The potential for Palestinian freedom is being fought over in the streets of Egypt. Many factors will count in Palestinian emancipation from Zionism and imperialism—principally the resilience and militancy of the Palestinians themselves.
But it is almost impossible to see a way to genuine liberation without revolutions in the Arab regimes. Egypt is a country of 110 million people.
Although its rulers claim to support the Palestinians, they conspire with Israel’s leaders to pen people into Gaza. And they do friendly deals over energy and trade with the Zionists and the Western powers that back them. Egypt is headed by repressive president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
He grabbed power as a result of the 2013 military coup that swept away the elected president and brought to a close a phase of the revolutionary process that had started with the uprising of 2011. He has ruled for a decade by outlawing most opponents and smashing demonstrations.
“Sisi and his regime is part of the problem for the Palestinians, not part of the solution,” Yasmin a socialist activist in Cairo told Socialist Worker. “People know how Israel makes Gaza into a prison. But one of the doors out of that prison—the Rafah Crossing—is sealed by Egypt.
“The rest of the 7.5 miles of the border is closed by a barrier that Donald Trump could only dream of—a cement wall, barbed wire and metal barricades. Egypt does not just accept the siege of Gaza. It actively takes part in it.”
If Egypt’s workers and poor were in command and unleashed as a real solidarity force alongside the Palestinians, they would tear down the wall with Gaza. They could inspire insurrection in other countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. They would give new hope to the repressed Sudanese revolution.
The power of such a risen people could, as part of their own freedom, make it impossible for imperialism to sustain its Israeli watchdog.
Sisi walks a tightrope. He cannot wholly abandon the Palestinians as it would expose him in front of his own population and encourage rebellion against him. But he fears the impact of an open interchange, with millions of Gazans becoming part of the opposition to him in Egypt and importing their revolutionary anti-imperialist fervour. As the Financial Times newspaper noted, “Cairo would not want to police an exiled community that could include militants who want to fight Israel from its territory.”
Sisi also sees Hamas as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood which held the Egyptian presidency before the 2013 coup.
“The Sisi regime that imposes austerity and oppression at home is also a traitor to the Palestinians,” said Yasmin. “Palestine solidarity is important in itself, but it is also a symbol of our hatred of the government and our determination to overthrow it.
“There has always been this close and interwoven connection between the two issues. If you want to be a friend of imperialism you hold down the Egyptian masses and work alongside Israel.
“But for the masses there is a positive link. The 2011 revolution came from a period of resistance that started in Egypt in 2000, with the second Palestinian Intifada.”
One of the great days of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution showed the connection. The Friday of Correcting the Path of the Revolution on 9 September 2011 saw a million-strong protest. Part of the demonstration then went to the Israeli embassy.
The Egyptian government had built a cement wall there. But that day thousands of people broke down the fortifications.
As an article in Socialist Worker at the time said, “They broke into the embassy and started throwing out the secret documents. So that night it snowed in Egypt. It was snowing the secrets of the state.”
Palestine is again central in Egypt. Two recent marches for Palestine in Cairo on the same day had very different aims. One, pro-Sisi, backed his policy of keeping the border closed. The other, called by his opponents, demanded its full opening.
“We don’t want Palestinians ethnically cleansed and expelled from Gaza in a repeat of 1948,” said Yasmin. “But Palestinians should be able to get away from the bombs, and their resistance should be sustained and supported by the Egyptian people.”
“Sisi opposes Gazans coming to Egypt, but he suggests to Israel they should be driven into the Negev desert! Now, tempted by bribes from the Western countries and Saudi Arabia to bail him out economically, he may be open to plans that Israel and its supporters come up with.”
A statement from the Revolutionary Socialists group in Egypt after the demonstrations said, “Thousands of Egyptians made their way to Tahrir Square, where they were soon dispersed by Sisi’s thugs, who arrested dozens of them.
“These thousands came out in support of Palestine and as a mandate for resistance, in complete contrast to the mandate requested by Sisi, aware of the collapse of his popularity due to policies of oppression and impoverishment.”
It said Sisi is a “trustworthy adviser to his “Zionist friends” and does not want to “spoil the ‘warm peace’ between his regime and the Zionist entity.”
The Revolutionary Socialists add that those who protested have “slapped the ruling dictatorial regime in the face and seized an inch of land in favour of the right to demonstrate and protest.
“As for the oppression they were subjected to, it is the greatest evidence of the despicable hostility on the part of the regime to any solidarity with Palestine.”
Fighting for revolution in the Arab regimes not only pits socialists against their own governments but against sections of the Palestinian leadership. That’s because they have generally learned the wrong lessons from the experience of Palestinian struggles.
One of the sharpest examples is from Jordan in the 1960s. Israel drove well over a million Palestinians from their homes when it was created in 1948 and when it invaded the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in 1967.
By the late 1960s some two million were in Jordan, making up more than half the population. Here they developed resistance groups, principally the Palestine Liberation Organisation.
It launched armed raids on Israel and set up its own state‑like structures to control the Palestinians. In March 1968 Israel attacked the Jordanian town of Karameh, where the PLO had a base. The Jordanian government of the pro-Western King Hussein wanted the PLO to withdraw before the attack. The PLO refused.
Instead a few hundred guerrillas stayed and fought, drawing the Jordanian army into the battle and forcing Israel to retreat. The battle turned the PLO into heroes. For a while Hussein and other Arab leaders had to tolerate the PLO. But they feared it would undermine their own rule.
Armed and supported by Israel and the US, Hussein launched a civil war against the PLO in 1970. His forces killed over 10,000 Palestinians in what became known as “Black September”, and the PLO was driven out of Jordan, relocating to Lebanon.
The PLO’s leaders, who always had a vision of a cross‑class, purely nationalist movement, resolved to back away from challenges to Arab rulers. That meant turning away from workers’ and peasants’ resistance.
The correct lesson was to combine the struggle against Zionism and imperialism with the fight against the system’s local rulers. But today Hamas has friendly relations with the Iranian government that has crushed protests over women’s rights. It is backed by the Turkish regime that suppresses the national struggle of the Kurds and uses repression against its opponents.
The need for such allies is the price of seeing military means, not class struggle, as central in the fight for liberation. Such movements need arms, safe bases and if possible diplomatic support.
Some 25 years ago, Tony Cliff—who founded the forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party—wrote, “The key to the fate of the Palestinians and everyone else in the Middle East is in the hands of the Arab working class whose main centres of power are in Egypt, and less so in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other countries.”
He was building on his analysis from even before the foundation of Israel on the role of the working class and the masses.
“Sisi shivers with fear when he thinks of the Palestinians and the revolutionary tradition of 2011 together,” says Yasmin. “We will fight to make his nightmare a reality.”
- Yasmin is a pseudonym