From Tahrir to Palestine

Against the Current, No. 151, March/April 2011

Nabeel Abraham

Nabeel Abraham, a professor of anthropology and director of the honors program at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Michigan, is a longtime Palestinian and Arab community activist. Against the Current asked him to comment on the following question: “What impact do you think the Egyptian events might have on the Palestinian struggle — both against the Israeli occupation and for internal democracy — over the next few months or maybe the next year?”

IN THE HISTORY of the Palestinian people, no single neighbor has loomed as large as Egypt. Even in ancient times, Egypt’s rather insular Nile-centered civilization could still affect the fortunes of ancient Palestine as the country served as a corridor and a buffer to menacing empires in Asia Minor and beyond.

In the Middle Ages, it was the Egyptian army of Saladin that decisively put an end to Second Crusade, with the defeat of Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem at the Battle of Hittin in northern Palestine in the 12th century. That battle is still alive in the memories of Palestinians today, Christians and Muslims alike.

Less than a century later, Egyptian armies entered Palestine again, this time led by officers of the Mamluk dynasty, where they defeated the heretofore invincible Mongols at the Battle of Ain Jalut in northern Palestine. The defeat permanently blunted Mongol expansion in the Middle East. This battle too is commemorated in Palestinian lore.

In modern times, Egypt played a pivotal role in the Arab-Israel conflict, especially after the 1952 coup of the Free Officers led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser positioned Egypt in the anti-imperialist vanguard in the Middle East. In the ’50s and ’60s, Nassar’s Egypt stood out as a beacon of hope to Palestinians and Arab nationalists across the Middle East, especially after it withstood the Tripartite Aggression of Britain, France and Israel in the Suez War of 1956.

The subsequent defeat of Egypt, Jordan and Syria in the June War of 1967 led to the capture of the remainder of Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza) by Israel. Yet the humiliation of Nasser and the Arab regimes proved fortuitous for the Palestinians, for it loosened them from the grip Arab pan-nationalist ideology and the military-run nationalist regimes (Egypt, Syria, and Iraq).

Moving out of the shadows, Palestinian nationalism filled the void created by the 1967 Arab defeat.

Egypt’s influence, however, was still felt, even in the negative. Egypt under Anwar Sadat, Nasser’s successor, moved decisively to reclaim the initiative from the Palestinian guerrilla movements, and with its Syrian ally launched a surprise attack against Israel in October 1973, ostensibly to regain the Sinai Peninsula and other Arab lands lost in the 1967 War. Sadat’s limited military gains afforded him an opportunity to negotiate Egypt’s entry into the U.S. imperial system.

In the much lauded Camp David Peace Accords of the late 1970s, Sadat agreed to pull his country out of the confrontation with Israel and its superpower backer. In return, Egypt was brought into the neoliberal world system dominated by Washington, investments and consumer goods began flowing, and state-run industries were cannibalized by the military elite and their cronies.

More than three decades of looting under the umbrella of glitter consumerism has left the Egyptian people feeling the raw side of extreme economic inequality and constricted opportunities for socio-economic mobility. This is the underside of the 25th January Revolution.

During that same period, the Mubarak years, the Palestinians and the Arab world generally found themselves having to resist U.S./Israeli aggression without the crucial support of Egypt. For its part, Egypt deepened its entanglement with neoliberal economic growth, even as the Egyptian military and mukhabarat (secret police agencies) become virtual appendages of the U.S. military and intelligence services.

Even in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Mubarak’s government often pressed the Palestinians to make concessions, and basically coddled the increasingly craven and corrupt Palestine Authority. Palestinians are very aware of the dastardly role Mubarak’s government has played in maintaining the U.S./Israeli siege of Gaza, up to and including its acceptance of U.S. funds last year to build an underground barrier to cut off the tunnels to Gaza from the Egyptian side.

New Hope, But Obstacles Remain

In light of this brief thumbnail sketch of Egyptian-Palestinian history, what do the momentous events of the 25th January Revolution in Egypt portend for the Palestinians?

The answer frankly depends on whether the Egyptian movement can consolidate its gains in the face of deeply entrenched forces of counterrevolution. All the repressive institutions of the state remain in the hands of elements of the old regime — the military, secret police, state media, i.e, the state generally.

Mubarak is out, but the regime still stands — albeit shaken and disoriented, it stands just the same. And crucially, the United States and Israel and the reactionary Arab states, which is virtually all of them minus the divided government of Lebanon, stand behind the Egyptian regime. They will do everything in their combined power to ensure that little of substance changes in Egypt’s decrepit regime. Palestinians with decades of struggle and sacrifice behind them are more conscious of these forces than many of the young activists in Egypt.

At best, what can be hoped for is a government in Egypt that due to constitutional changes, which seem likely, will allow for a modicum of genuine opposition parties that will be able to contest the ruling state’s pro-Israel/pro-U.S. stances. Egypt may pick up where Turkey left off before the rise of the current Islamic reformist government in Turkey — that is, a country with some opposition parties watched over by a pro-U.S. military.

Palestinians are hoping that if genuine opposition parties emerge they will hamper Cairo from backing the worst of U.S./Israeli policies toward Palestine — Israel’s siege of Gaza, the corrupt Palestine Authority, and Israeli aggression against Lebanon. But so long as Egypt remains a U.S. client state, even the most reformist-minded government will be constricted in its range of mobility. Politically astute Palestinians already realize this.

No doubt, Palestinians will be told by U.S. pundits to adopt the non-violent posture of Egypt’s 25th January movement. Hidden from view, of course, will be something Palestinians learned a long time ago — nonviolent resistance stands a chance only if the audiences that matter are able to see the true face of Israeli state violence confronting a nonviolent movement.

Back in the early ’80s, Palestinians set up a nonviolence center in the West Bank, led by activists trained by Gene Sharp, the guru of nonviolent struggle in the United States. It was quickly quashed by the Israeli occupation. That early attempt was followed by the greatest surge of non-violence in recent Palestinian history — the First Intifada, 1987-1993. It was met with massive violence by the Israeli state, with unabashed calls by Defense Minister Yitzak Rabin to break the bones of the demonstrators.

Sadly, Palestinians are today too tired and too beaten down by their own rulers, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, to be able to capitalize n the energy flowing from Egypt’s popular movement to bring about change in their own lives. What little energy they can muster at this time to revolt will be futile in the face of a highly beleaguered local despots desperately fighting to stay in power.

The overarching lesson of the 25th January Revolution in Egyptian, whatever its ultimate outcome, will be that people power and nonviolence can shake the world. The wall of repression blocking genuine democracy and freedom can be breached, and it will be necessary to do so if the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories are ever to see meaningful change in their lives.

By the same token, Palestinians know that the road will be long and difficult, even as they feel the reverberations of the ground shaking in their great neighbor to the south.

ATC 151, March-April 2011