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A View from Cairo

Yasmin El-Rifae
The Egyptian government’s repression of its citizens and the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestine are inextricably linked.

Los Salah/AFP/Getty Images

An Egyptian security detail escorting the UN Secretary General at the Egyptian side of the Rafah border crossing, Sinai, October 20, 2023

In February satellite photographs of a new militarized buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza circulated online. The Egyptian government was silent about the matter for a few days, then said that the area was being prepared so that aid trucks could enter the besieged Palestinian territory through the Rafah border crossing. Unnamed Egyptian officials also told NPR and other media outlets that the government planned to contain up to 150,000 people there in case of a mass breach by Palestinians trying to escape Israeli assaults. 

From October until May Israel systematically pushed Palestinians from across Gaza southwards into Rafah, against the refortified Egyptian border, where 1.3 million people, 600,000 of whom are children, now shelter, mostly living in tents. All along it also threatened to invade this designated “safe zone.” The built environment of much of northern Gaza has been destroyed. Some 35,000 people have been killed; an estimated ten thousand are still missing under the rubble. After initially blocking all food, water, fuel, and medical supplies, Israel heavily restricted the entry of aid and repeatedly targeted aid distribution sites and networks, killing people in what Palestinians call “flour massacres.” In so doing Israel has manufactured famine in the north, which is now spreading to other areas.

Since the beginning of the war Israel has urged Egypt to let it push people into Sinai, the peninsula on the Egyptian side of the border. The Egyptian government has consistently refused these proposals, in an effort both to protect its own interests—it says it does not want Palestinian fighters attacking Israel from its territory—and to maintain a historic Arab position of rejecting Palestinian displacement. The people fleeing Gaza know they may not be able to return in their lifetimes. Many are from families that were forced south by Zionist militias in 1948; they have lived for seventy-five years just a few miles from their homes in towns and villages that are now in Israel. 

On May 6, after days of air strikes in different parts of Rafah, Israel ordered people in the eastern district to move northwest to areas in al-Mawasi and Khan Younis. It then launched a ground invasion, bombed the evacuation route, and seized control of the border crossing. Over 100,000 people have fled the area in a matter of days, to destinations that UN officials say lack basic services and are not safe. Israel first claimed that its ground operation was “limited,” then announced it would expand it.

Since Wednesday aid supplies have stopped reaching Gaza. Even the small stream of people who were getting out, including those who were medevacking out for treatment in Egyptian hospitals, has ceased. Meanwhile gangs of Israelis attacked the headquarters of the United Nations Relief Works Agency in occupied East Jerusalem, forcing it to close. Rafah, the last lifeline for two million Palestinians being starved and bombed in Gaza, is now in danger of being destroyed.

Israeli forces have replaced the Egyptian and Palestinian flags at Rafah with their own. When Egyptians saw the footage, it came as a humiliation. For months, on social media and the news, they have watched with grief and anger as a continuous stream of images, testimonies, and reports of devastation emerged from Gaza. In the eyes of many, the Egyptian government is failing Palestinians who face ethnic cleansing and genocide—and failing them for reasons bound up with their own domestic impoverishment and dispossession. 

In much Western media and public discourse, Egypt’s image since the devastated hopes of the 2011 revolutionary uprising has been that of another static, US-backed dictatorship. Its repression is sometimes forgiven for the sake of supposed “stability,” or, more plainly, of protecting “interests in the region.” Its story has become vague, one of political prisoners, poverty, and dysfunction. Less often noted is the connection between Egypt’s repression of its citizens and Israel’s occupation of Palestine. The American-backed alliance between the two countries has never been accepted by the Egyptian people, who share a history of anti-imperialist struggle with their Palestinian neighbors. It is becoming ever clearer that there cannot be freedom for people on one side of Rafah and not the other.

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Built around an oasis between Gaza and Sinai, Rafah is an ancient city that was recently split into two sides: one Egyptian, one Palestinian. The border between the two, like most borders in the region, is colonial in origin: it was drawn in 1906 by the British to divide occupied Egypt from Ottoman Palestine. Since then, the area has seen hardly any periods of lasting stability. After the Nakba, refugees from southern Palestine fled to Gaza, which Egypt administered until 1967, when Israel annexed it along with Sinai, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Most of the 300,000 people displaced during the war that year went to Jordan and Lebanon; around 13,000 went to Egypt. (Around 75,000 Palestinians already lived in Egyptian cities like Cairo and Alexandria before the Nakba.) 

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Palestinian refugees in Egypt were not given citizenship rights, a policy that the government justified under the pretext of resisting their permanent displacement. In the 1970s, under President Anwar Sadat, they were banned from attending public schools and working in the public sector. The 1978 Camp David accords and the subsequent peace treaty with Israel set Egypt up as the world’s second largest recipient of US military aid, second only to Israel. That treaty also eventually returned Sinai to Egypt, with strict limits on its military presence in the area.

In the early 1980s, when an Egyptian–Israeli border wall was built in Rafah, it roughly followed the colonial line, separating families in the process; parts of Sinai’s Bedouin population are of Palestinian origin. The Rafah crossing has since been tightly controlled, with periods of total closure after 2007, when Hamas won elections and took control of the territory, in response to which Israel began a blockade on Gaza as a form of collective punishment. Cairo’s increasingly open business dealings with Israel, and its collaboration with Israel in the blockade, have long been a flashpoint of public anger in Egypt, flaring up especially at times of Israeli aggression. 

Mohamed Hossam/Getty Images

Pro-Palestine demonstrators chanting at protest, Tahrir Square, Cairo, October 20, 2023

By 2013, when President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in a military coup against the elected Muslim Brotherhood government, an Islamist insurgency against security forces had begun in the Sinai. Egypt accused Hamas of providing fighters and weapons through the tunnel system underneath the border to groups such as the ISIS-affiliated Sinai Province. Hamas denied the accusation and suppressed ISIS activity within Gaza. As for the tunnels, residents and journalists said they were mostly used to bring goods and people into Gaza, especially during the blockade, when Israel let only a bare minimum of official aid into the territory. But none of that mattered. In 2014 the Egyptian military started to raze the entire Egyptian side of the city of Rafah on the pretext of fighting terrorism, destroying more than three thousand buildings, displacing thousands of people, and ruining valuable agricultural land. It filled the tunnels with sewage, then saltwater. 

All this was part of a larger pattern of militarized demolition and displacement in north Sinai, which took place under a near-total blackout on reporting from the area, the state having taken control of most media. Some people received compensation and alternative housing in other areas. Others still protest for their right to return to their homes. 

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Until 2023 the border remained highly restricted, but not impossible to pass through. For years travel coordination companies, working with agents on both sides of the border, arranged exit from and entry into Gaza, as well as smoother travel through the Rafah crossing and the many checkpoints in north Sinai. Their services cut people’s journeys down by days. One of these companies, Ya Hala, quickly monopolized the business after the war began. Its prices have skyrocketed: from a few hundred dollars per head, at one point they reached ten and eleven thousand, before recently settling at around five thousand. Ya Hala is owned by Ibrahim al-Argany, a Sinai tribal leader and businessman who was instrumental in helping the Sisi regime suppress the insurgency in north Sinai. His previous businesses included stone quarrying in the peninsula and reconstruction in Gaza. Today he controls logistics and shipping across the territory. 

Palestinians have used GoFundMe to raise money for Ya Hala’s so-called coordination fees, which must be paid in cash—only crisp $100 bills—by a direct relative at the company’s Cairo office. Many Palestinians in the diaspora have flown in to go there. They often ask a friend to wait unnoticed with the payment nearby as they stand in the long line, then swap bags when near the front, to minimize risk of theft. 

As many as 100,000 Palestinians are estimated to have arrived in Egypt since October. Unlike Jordan and Lebanon, Egypt does not have formal refugee camps, though it hosts around nine million refugees from countries including Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and Yemen. Palestinians fleeing the war enter on tourist visas, and must live in rented or borrowed apartments as their friends and relatives coordinate housing and financial support. They cannot receive official relief or assistance, register their kids at schools, or find formal work. 

Everything is made harder by an economy in decline, marked by inflation, currency devaluation, massive foreign debt, and unchecked corruption. Many people can no longer afford meat or eggs; sugar is being sold by the cup; for a young person a car or an apartment is a fantasy. The government, meanwhile, presses on with military-led megaprojects, such as its new administrative capital, as well as bridges and overpasses that in recent years have cut through and redrawn cities, displacing the urban poor. 

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Even after decades of physical, social, and cultural isolation from the Arab world, Palestine remains a powerful, emotional mobilizing force. Because of this, various Egyptian governments have tried to contain the potency of the Palestinian cause, suppress it, or use it for their own ends. In October Sisi asked Egyptians to demonstrate in support of his opposition to Palestinian displacement into Sinai. He cast this position in the language of the Palestinian cause—what he calls “the mother of all causes.” But things quickly spilled out of control as thousands of people took to the streets, refused to chant for the president, and headed directly to Tahrir (Liberation) Square—the symbolic heart of the 2011 revolution that toppled the previous dictator, Hosni Mubarak. Security forces attacked them and arrested at least hundred people. Sisi has pointedly not called for another demonstration. 

Two weeks into Ramadan, hundreds of people gathered at a community iftar in the working-class district of Matariya in Cairo, where they lit flares and chanted, “With our souls, with our blood, we will free you, Palestine”—a historic slogan of Arab solidarity that has filled football stadiums since the fall. Organized protests have been held on the steps of the Journalists’ Syndicate, long a space of last resort for activists; they have swirled with chants opposing the government’s complicity with Israel and the US and demanding that independent convoys of aid and medics be allowed to cross Sinai to Rafah. More spontaneous protests have also broken out at the American University in Cairo, in front of the office of UN Women, in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at the Rafah border itself, where volunteers pushed for aid to be allowed in. 

These are not the massive marches of London or New York, but they are all the more meaningful for the risks they entail in a country that has almost become a shorthand for state repression. As of this writing, activists are calling for the release of dozens of demonstrators jailed for straying from the state line during Sisi’s October protest, as well as six young men arrested on May 2 for hanging a pro-Palestine banner in Alexandria the previous week. Egypt’s system of pretrial detentions and its harsh sentencing of political activity has cost many activists, journalists, and researchers years of their lives, if not worse. 

It is in their economic actions that Egyptians make their solidarity with Palestine most evident: they have boycotted products that have anything to do with Israel or the US. Last October an Israeli McDonald’s franchise sent free meals to the Israeli Defense Forces. The chain’s earnings in the region fell dramatically in the aftermath, to the point where, this April, it announced it would repurchase all of its franchises in Israel. Cairo’s Starbucks branches have been notably empty for months, and local alternatives to Coca Cola products are especially popular at social gatherings. 

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The crisis in Gaza came at a particularly strained moment for Egypt. In February, desperate for foreign currency to balance its reserves, the Egyptian government signed a $35 billion deal with the United Arab Emirates to develop a new city along its Mediterranean shoreline at Ras el-Hikma. This is widely seen as part of a pattern in which the regime undertakes lucrative agreements that undermine its citizens’ rights and access to land. A popular video from a March demonstration in support of Palestine showed a woman chanting, “They sold our country for dollars.” 

The renewed importance of Egypt’s position as a mediator between Israel and Hamas has helped unlock more foreign funding. Last year payments and reviews had stalled on an IMF loan that required exchange rate flexibility and other familiar neoliberal demands; this March the payments resumed and the loan was increased from three to eight billion dollars, with the IMF citing the Ras el-Hikma deal as alleviating some financing pressures. The EU is also giving Egypt an unprecedented $8 billion in return for helping it keep migrants off its shores. Egypt sits along crucial paths of travel and trade, some of which have now become routes for people fleeing from Libya, Sudan, East Africa, and other parts of North Africa. Since 2021 Egyptians have represented a significant portion of the migrants risking their lives to cross the sea to Europe.

As Gaza has come to the center of public attention, so has Egypt’s most marginalized geography: Sinai, Rafah, its throughway to Palestine. In spite of Israel’s belligerence, there has been a widespread sense that Egypt could have done much more for Palestinians over the past seven months. It could have used its influence with the US to pressure Israel to lighten aid inspections at the border. It could have gotten more people out of Gaza for medical treatment, and treated them better when they arrived. 

The overwhelming feelings people express today about Egypt’s response to Palestine are failure and shame, particularly about Ya Hala’s extortion of refugees, which is seen by many as part of a broader pattern of exploitation by the regime and those connected to it. Shame is a volatile political feeling. It can be directed inward, paralyzing us, or outward, where it can transform into anger—and change.

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