Palestinians: Pawns on Egypt’s political chessboard

Nada El-Kouny , Randa Ali , Friday 29 Mar 2013

Anti-Palestinian rhetoric, which has a long history in Egypt, has re-emerged recently as a result of allegations that Hamas is responsible for violent attack at the Rafah border

An Egyptian protester waves the Palestinian flag during a protest against Israel's military operation in the Gaza Strip, 16 November (Photo: Reuters)

For several weeks Ahmed Al-Biqawi, a 25-year-old Palestinian student who has been living in Egypt since 2007, has been working along with his Egyptian and Palestinian colleagues at different universities in Cairo to organise “a Palestinian week” that aims to refute misconceptions about Palestinians.

Their long-planned campaign has been put on hold recently, as the Palestinian movement Hamas has started to garner growing media attention in Egypt. The group has been labelled the mastermind behind a number of plots, most poignantly the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards in August 2012.

“We decided to delay Palestine week amid this negative hate campaign. I can't speak in the middle of the university about Palestine and Palestinian prisoners in such a sensitive situation. People will not sympathise,” said Al-Biqawi.

A few weeks ago, several media outlets quoted “military sources” accusing members of Al-Qassam Brigades - the armed wing of Hamas - of being behind the August attack.

State-run Al-Ahram Al-Arabi magazine claimed that security officials had confirmed that three Hamas members were responsible for carrying out the attack, in response to Egypt’s decision to destroy the tunnels linking Egypt and the Gaza Strip, seen as the lifeline for the besieged Palestinians in the Strip.

Such accusations have been echoed on a weekly basis, and Hamas has been described as the “third-party” involved in many of the clashes between pro and anti-Brotherhood protesters, and ensuing violence, such as was seen in December 2012 at the presidential palace.

Hamas: political football

“People want to use Hamas against Egyptians to show that the regime is supporting Hamas at the expense of the Egyptian people,” Mahmoud El-Zahhar, co-founder of Hamas told Ahram Online in a phone interview.

“Is it really in Hamas’ interest to carry out such attacks at such a time in Egypt’s history? Do you think Hamas will kill innocent border guards and fellow Muslims who pose no threat to us?”

El-Zahhar claimed that this comes as no surprise since “exactly the same” intelligence services are currently in place Egypt as under Hosni Mubarak’s regime.

Yet this is not merely a matter of laying the blame on an external third-party, but also a conscious attempt at undermining it for political motives. 

Some parts of Egypt’s opposition, such as Emad Gad of the Egyptian Social Democratic Party, and well-known media figures like Lamis El-Hadidy and Ibrahim Eissa, have propagated this rhetoric in an attempt to undermine the current Morsi-led government and its perceived amicable relationship with Hamas. 

Military affairs expert at Al-Ahram Centre for Strategic and Political Studies Mohamed Qadri Saeed echoed to Ahram Online the same sentiments, claiming Hamas, a “group affiliated with terrorist activities” was involved in the deadly assault.

“They [Hamas] have an eye on Sinai. They want it, they do not see it as sovereign Egyptian territory, but rather that they are entitled to it,” Saeed stressed.

He further accused the Gaza rulers of seeking to spread the “Islamist project” over the whole region, and criticised Morsi’s “friendly” relations with Hamas, warning of the Gaza group’s meddling in Egypt’s affairs.

A Sadat and Mubarak-era strategy

Joseph Massad, Associate Professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, states that this goes back to President Anwar El-Sadat’s alliance with the US and Israel in the 1970s, which took root with the Camp David Peace Accords.

As a result, this new class of business elites, which formed at the time as a result of the US and Israel’s interests, targeted the Palestinian people in an attempt to delegitimise their cause.

“The Palestinians are the weakest outside group who can be blamed for Egypt's problems,” Massad told Ahram Online by email, claiming the anti-Palestine rhetoric is in the interest of champions of a non-Arab Egyptian nationalism that is anti-Arab, pro-Israel, and pro-American.

He further stated that this campaign against the Brotherhood, which is financed and led by the feloul, or former regime figures, continues to use the same strategy of linking Hamas to acts that harm its interests.

Massad asserts that Mubarak used Hamas throughout his reign as a scapegoat for Egyptian military and economic problems, until the 2011 uprising when he insisted that it was Hamas that was inciting protests and was responsible for releasing prisoners.

In Massad’s view, the Brotherhood have adopted a policy of expediency, as on the one hand, they try to champion the Palestinian cause and Hamas, while on the other hand, they continue the siege on Gaza to an even worse extent than when Mubarak was in power. This is most evident with the Brotherhood’s silence on the army’s recent campaign to destroy the tunnels between Gaza and Egypt “in accordance with Israeli and American orders,” Massad affirmed. 

Palestinian-Egyptian researcher Abdullah Al-Bayyary argues that if Morsi was in an alliance with the Palestinians in their struggle against the occupation, Israel would not have called on the Egyptian government to intervene in forging a truce during Israel’s November 2012 ‘Pillar of Defense’ operation.

For Massad, the Muslim Brotherhood are trying to prove to the United States that they are worthy allies who continue to uphold the Camp David Peace Accords, and “will execute America's neoliberal economic programme for Egypt more faithfully than Mubarak.”

Repercussions of the anti-Palestine campaign

Against the backdrop of such political debates and accusations, those who bear the burden are the Palestinian people themselves, regardless of their political or ideological tendencies.

“Some Palestinians are feeling obliged to hide their identity to avoid unneeded discussions or being put in a situation where they have to defend themselves from illogical accusations,” said Al-Biqawi.

Al-Biqawi, an activist who took part in Egypt’s 18-day uprising, criticised the “hate campaign against Palestinians,” claiming it has made many Palestinians worried and has reminded them of the rough conditions they faced in the past under the regime of Mubarak, when a ban on Hamas members and their families entering or exiting Egypt subsequently ended up being applied to all Palestinians, and many Palestinian students were deported from Egypt.

Al-Biqawi stated that what makes the situation more worrying for him is the silence by post-revolution leaders, or even the opposition, who abstain from denouncing the anti-Palestine rhetoric for fear of taking up an unpopular cause at such a time.

He asserted that this is the norm, except for a few opposition figures like former Nasserist presidential candidate Hamdeen Sabbahi. 

In a meeting held a week ago between the Sabbahi’s Egyptian Popular Current and a Hamas delegation who were visiting Egypt, the former affirmed that its opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood would in no way affect its position on Hamas or its struggle against the Israeli occupation.

A week ago, Al-Biqawi says that two Palestinians were ordered to get off a microbus by the driver upon finding out their identity, who told them, “you are the ones who killed the soldiers in Rafah.”

“I strongly believe that even though we were liberated from Mubarak’s regime, we inherited a lot. His and his predecessor Sadat’s defamation of Palestinians has resulted in Egypt turning its back on the Palestinian cause,” said Al-Biqawi.

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