This week an American gentleman in full military uniform and wielding a rifle in a tiny fenced-in compound with a basketball court in the middle of Sinai’s dog teeth mountains threw up a peace sign as we drove past. Some days later, in the middle of the thirsty, flat desert between Taba and Suez, we were met with another lonely compound. Someone had scrawled “bienvenidos!” on a white board and drawn a smiling face.
What I can only imagine are very bored members of the Military and Foreign Observers (MFO) force are deployed in these compounds, part of Sadat’s legacy. Eleven nationalities are involved, including the friendly Columbians and the basketball-playing Americans we saw. Their job is to “supervise the implementation of the security provisions of the Egyptian-Israeli Treaty of Peace and employ best efforts to prevent any violation of its terms.”
Approximately a minute after passing the compounds we would be met with a checkpoint, manned by a couple of bored Egyptian soldiers. To remind us that this is still Egyptian sovereign territory, perhaps.
I was struck by the disconnect between the theoretical threat of mobilisation by the Egyptian army in Sinai – which the MFO are meant to ward off – the massacre going on in Gaza three hours away, and the political emasculation which means that Egypt, the 2nd biggest recipient of US military aid will never meaningfully challenge the 1st biggest recipient – militarily, diplomatically or otherwise – under the current regime. Even when the latter sprays shrapnel all over its neighbour’s side of the border, injuring four people in the process.
There’s something slightly menacing about Sinai, a sort of latent threat. This despite – or perhaps, because of – the beauty of its vast emptiness, its mountains like monsters which seem to move and change shape as they are enveloped in the usurping darkness.
It is the weight of history though, rather than its topography, which makes Sinai so imposing. As we moved through it I wandered whether Israel mapped out the road we used, whether it lay the foundations of the hotels we stayed in, whether Sharon had taken this very same route when he and his troops rolled through the Mitla Pass. In the gruesome Taba (which has a spirit similar to that of a kitchen showroom) we stood and looked at Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, and then stood at the border with Israel looking at their flags flying in the very near distance, and the army posts on the hills above us, and the shocking normality of it all.
A Russian teenager playing pool in a Taba hotel had a T-shirt bearing the inscription ‘Israel’ against a backgrond of brightly-coloured pictures.
A Bedouin man at Saint Catherine told us (as my father and Dr Moftases bounced up Mount Moussa and I ascended in a state somewhere between cardiac arrest and respiratory failure) that business was slow, that he only goes up the mountain once every ten days at the moment. Because of Gaza? Dr Moftases enquired. No, the guide said. Because of the global economic crisis.
Gaza is in such close physical proximity to Egypt and, yet, so removed from it. When the 1st Intifada broke out in 1987 I was a 10 year-old in the north of England. My mother is strongly pro-Palestine, bitterly anti-Israel, and she transmitted that partisanship to me emotionally before the injustice of Israel’s colonisation of Palestine and the atrocities committed in its name became apparent on an intellectual level.
I was shocked – and saddened – when I came to Egypt in 1996 on a visit and discovered that there wasn’t straightforward support for the Palestinian cause. Or even straightforward sympathy. The issue came up amongst a group of AUC student friends of my cousin, and what have now become familiar accusations of Palestinians having ‘willingly sold their own land to the Jews’ were bandied about, accompanied by the usual charge that ‘one cannot trust Palestinians’ because they’re ‘disloyal’. I wondered if I had arrived in the wrong country from the UK, where people didn’t give a toss about Palestine but at least they (mostly) didn’t demonstrate this odd venom.
The schism in public opinion towards Israel’s invasion of Gaza, the reaction to protests, reminded me of this. The Muslim Brotherhood demonstrated both its ability to mobilise large numbers and its capacity to impose strict discipline: demonstrations were segregated according to gender (which might have occurred naturally) and observed a strict policy of No Domestic Issues (which was orchestrated). Chants of ‘down, down Hosny Mubarak’ were quickly replaced with cries of ‘with [our] soul, with [our] blood, we sacrifice ourselves for you, O Palestine‘ initiated by energetic men standing in front of the crowds.
Leftists in these protests were outnumbered by the MB and didn’t stand a chance of getting their voices heard.
The authorities’ policy towards protests steadily became less tolerant during that first week. Seven days later and a terrifying number of police officers, central security forces members and state security investigations officers were deployed in Ramsis outside the train station on a Friday morning. They surrounded the men performing prayers on street corners while passers-by looked on, waiting.
The end of the prayer was like a starter’s pistol. The crowd immediately began chanting and the police responded, forcing them into an alley before pummeling them with batons and picking them out one by one and taking them to police vans.
At another mosque further down the street men shouted zalem [oppressor] at a plain clothed police man chasing a protestor. The police man stopped and began walking towards the group, his fists clenched. He then picked up a wide slab of concrete from the floor, raised it above his head and broke it at their feet, before cursing them and walking off.
I think that if it was possibly diplomatically to do this, Mubarak might do the same thing to his detractors. Except on their heads. Egypt’s role in facilitating/ignoring the deaths of nearly a thousand Palestinians is currently a topic of much discussion. Numerous media articles have presented this a simple case of The People vs. The Regime, which is not strictly accurate.
There do of course exist many, vocal critics of the regime’s ball-less, shameful response to the issue, but equally, many have come out strongly in support of the continued closure of the border crossing and as little involvement as possible with it. Formally, the reasons for this include the heavy loss of Egyptian life for the Palestinian cause over the years. There is also the frying pan and fire theory, according to which if the border was opened thousands of Gaza’s population would come flocking through it and take up residence in northern Sinai. I’m particularly baffled by this: it hasn’t happened in the three decades that Israel has been tormenting Gaza, so why should it happen now?
There has also been a backlash to the backlash against Egypt prompted by protests outside Egyptian embassies demonstrating against Egypt’s policy in general, but its failure to open its border in particular. Funnily enough, many of the people I know who have taken umbrage at the attacks from abroad and are now banging the nationalist tub are the very same individuals who are most critical of the way that domestic issues are handled by the current regime.
Interestingly, after I left the protest on Friday, shortly after I had seen a protestor beaten unconscious by the police, I got into a taxi driven by a man with a huge beard and shaved head. Without any prompting he launched into a monologue about his eight years locked up in an Egyptian prison because of his membership of an Islamic group (“they were the best years of my life”) before he held forth on the uselessness of these protests, suggesting that they do nothing to either influence government policy or help Palestinians.
Per makes an interesting point on his blog, that oppressed working class Egyptians identify with Palestinians not just because of their shared language, culture and religions but also because they share “a common experience of colonialism and dispossession.” Per points to the numerous times he has heard Egyptians say (of the government) “they’re treating us like Israel treat the Palestinians.”
My own feeling is that this tells us more about Egyptians’ relationship with Israel and their own government, than it does about their relationship with Palestinians and Palestine – rather in the way that Germany remained a bogeyman for several generations of British people after the 2nd World War. The attitude lingers on in expressions such as “so and so is a right Nazi”.
That Israel has become a metaphor for oppression explains both the extreme governmental sensitivity surrounding anti-war protests in Egypt (the ever-present threat of protestors who have not received the MB memo vocally making the association between Israeli aggression and domestic repression) and the moral bankruptcy of the current regime in the eyes of many Egyptians. The worst thing about this bankruptcy is that – like everything about this government – it isn’t based on any discernible and defendable policy or moral stand but, rather, is a mixture of unimaginative pragmatism, opportunism, and bending over for the masters.