tunnels, through which Palestinians smuggle food, cigarettes, fuel and — allegedly — drugs, cash and weapons. According to the director of the UN Relief Works Agency, 60 percent of Gaza’s economy depends on the tunnels.
The “Engineering Installations”
The new wall Egypt is building is intended to cut off these underground lifelines. Construction was first reported by the highbrow Israeli daily Ha’aretz, in an article stating that the wall will be more than five miles long, driving steel panels down to 100 feet below the surface. Some claim the barrier will be connected to pipes that will saturate the ground along the border with pumped-in seawater, thus rendering the tunnels liable to collapse. It has also been widely reported that the wall is being built with American assistance; a US Embassy official in Cairo confirmed to a delegate from the Gaza Freedom March that the US Army Corps of Engineers has provided technical support.
Egyptian officials justified the construction of what they prefer to call “engineering installations” or “reinforcements” with a national security argument: Egypt as a sovereign state has a right and a duty to protect its borders. The tunnels are a threat — the terrorists who carried out the attacks in the Sinai resorts Taba and Sharm al-Sheikh are believed to have come through them. And the drugs, cash and weapons that purportedly flow into Gaza might leak into Egypt as well. Appearing on national TV on January 24, Minister of Interior Habib al-‘Adli gave an analogy “for the simple citizen,” asking: “Should I leave the door of my house open all night when the kids and the wife are inside? Where’s my sense of patriotism, my sense of loyalty to my house?”
Furthermore, Egyptian officials continuously point out, Israel and Hamas are the ones truly responsible for the situation. Gaza is under Israeli occupation in the eyes of international law and Israel could lift the siege tomorrow; Hamas has made the plight of Gazans worse by removing the Presidential Guard, firing rockets into Israel, hence provoking further tightening of the siege, and resisting an Egyptian-brokered reconciliation with the office of Mahmoud Abbas, who lays continued claim to the PA presidency despite the expiration of his term in 2009.
On the other hand, the Egyptian government’s critics maintain that even genuine security concerns and treaty constraints cannot justify its participation in a blockade that contravenes international human rights law. Mohammed Al Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a possible candidate in the 2011 presidential elections, told a Foreign Policy interviewer that at the same time they fight to prevent smuggling, Egyptian authorities could establish a “free trade zone” in the town of Rafah, noting that “there is a difference between protecting national security, which no one questions, and providing humanitarian assistance.”
Acting for Others?
In the Egyptian and pan-Arab press, Egypt is accused of being a tool of the Israelis and the Americans, enforcing the blockade on their behalf. Certainly, Israel and the US have been pressuring Egypt for years to “crack down” on smuggling, and, in 2008, Congress withheld $100 million in aid over this issue. And certainly Egypt’s cooperation in maintaining the siege is part of what makes it a valuable US strategic partner. Perhaps not coincidentally, criticism from Washington of Egypt’s human rights record and its illiberal political system has been remarkably muted since the 2007 closure of Rafah. And Egypt has recently won two important concessions from the United States: Part of the aid it receives will now be put into an endowment (which makes it harder for Congress to make the aid conditional on particular reforms); and on December 30, it was announced that Egypt will acquire at least 20 new F-16 fighter jets from US manufacturers.
Yet one should not discount Egypt’s internal reasons for backing the blockade. The Egyptian government mistrusts Hamas, an armed militant Islamist group that it considers both an Iranian proxy and an ally of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, its largest and best-organized opposition.
And Egypt fears becoming Gaza’s main opening to the outside world, and being further embroiled in the management of the troublesome, impoverished and crowded enclave. This involvement might facilitate Israeli plans to separate the West Bank from Gaza, or Hamas’ supposed ambitions to establish an independent “Islamic emirate,” writes one pro-regime intellectual. These concerns are perhaps not unjustified: Egypt controlled the Gaza Strip from 1948 to 1967 and there are some in Israeli and American policy circles who would like to hand the area back over; meanwhile, the ongoing rift between the Western-recognized PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza has led to talk of a “three-state solution.”
The Egyptian authorities view Hamas-ruled Gaza as a serious security threat, a potential destabilizer of the entire Sinai Peninsula. The construction of the subterranean wall is the culmination of a decades-long process of Egyptian disengagement from the Palestinian cause and growing security cooperation with Israel — a process that was given one last dramatic push by Hamas’ election. The official line that Egypt sacrificed enough for Palestine from 1948 to the 1979 Camp David agreement strikes a chord with some Egyptians. Yet many, across the political spectrum, are deeply uncomfortable with the shift in policy that has turned the Palestinians, from historical “brothers,” into something like enemies. “Egyptian security doctrine has come — incomprehensibly — to consider Gaza and not Israel the main threat to Egypt,” writes Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad. Similarly, the columnist Fahmi Huwaydi remarks that Egypt’s “strategic vision has changed, and Egypt has come to reckon the Palestinians and not the Israelis a danger. And if this sad conclusion is correct, then I cannot avoid describing the steel wall…as a wall of shame.”
From High Dam to Low Wall
Within days of the announcement of the construction of the underground wall, people across the Arab world were venturing unfavorable comparisons between Mubarak’s “engineering installations” and President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s landmark project — the High Dam north of Aswan — playing on the double meaning of the words for “high” and “low” in Arabic. Wags suggested adding a comment upon Mubarak to Nasser’s epitaph: “The highly esteemed one (al-‘ali) built the High Dam (al-sadd al-‘ali); the low-down one (al-wati) built the Low Wall (al-sadd al-wati).”
Egypt’s standing in the Arab and Islamic world is partly linked to its role as a patron of the Palestinian cause in the era of Nasser. Today, due to its participation in the Gaza blockade, its leadership and legitimacy in the region have come under considerable fire, recalling the outrage when President Anwar al-Sadat concluded a separate peace with Israel at Camp David. There have been demonstrations at Egyptian embassies in Turkey, Malaysia, Jordan and Lebanon — where the newly formed Campaign to Stop the Wall of Shame is targeting the Egyptian construction company Arab Contractors, which is reportedly building the wall. Writing in al-Ahram Hebdo magazine, Egyptian journalist Hassan Abou Taleb laments, “Criticizing Egypt and its policies has become common in the Arab world…. These bitter critiques…have developed to the point that they disfigure the image of Egypt.”
By highlighting its role in the Gaza siege, the Gaza Freedom Marchers put the Egyptian government in a distressing position — particularly since the authorities could not crack down on the international demonstrators as harshly as they would have on locals without causing a diplomatic incident. Several internationals were beaten and thrown to the ground in scuffles with the police. But generally their demonstrations were met with an unusual (by local standards) degree of tolerance.
In fact, the Egyptian government machinery seemed initially discomfited by the bad publicity attending the foreign convoys to Gaza. Some have suggested that the reluctant, defensive and disorganized response of the government to the criticism and questioning of its policies toward Gaza is indicative of “the degree of embarrassment felt by a government that — it has become clear — is helpless.”
The defensiveness came out as a combination of bluster and conspiracy theory. Officials in the Foreign Ministry referred to the international activists as “conspirators” and “troublemakers.” Foreign Minister Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt said the members of the Viva Palestina convoy “committed hostile acts, even criminal ones, on Egyptian territory.” British MP George Galloway, who led the delegation, has been declared persona non grata in Egypt.
Others insinuated that opposition to the wall and the blockade was part of a plot to humiliate Egypt. Minister of Parliamentary Affairs Mufid Shihab suggested that the Gaza Freedom Marchers were mostly “Algerian women with French nationality…carrying a message of the Algerian media into the heart of Cairo.” The accusation, innocuous as it may sound, was venomous in view of the rift between Egypt and Algeria following Algeria’s victory over Egypt in a World Cup qualifying match, and ensuing violence in both countries (and in Sudan, site of the match) targeting the other country’s nationals. Shihab also blamed the coverage on the al-Jazeera network — “the Qatari channel of discord,” he called it — for fomenting anti-Egyptian feeling.
In the end, the Egyptian official political establishment has more or less declared the subject of its policies toward Gaza verboten. President Mubarak, in a speech on January 24, announced flatly: “We do not accept debate on this issue with anyone.”
The authorities have also resorted to religious authority to try to quash dissent: The Islamic Research Council, headed by the Sheikh of al-Azhar (Egypt’s highest, semi-official Muslim institution), on December 31 issued a legal ruling in support of the wall. The council released a statement saying: “It is one of Egypt’s Islamically legitimate rights to place barriers that prevent the damage inflicted by the tunnels built under Egyptian land at Rafah, which are used to smuggle drugs and other products, threatening and upsetting the security and stability of Egypt and its interests.” “Those who oppose the construction of this wall violate the shari‘a,” the council concluded. Other Islamic scholars immediately and indignantly contradicted this fatwa, and al-Azhar was condemned by many for seeming to put religion at the service of unpopular government policies.
Activism and Its Limits
International activists chose to come through Egypt to get to Gaza because this route was the only one available; entering through Israel, they felt, would have been impossible. They hoped that Egypt would be sympathetic to their mission, and at first they did their best to avoid confrontation with the regime. When Egypt announced in advance of their arrival that the way into Gaza would be closed, the activists were undeterred. Egypt had vowed to obstruct numerous delegations in the past, a December 21 press release from the Gaza Freedom March steering committee allowed. “But after public and political pressure, the Egyptian government changed its position and let them pass.”
At the demonstration on New Year’s Eve in downtown Cairo, participant Ali Abunimah, the Palestinian-American co-founder of the Electronic Intifada web magazine, said: “People did not come to Cairo with the goal of protesting Egypt or making trouble in Egypt. They came here to go to Gaza and show solidarity with people in Gaza and break the siege. And what has inevitably refocused attention on the Egyptian role is that it is Egypt that has prevented people from traveling to Gaza…and so it’s really Egypt that’s highlighting its own role in maintaining the siege in Gaza.”
The Gaza Freedom March did not coordinate with local activists; in fact, it did not allow them to join. A statement on the march’s website read: “Unfortunately, the Egyptian government decides who can and cannot cross into the Gaza Strip from Egypt. In our experience, it has been difficult for Egyptian citizens and people with Palestinian Authority passports to enter the Gaza Strip. We have tried to overcome this unfair restriction on previous trips, but without success. So, unfortunately, we cannot take people with Egyptian or Palestinian passports.”
Muhammad Wakid, an activist and member of the Socialist Studies Center in Cairo, says locals understood the choice to exclude them was necessary “so as not to alienate the regime, so as to maximize access to Gaza.” Wakid notes that “our presence would have been a liability; it would have changed their focus.”
Once the internationals were stuck in Cairo — and their focus was changed for them — they reached out to local pro-Palestinian groups. But there remained significant differences. The Gaza Freedom Marchers, for example, asked Egyptians not to chant pro-Hamas, pro-Hizballah or anti-Mubarak slogans at their joint demonstration on December 29 on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate. The Egyptians refused. And then there was a pricklier problem. “We couldn’t possibly consult or coordinate with [the Gaza Freedom Marchers] given the presence of Israeli activists,” says Wakid. This position was shared by Egyptian activists of all political persuasions — even the goal of breaking the siege could not trump their opposition to normalization of relations with Israel through direct contact with Israelis.
Despite these differences, and despite deploring the internationals’ naiveté in thinking they would be allowed to enter Gaza, for the most part Egyptian activists were supportive. “We wished them well from afar,” says Wakid. “They had an important effect,” says Diya’ al-Sawi, a founder of the Egyptian Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza. “They changed world public opinion toward the Egyptian regime.” Critics of the march in the Western activist community were skeptical of the idea on the grounds that it was impractical and that it created the wrong focus — Egypt’s certain denial of access would shine the spotlight on Egypt, instead of Israel (and the US), the real forces behind the blockade. For Egyptian activists, however, opposition to the Gaza blockade and opposition to the Mubarak regime are one and the same. They are pleased that the international media attention attracted by the Gaza Freedom Marchers and Viva Palestina convoy helped to cement the connection.
Furthermore, Arab public intellectuals used the foreign activists to chide Arab governments and populations for insufficient solidarity with the Palestinians. Salama Ahmad Salama, writing in al-Shurouq newspaper, noted: “These marches, of course, may not solve the problem. But at least they ring an alarm bell from time to time, and do something to grab the attention of world opinion, whereas the Arab countries and peoples have submitted to the existing situation and are no longer able to resist it, but rather have come to beg for solutions and concessions that the Palestinians themselves refuse.”
In fact, despite the severe constraints under which Egyptian pro-Palestinian activists operate — such as the threat of arrest, police abuse and the absence of international media coverage — they continue to organize actions on a regular basis.
The same week the Gaza Freedom Marchers were in Cairo, Islamist students demonstrated against the construction of Egypt’s underground barrier on several university campuses. The “wall of shame” has also been the subject of spirited parliamentary debate and court challenges: Members of Parliament are leading a legal effort calling on the president and the Ministry of Interior to halt construction.
On January 15, about 100 members and supporters of the Committee to Break the Siege of Gaza tried to convene at the Doctors’ Syndicate in downtown Cairo in preparation for departure for Gaza. They encountered the heavy hand of state security: The nearby subway station was closed; the area was surrounded by riot police; taxi and bus drivers were detained; and the activists themselves beaten and harassed. They regrouped at an alternate location and decided to break into smaller groups that would travel separately by public transportation. But the groups were all apprehended, eventually, at different checkpoints on the way to Rafah, whereupon they were packed into minivans and driven back to Cairo under police escort. This sortie was the fifth attempt of the Committee — whose leader, Magdi Ahmad Husayn, was convicted of “smuggling” in January 2009 after visiting Gaza by tunnel — has made in the past year to break the blockade. They will try again in early April.
What will the border between Sinai and the Gaza Strip look like in the coming months? Since the underground wall’s depth and shape are unconfirmed, it is hard to tell how effective it will be. Many Palestinian smugglers seem confident they will be able to bypass they barrier, whether by digging underneath it or punching through it. Nor is it known how soon the wall will be completed. The Mubarak government may drag out construction for months to come, as part of the endless bargaining and arm twisting going on among Israel, Egypt, the US, Hamas and the PA presidential office in Ramallah.
Meanwhile, even semi-constructed, the Egypt-Gaza wall, like other barriers around the world, is a visible and dramatic symbol — an embodiment of Egypt’s policy and a lightning rod for opposition.
The wall heralds a hardening of the Egyptian regime’s stance on Gaza — despite the embarrassment of so openly standing athwart the Palestinian cause, or perhaps because of it. Foreign Minister Abu al-Ghayt has announced that “Egypt will no longer allow convoys, regardless of their origin or who is organizing them, to cross through its territory.” All foreign aid will have to be handed over to the Red Crescent, which will then deliver it — if and when the Rafah crossing is opened — to Gaza.
And the wall has also put Egypt, in ways the government finds quite awkward, at the center of the international argument over the Gaza blockade. Despite their ideological differences, Egyptian and international activists made contact in January, on the sort of unofficial level that is likely to endure. Egypt’s role in the blockade — a key preoccupation of local activists — has become part of the international pro-Palestinian agenda.
Ursula Lindsey is a Cairo-based reporter and writer
1. See an activist’s diary republished by the Palestine Telegraph, January 19, 2010, available online at http://www.paltelegraph.com/diaries/featured-articles/3689-fighting-our-way-to-gaza.
2. See Gisha/Physicians for Human Rights-Israel, Rafah Crossing: Who Holds the Keys? (Tel Aviv, March 2009), pp. 23-38.
3. Islam Online, December 17, 2009.
4. Ha’aretz, December 9, 2009.
5. Daily News Egypt, January 26, 2010.
6. Abdel-Moneim Said, “Defendre l’Egypte contre toute menace,” al-Ahram Hebdo, January 6-12, 2010.
7. Ahmad Yusuf Ahmad, “Stories of Walls,” al-Shurouq, January 7, 2010.
8. Fahmi Huwaydi, “The Wall of Shame,” al-Misri al-Yawm, December 14, 2009.
9. See the virtual placard at: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_O5OuU90ru-Y/S2RZSsY84JI/AAAAAAAADqI/t-182HbIRTY/s1600-h/!cid_C3D5F66E-762C-4FD2-90E3-CF2C76B786E1.jpg.
10. Ahmed Moor, “Lebanon Activists Launch Campaign Targeting Egypt’s ‘Wall of Shame,’” Electronic Intifada, January 21, 2010.
11. Hassan Abou Taleb, “La Palestine en 2010 et le role Egyptien,” al-Ahram Hebdo, January 27-February 2, 2010.
12. Yusri Fawda, “What’s Good About the Gaza Wall,” al-Misri al-Yawm, December 27, 2009.
13. Ha’aretz, January 19, 2010.
14. Daily Mail, January 9, 2010.
15. Al-Ahram, January 2, 2010.
16. Salama Ahmed Salama, “The Culture of Protest,“ al-Shurouq, January 4, 2010.
17. Al-Misri al-Yawm, December 30, 2009.
18. Al-Misri al-Yawm, January 1, 2010.
19. Ha’aretz, January 9, 2010.