A View from Cairo | Yasmin El-Rifae


In February satellite tv for pc images of a brand new militarized buffer zone alongside Egypt’s border with Gaza circulated on-line. The Egyptian authorities was silent in regards to the matter for a number of days, then mentioned that the realm was being ready in order that assist vans may enter the besieged Palestinian territory by the Rafah border crossing. Unnamed Egyptian officers additionally advised NPR and different media retailers that the federal government deliberate to comprise as much as 150,000 individuals there in case of a mass breach by Palestinians attempting to flee Israeli assaults. 

From October till Could Israel systematically pushed Palestinians from throughout Gaza southwards into Rafah, towards the refortified Egyptian border, the place 1.3 million individuals, 600,000 of whom are youngsters, now shelter, principally dwelling in tents. All alongside it additionally threatened to invade this designated “safe zone.” The constructed atmosphere of a lot of northern Gaza has been destroyed. Some 35,000 individuals have been killed; an estimated ten thousand are nonetheless lacking below the rubble. After initially blocking all meals, water, gasoline, and medical provides, Israel closely restricted the entry of assist and repeatedly focused assist distribution websites and networks, killing individuals in what Palestinians name “flour massacres.” In so doing Israel has manufactured famine within the north, which is now spreading to different areas.

For the reason that starting of the struggle Israel has urged Egypt to let it push individuals into Sinai, the peninsula on the Egyptian aspect of the border. The Egyptian authorities has persistently refused these proposals, in an effort each to guard its personal pursuits—it says it doesn’t need Palestinian fighters attacking Israel from its territory—and to take care of a historic Arab place of rejecting Palestinian displacement. The individuals fleeing Gaza know they could not have the ability to return of their lifetimes. Many are from households that had been compelled south by Zionist militias in 1948; they’ve lived for seventy-five years only a few miles from their properties in cities and villages that at the moment are in Israel. 

On Could 6, after days of air strikes in numerous elements of Rafah, Israel ordered individuals within the japanese district to maneuver northwest to areas in al-Mawasi and Khan Younis. It then launched a floor invasion, bombed the evacuation route, and seized management of the border crossing. Over 100,000 individuals have fled the realm in a matter of days, to locations that UN officers say lack primary providers and are not secure. Israel first claimed that its floor operation was “limited,” then introduced it will broaden it.

Since Wednesday assist provides have stopped reaching Gaza. Even the small stream of people that had been getting out, together with those that had been medevacking out for remedy in Egyptian hospitals, has ceased. In the meantime gangs of Israelis attacked the headquarters of the United Nations Aid Works Company in occupied East Jerusalem, forcing it to shut. Rafah, the final lifeline for 2 million Palestinians being starved and bombed in Gaza, is now at risk of being destroyed.

Israeli forces have changed the Egyptian and Palestinian flags at Rafah with their very own. When Egyptians noticed the footage, it got here as a humiliation. For months, on social media and the information, they’ve watched with grief and anger as a steady stream of pictures, testimonies, and stories of devastation emerged from Gaza. Within the eyes of many, the Egyptian authorities is failing Palestinians who face ethnic cleaning and genocide—and failing them for causes certain up with their very own home impoverishment and dispossession. 

In a lot Western media and public discourse, Egypt’s picture because the devastated hopes of the 2011 revolutionary rebellion has been that of one other static, US-backed dictatorship. Its repression is typically forgiven for the sake of supposed “stability,” or, extra plainly, of defending “interests in the region.” Its story has turn into obscure, considered one of political prisoners, poverty, and dysfunction. Much less usually famous is the connection between Egypt’s repression of its residents and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The American-backed alliance between the 2 international locations has by no means been accepted by the Egyptian individuals, who share a historical past of anti-imperialist wrestle with their Palestinian neighbors. It’s changing into ever clearer that there can’t be freedom for individuals on one aspect of Rafah and never the opposite.

Constructed round an oasis between Gaza and Sinai, Rafah is an historic metropolis that was not too long ago cut up into two sides: one Egyptian, one Palestinian. The border between the 2, like most borders within the area, is colonial in origin: it was drawn in 1906 by the British to divide occupied Egypt from Ottoman Palestine. Since then, the realm has seen hardly any intervals of lasting stability. After the Nakba, refugees from southern Palestine fled to Gaza, which Egypt administered till 1967, when Israel annexed it together with Sinai, the West Financial institution, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. A lot of the 300,000 individuals displaced through the struggle that 12 months went to Jordan and Lebanon; round 13,000 went to Egypt. (Round 75,000 Palestinians already lived in Egyptian cities like Cairo and Alexandria earlier than the Nakba.) 

Palestinian refugees in Egypt weren’t given citizenship rights, a coverage that the federal government justified below the pretext of resisting their everlasting displacement. Within the Nineteen Seventies, below President Anwar Sadat, they had been banned from attending public colleges and dealing within the public sector. The 1978 Camp David accords and the next peace treaty with Israel set Egypt up because the world’s second largest recipient of US army assist, second solely to Israel. That treaty additionally ultimately returned Sinai to Egypt, with strict limits on its army presence within the space.

Within the early Eighties, when an Egyptian–Israeli border wall was in-built Rafah, it roughly adopted the colonial line, separating households within the course of; elements of Sinai’s Bedouin inhabitants are of Palestinian origin. The Rafah crossing has since been tightly managed, with intervals of complete closure after 2007, when Hamas gained elections and took management of the territory, in response to which Israel started a blockade on Gaza as a type of collective punishment. Cairo’s more and more open enterprise dealings with Israel, and its collaboration with Israel within the blockade, have lengthy been a flashpoint of public anger in Egypt, flaring up particularly at occasions of Israeli aggression. 

Mohamed Hossam/Getty Pictures

Professional-Palestine demonstrators chanting at protest, Tahrir Sq., Cairo, October 20, 2023

By 2013, when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi got here to energy in a army coup towards the elected Muslim Brotherhood authorities, an Islamist insurgency towards safety forces had begun within the Sinai. Egypt accused Hamas of offering fighters and weapons by the tunnel system beneath the border to teams such because the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province. Hamas denied the accusation and suppressed ISIS exercise inside Gaza. As for the tunnels, residents and journalists mentioned they had been principally used to deliver items and other people into Gaza, particularly through the blockade, when Israel let solely a naked minimal of official assist into the territory. However none of that mattered. In 2014 the Egyptian army began to raze the complete Egyptian aspect of town of Rafah on the pretext of preventing terrorism, destroying greater than three thousand buildings, displacing 1000’s of individuals, and ruining priceless agricultural land. It stuffed the tunnels with sewage, then saltwater. 

All this was a part of a bigger sample of militarized demolition and displacement in north Sinai, which happened below a near-total blackout on reporting from the realm, the state having taken management of most media. Some individuals obtained compensation and different housing in different areas. Others nonetheless protest for his or her proper to return to their properties. 

Till 2023 the border remained extremely restricted, however not unattainable to move by. For years journey coordination corporations, working with brokers on either side of the border, organized exit from and entry into Gaza, in addition to smoother journey by the Rafah crossing and the numerous checkpoints in north Sinai. Their providers lower individuals’s journeys down by days. Considered one of these corporations, Ya Hala, rapidly monopolized the enterprise after the struggle started. Its costs have skyrocketed: from a number of hundred {dollars} per head, at one level they reached ten and eleven thousand, earlier than not too long ago settling at round 5 thousand. Ya Hala is owned by Ibrahim al-Argany, a Sinai tribal chief and businessman who was instrumental in serving to the Sisi regime suppress the insurgency in north Sinai. His earlier companies included stone quarrying within the peninsula and reconstruction in Gaza. At present he controls logistics and delivery throughout the territory. 

Palestinians have used GoFundMe to lift cash for Ya Hala’s so-called coordination charges, which should be paid in money—solely crisp $100 payments—by a direct relative on the firm’s Cairo workplace. Many Palestinians within the diaspora have flown in to go there. They usually ask a pal to attend unnoticed with the cost close by as they stand within the lengthy line, then swap baggage when close to the entrance, to reduce threat of theft. 

As many as 100,000 Palestinians are estimated to have arrived in Egypt since October. In contrast to Jordan and Lebanon, Egypt doesn’t have formal refugee camps, although it hosts round 9 million refugees from international locations together with Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen. Palestinians fleeing the struggle enter on vacationer visas, and should dwell in rented or borrowed flats as their associates and relations coordinate housing and monetary help. They can’t obtain official aid or help, register their youngsters at colleges, or discover formal work. 

All the pieces is made tougher by an financial system in decline, marked by inflation, forex devaluation, huge international debt, and unchecked corruption. Many individuals can not afford meat or eggs; sugar is being offered by the cup; for an adolescent a automobile or an residence is a fantasy. The federal government, in the meantime, presses on with military-led megaprojects, resembling its new administrative capital, as nicely as bridges and overpasses that in recent times have lower by and redrawn cities, displacing the city poor. 

Even after many years of bodily, social, and cultural isolation from the Arab world, Palestine stays a strong, emotional mobilizing power. Due to this, numerous Egyptian governments have tried to comprise the efficiency of the Palestinian trigger, suppress it, or use it for their very own ends. In October Sisi requested Egyptians to show in help of his opposition to Palestinian displacement into Sinai. He solid this place within the language of the Palestinian trigger—what he calls “the mother of all causes.” However issues rapidly spilled uncontrolled as 1000’s of individuals took to the streets, refused to chant for the president, and headed on to Tahrir (Liberation) Sq.—the symbolic coronary heart of the 2011 revolution that toppled the earlier dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Safety forces attacked them and arrested at the least hundred individuals. Sisi has pointedly not known as for one more demonstration. 

Two weeks into Ramadan, a whole lot of individuals gathered at a neighborhood iftar within the working-class district of Matariya in Cairo, the place they lit flares and chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we will free you, Palestine”—a historic slogan of Arab solidarity that has stuffed soccer stadiums because the fall. Organized protests have been held on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, lengthy an area of final resort for activists; they’ve swirled with chants opposing the federal government’s complicity with Israel and the US and demanding that unbiased convoys of assist and medics be allowed to cross Sinai to Rafah. Extra spontaneous protests have additionally damaged out at the American College in Cairo, in entrance of the workplace of UN Ladies, in entrance of the Ministry of International Affairs, and on the Rafah border itself, the place volunteers pushed for assist to be allowed in. 

These should not the huge marches of London or New York, however they’re all of the extra significant for the dangers they entail in a rustic that has nearly turn into a shorthand for state repression. As of this writing, activists are calling for the discharge of dozens of demonstrators jailed for straying from the state line throughout Sisi’s October protest, in addition to six younger males arrested on Could 2 for hanging a pro-Palestine banner in Alexandria the earlier week. Egypt’s system of pretrial detentions and its harsh sentencing of political exercise has price many activists, journalists, and researchers years of their lives, if not worse. 

It’s of their financial actions that Egyptians make their solidarity with Palestine most evident: they’ve boycotted merchandise which have something to do with Israel or the US. Final October an Israeli McDonald’s franchise despatched free meals to the Israeli Protection Forces. The chain’s earnings within the area fell dramatically within the aftermath, to the purpose the place, this April, it introduced it will repurchase all of its franchises in Israel. Cairo’s Starbucks branches have been notably empty for months, and native alternate options to Coca Cola merchandise are particularly well-liked at social gatherings. 

The disaster in Gaza got here at a very strained second for Egypt. In February, determined for international forex to stability its reserves, the Egyptian authorities signed a $35 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates to develop a brand new metropolis alongside its Mediterranean shoreline at Ras el-Hikma. That is broadly seen as a part of a sample through which the regime undertakes profitable agreements that undermine its residents’ rights and entry to land. A well-liked video from a March demonstration in help of Palestine confirmed a lady chanting, “They sold our country for dollars.” 

The renewed significance of Egypt’s place as a mediator between Israel and Hamas has helped unlock extra international funding. Final 12 months funds and critiques had stalled on an IMF mortgage that required alternate charge flexibility and different acquainted neoliberal calls for; this March the funds resumed and the mortgage was elevated from three to eight billion {dollars}, with the IMF citing the Ras el-Hikma deal as assuaging some financing pressures. The EU can be giving Egypt an unprecedented $8 billion in return for serving to it hold migrants off its shores. Egypt sits alongside essential paths of journey and commerce, a few of which have now turn into routes for individuals fleeing from Libya, Sudan, East Africa, and different elements of North Africa. Since 2021 Egyptians have represented a good portion of the migrants risking their lives to cross the ocean to Europe.

As Gaza has come to the middle of public consideration, so has Egypt’s most marginalized geography: Sinai, Rafah, its throughway to Palestine. Despite Israel’s belligerence, there was a widespread sense that Egypt may have accomplished far more for Palestinians over the previous seven months. It may have used its affect with the US to stress Israel to lighten assist inspections on the border. It may have gotten extra individuals out of Gaza for medical remedy, and handled them higher after they arrived. 

The overwhelming emotions individuals categorical in the present day about Egypt’s response to Palestine are failure and disgrace, significantly about Ya Hala’s extortion of refugees, which is seen by many as a part of a broader sample of exploitation by the regime and people related to it. Disgrace is a risky political feeling. It may be directed inward, paralyzing us, or outward, the place it may remodel into anger—and alter.

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