When I left Gaza for the first time on my own, twenty some years ago, I was warned of a notorious officer who headed Egypt’s State Security Intelligence at the Rafah border. He “hates Palestinians,” I was told.
My friends and neighbors in Gaza warned me not to greet him with ‘Assalamu Alaikum’ – peace be upon you – if that particular officer were to be on duty on that day. Yes, the officer also hated any reference to Islam, even the very greeting.
When I entered the mukhabrat office, I was startled by his presence. He was a very large, clean-shaven man who wore a tie so tight that his face and neck seemed as though they were about to burst. I was 18 and had never travelled on my own before. His angry look caused me to panic and therefore I forgot everything I was told. “Assalamu Alaikum,” I said, with a shattered voice that was hardly audible.
All the stories I had previously heard about the anti-Palestinian sentiment within Egypt’s governmental institutions suddenly became real, and humiliatingly so. The insults he hurled at me on that day were many and very explicit. I pleaded with him to allow me access to Egypt, for my future was on the line. He finally agreed on the condition that I would re-enter his office, and rectify my original sin. This time I was careful to say ‘Marhaba’ and not ‘assalamu alaikum’.
Two months later, I was deported back to Gaza with Israeli intelligence waiting to interrogate me at the Gaza side of the border. I had chosen a terrible time to be in Egypt. It was soon after the Gulf War in 1991 and then-President Hosni Mubarak had fully sided with the Americans in exchange for canceling some of Egypt’s debt. I, along with thousands of Palestinians, mostly students, found ourselves on some border or another because the Palestinian leadership had dared to object to the war.
Three Israeli intelligence officers questioned me on my way to Gaza. “Why did the Egyptians send you back?” one asked in broken Arabic and a smirk. “Because I am a Palestinian,” I answered not being sagacious in the least. They all laughed.
But the anti-Palestinian sentiment in Egypt is no laughing matter. Many Egyptian media commentators, known for their affiliation with the state, are having unlimited space to renew their hate-filled campaigns by unabashedly inciting violence against Palestinians. A fascist-like discourse has been brewing for years, but has morphed into ways unprecedented since the coup against President Mohammed Morsi by the Egyptian military on July 3.
Among all the pretenses that the military junta could have conjured up, they chose to imprison Morsi for ‘links’ with the Palestinian movement Hamas. The leveling of such an accusation is quite telling. Gone are the days where Arab leaders were condemned for their ties with Israel, or affiliation with this western intelligence or that. The fact that Egyptian media and commentators would repeat the ‘accusation’ without any one raising the question “so what?”, is equally expressive of the state of political degeneration that exists in Egypt today.
But this is hardly new and is barely a Hamas-related matter. When Egyptian president Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David Accords with Israel in 1978 and a peace treaty the following year, the Egyptian government and much of the media it controls began a slow-paced but determined campaign to morally and politically divorce itself from Palestine as a central Arab and Egyptian cause. Then there was no Hamas to blame for Egypt’s borderless afflictions, nor bearded men to hold responsible for the country’s profound disasters. PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat unwittingly served the role of Egypt’s bogeyman. He was humiliated at every turn. That generation of media wheelers and dealers were as unforgiving towards Palestinians as this generation of government stooges who are ready to blame, starve, imprison and kill if necessary. For it is now the Palestinians, not the Israelis, that are considered to be Egypt’s greatest ‘national security threat.’
On the other hand, Palestinians, especially in Gaza, remained extremely cautious in their approach to Egypt. They used whatever language required to maintain a semblance of civility with the Egyptian government, even under the regime of Hosni Mubarak. Despite the fact that Egypt had always participated in the siege that Israel imposed on the Gaza Strip in 2007, few Palestinians dared use such loaded terminology. It was an Israeli and only Israeli siege, resolved the official Palestinian discourse. Tacitly, they urged their Egyptian brethren to ease the siege, in the name of the shared fight against Zionism, imperialism, and in the name of Arab and Muslim causes, to no avail.
In January 2008, tens of thousands of Gazans breached the border with Egypt. They rushed into Sinai in a delirious search for food, fuel and freedom. With the exception of a few students, they all returned to Gaza. Shortly after the border was resealed and Gazans were locked up again behind walls and barbered wire, then Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit publicly threatened that anyone who attempted to cross the border “will get his leg broken.”
And when a popular revolution overthrew Mubarak, although not his regime, on January 25, 2011, Palestinians, like many millions of Arabs, celebrated. Those who celebrated in Ramallah under the role of Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, were quickly suppressed and dispersed, while the Gaza celebration carried on for days. Of course, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood relate to similar political, ideological and religious frames of reference, but the Palestinian love for Egypt and the hate of its dictators, is much older than the current turmoil that has divided Egypt and resulted in a military coup lead by General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
The intensity of hate towards Palestinians, coupled with media-induced rumors, doesn’t separate between Palestinians from Gaza or anywhere else. The matter is extremely serious since Palestinians in Gaza are immediately affected by it. Their freedom, or whatever remains of it, is in constant jeopardy. One of the army’s first steps after the coup was sealing the border with Gaza citing as a pretense its hopeless fight against militants in Sinai, itself subsisting in state negligence and economic ruin. On their part, al-Sisi’s supporters spared no efforts in demonizing Palestinians, using every medium available.
Meanwhile, the sheer opportunism of Mohammed Abbas’ Ramallah government has crossed all bounds. Abbas was one of the first to congratulate al-Sisi for saving Egypt and preventing it from slipping toward the ‘abyss’. Others in the PA called on Gazans to rebel against Hamas. And as Egyptians were still counting their dead on July 27 as a result of the government crackdown on protests in Nasser City and Alexandria, Fatah-PA supporters were marching in Ramallah in support of al-Sisi. They rallied in “Ramallah’s central Square of al-Manara chanted pro-coup slogans and calls to Sisi to crack down on supporters of ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi,” al-Ray news agencies reported.
At least during my youth, all I needed to remember was to say ‘marhaba’ and not ‘assalamu alaikum’, in order to survive the wrath of an angry officer. Now, little can be said or done to explain or endure this unequalled campaign of hate and demonization. The odd thing is that Hamas’s biggest campaign during Morsi’s 12-months in power was for Egypt to replace the tunnels it actively destroyed with a free trade zone that gave Palestinians an economic lifeline to brave the siege. Little was achieved then, and nearly 80 percent of the tunnels are now destroyed. Gaza is again hurdling towards an even greater humanitarian crisis, while the Palestinians stand accused of orchestrating much of Egypt’s mess. This is a matter as bewildering as it is untrue. But 25 years of unchallenged state propaganda can do that and much more.