Or is it just a case of outsourcing gone wrong?
Early in 2009, I got a call at the office from an angry reader, not happy that we ran a story from a news agency in which Egypt is described as an ally of Israel. The man, in his 40s or older, wasn’t making an argument that depended more on teenage enthusiasm and idealism than on information; on the contrary, he rationally and quietly explained that having signed a peace treaty with Israel doesn’t make us allies.
I wanted to agree with him – maybe out of the same juvenile idealism that he had distanced his argument from – but reality forced me to disagree, also quietly. I promised him to look into it; we had a busy day ahead and thus no time for me to have this elaborate argument: even though the phrase is daunting, it’s how the world sees Egypt’s foreign policy.
The argument would have taken hours, simply because Egypt’s policies vis-à-vis Israel are shrouded in ambiguity. On the surface, our Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul-Gheit is relentless in his criticism of Israel’s officials, led of course by his counterpart Avigdor Lieberman, the man who said President Hosni Mubarak could go to hell. At the same time, the very same Mubarak is entertaining Lieberman’s bosses with his signature smile. It’s politics, someone would say, as if the word automatically indicates an intricate, mystifying ideology we could never understand, and consequently whatever has the ‘politics’ label should be omitted from the discussions, rendered irrelevant.
But still, the world often dismisses Aboul-Gheit’s Liberman bashing as typical Middle East blabbing and focuses on the more tangible side of Egypt’s politics and draws the conclusion: It’s an ally. After all, without Egypt, Israel couldn’t have enforced the tight blockade on Gaza, which is always described as the Egyptian-Israeli blockade.
Protesting at the wrong border?
As supportive I am to any pro-Gaza, anti-blockade movement, there was a something a bit off about last December’s demonstrations. About 1,400 foreign activists flooded Cairo en route to Gaza, in an attempt to exert political pressure to end the blockade on the impoverished enclave. So far, so good. This is not new. Cairo has seen its full share of similar initiatives, albeit on a smaller scale. But the thing that was disconcerting about the series of demonstrations and sit-ins in the last week of December 2009 was the absence of a parallel and equally forceful series of demonstrations in Israel.
Last March, when US pro-peace group CodePink wanted to celebrate Women’s Day with the women of Gaza – give a breath of fresh air to women worn down by war – a group was pushing its way through the Gaza Egypt border and another through Israel. Both got in, got through to their target and drew the media attention to the tragedies of a community unable to rebuild itself after a grueling war and the injustice of a blockade.
It seems that some of the ideas that fueled such initiative were lost this December, the first anniversary of the Israeli offensive on Gaza.
This time around, the protests and sit-ins that were held in downtown Cairo and aimed at emphasizing the complicity of the Egyptian government in the blockade have overlooked another culprit, Israel.
The demonstrations on the Israeli-Gazan border were spearheaded by Arab-Israelis and some Jewish Israeli pro-peace activists. Without the “foreign element”, the protests in Israel got minimum coverage, as the world focused on Cairo.
This is not an argument to exonerate our government from responsibility; it is as the foreign activists keep noting complicit in the blockade. But maybe they should have listened to themselves a bit. Complicit implies another perpetrator is involved, maybe a worse offender.
Egypt’s role in keeping the blockade should be continuously highlighted and criticized, as loudly as possible. Even if arguments like more is expected from Egypt because it’s a fellow Arab country with a shared history and conscience are taken into consideration, this shouldn’t distract those critics from bounding Israel with the same, if not bigger, accusations.
Over the past couple of weeks, the Egyptian government was portrayed in international media as the source of all evils – which I usually don’t find anything wrong with, especially that our police didn’t hesitate in proving the world right when it eventually cracked down on those foreign protestors with its signature brutality – but at the same time, it seemed as if Gaza shared a border with one country, as if Israel didn’t control most of its borders. It seemed as if the world has come to terms with the fact that Israel can commit atrocities without a shred of accountability, while other (less) complicit countries should shoulder the blame.
Those heroic protestors – and I’m not being sarcastic here because I do respect all of them – should consider taking the fight, or part of it, to Israel. They should attract the world attention to the government that enforced the blockade with the backing and blessing of other governments.
British Respect MP and Gaza Freedom March (GFM) member Yvonne Ridley told Daily News Egypt reporter Abdel-Rahman Hussein, “The foreign ministry has scored a spectacular own goal,” Ridley said, “because by throwing the spotlight off Israel and its siege of Gaza it has shed the spotlight on Egypt’s complicity and now the whole world knows the Egyptian government is enforcing the brutal siege alongside Israel because of the behavior of the foreign minister.”
While this doesn’t explain why the GFM didn’t organize protests on the Israeli side of the border, it does shed light on another important issue: why is Egypt readily available to do Israel’s dirty work? I’m not just talking about the blockade, but in other border issues as well. Take the shoot on sight policy the government has been employing regarding African refugees trying to make it to Israel through the Sinai border. When Israel started complaining a couple of years ago – especially following pressure from Israeli and international organizations criticizing the Israeli government for merely thinking of extraditing those refugees that made it to its borders – Egypt started this shoot to kill policy, reminiscent of the Soviet Union that treated people trying to leave the same way it did trespassers trying to illegally get in. Now of course, Israel has no unwanted refugee problem or it has been significantly reduced; it’s the damn barbaric Egyptians that are shooting those seeking asylum in the Israeli haven.
Even with the blockade, the Egyptian government is shouldering most of the international blame and a large part of the security responsibility of enforcing the blockade. And here you can’t blame anyone but the government for this.
On one hand, the Egyptian government is sounding more like a five-year-old, stubbornly guarding its role in the blockade while at the same strongly refuting the simple phrase: “the Israeli-Egyptian blockade of Gaza.” Its attitude with the Viva Palestina aid convoy was staggering between complicity and an immature attempt of reverencing its bureaucracy. With statements like we “told them this route not this one,” and “we told them this number of vehicles and not this number”, the government tried to sell its form of arm-guarded bureaucracy as if it’s arm-guarded sovereignty.
Aside from the fact this is the same government that let an American walk without even an investigation after shooting dead an Egyptian in the Suez Canal, it often resorts to the sovereignty argument when justifying the decisions of its leaders, even if it’s irrelevant. Over the past year, I’ve seen serious damage done to the word “sovereignty”; randomly dropped in any argument by any government official to justify anything they please.
On the other hand, while employing the same contrived sovereignty argument, the government (which is on a mission to make enemies of all neighboring countries except Israel) is putting its soldiers on the frontline of protecting this blockade. Ironically, within the same governorate (North Sinai), whose residents complain that the emergency laws that saw many of their activists detained doesn’t protect them from being regularly robbed at gun point in broad day light, one of our soldiers was shot dead at the border. (Never mind those killed by Israeli border guards; they are not as heroic, at least according to our government. This one died by Palestinian fire).
When a proper investigation into the murder of border guard Ahmed Shaaban starts, investigators and the public should also be asking these questions: Did Shaaban die protecting Egypt’s border, or the policies that only serve the interests of its leaders? Did he die protecting Egypt’s sovereignty or warding off the Islamist scarecrow that could endanger the incumbent government? Did he die protecting the Egyptian public or the image of our leaders in the eyes of the real non-Egyptian ‘voters’ keeping them in power?
Those who killed Shaaban should be brought to justice, the same way those who (in)directly caused his death should be held accountable.