Protest in Cairo, Egypt against the massacre of Palestinians in Gaza. Photo: Eslam Osama
Umm Mohamed ran for days, asking about the fate of her son who disappeared after Friday, October 20 during a protest in solidarity with Palestine. “He is not with us, do not come to ask about him again,” was the answer she kept receiving from police stations around Cairo.
That evening, Egyptian protesters were particularly incensed by the bombing of Al-Ahli Arab Hospital three days earlier. On the 17th of October, the Israeli aggression against Gaza reached a critical stage of brutality, leaving hundreds of victims, including martyrs and wounded, children, women, doctors, and paramedics, in a crime that even supporters of Israel could not find a way to justify.
While many citizens around the world decided to go out in protest activities in the thousands against the war crime, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi hinted that he would allow its citizens to go out in the streets and squares to protest, a first since he banned demonstrations in November 2013 a few months after seizing power. This opening came as a relief to many Egyptians who were disappointed after seeing how people of the world had the freedom to express their indignation with the crimes committed by Israel, but in Egypt they were unable to show any solidarity for those that they consider neighboring brothers and sisters, and with whom they share identity, blood, and history.
The night of the protest, her son, Mohamed—a pseudonym for a young Egyptian activist—and many of his friends, reached Tahrir Square—the iconic symbol of the January 25, 2011 revolution. Umm Mohamed (mother of Mohamed, in Arabic) was not worried about her son’s participation after hearing the president’s statement allowing citizens to gather. But an hour later, she lost contact with her son.
Mohamed was one of thousands of Egyptians who went out at that time to protest the Israeli genocide in Gaza, before finding himself and dozens of others arrested in several squares and streets. Others were arrested later in their homes.
It took a week for Umm Mohamed to find out that her son was in jail. The Supreme State Security Prosecution had issued a decision to imprison him for 15 days on charges of joining a terrorist group—a common charge for political prisoners in Egypt—and spreading false news, days after he was forcibly disappeared.
After Umm Mohamed finally found her son, police officers did not allow her to see him. She also received calls warning her not to talk about her son to the press. The person on the line threatened to abuse her son in the prison if she did.
“I cannot describe the extent of my anger, frustration, and astonishment at what happened to us. All we did was go out in solidarity with the thousands of victims of the Israeli genocide in the Gaza Strip. Why then would security arrest nearly 10 of my friends for carrying Palestinian flags or chanting? In support of Gaza, are we not brothers in blood, suffering, and historical conflict? Do our governments work for our benefit or the benefit of the occupying enemy?” said “Mustafa Khaled”, an Egyptian activist who was reluctant to mention his name for fear of being persecuted by the security forces.
Khaled told Peoples Dispatch about the repressive campaign launched by the security forces in Egypt against participants in pro-Palestine protests, expressing at the same time his astonishment at the violent restrictions on independent activities in support of Palestine, while the demonstrations organized by the security services and parties loyal to the regime passed peacefully.
After the brutal Israeli aggression on the Gaza Strip, following the “Al-Aqsa Flood” operation launched by the Palestinian resistance, media reports, and official statements by Israeli and Western officials highlighted attempts to negotiate a plan to displace the residents of Gaza to Egypt in exchange for major financial support for the state that is suffering from an economic crisis. This is what Sisi rejected in a press conference, one day after the bombing of Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, hinting at his call on the Egyptians to go out to the streets to announce their rejection of the displacement plan.
We don’t give carte blanche
Egyptians received Sisi’s statement as a green light to demonstrate in support of Palestine without fear of being subjected to security harassment. However, in reality, without the knowledge of Egyptian citizens, it would appear that Sisi had permitted to demonstrate were only a select few, a specific group that was mobilized from the security services and parties loyal to the authority in specific fields to exploit the events in Palestine to grant what is called a “popular mandate for the president for the war on terrorism.” This is similar to another mandate Sisi requested to be given to him when he was Minister of Defense, which he exploited to stage a coup against former President Mohamed Morsi in 2013, before he became president of the country, says Khaled.
Khaled points out that while the vigils of Sisi’s supporters featured Palestinian flags and in the background chants in support of the president, whose popularity has reached its lowest levels in the recent period after years of repression and economic collapse, the vigils were not entirely pro-Sisi. The chants during citizens’ demonstrations in the Al-Azhar Mosque and Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque, which reached Tahrir Square later, in addition to the Alexandria demonstrations, focused on the Palestinian issue and refused to exploit the events to grant a new mandate to Sisi. Khaled sees this as one of the main reasons for Sisi’s suppression of the demonstrations.
Human rights lawyer Khaled Ali published a list of the names of 56 of those arrested for demonstrations in support of Gaza during the past two weeks, most of them teenagers, 14 from Alexandria and 42 from Cairo, explaining that a number of them were placed in a security camp and that others were arrested. They were arrested from their homes, and some of them were forcibly disappeared before appearing at the State Security Prosecution later.
A few days ago, pro-regime media outlets and parties proposed delegating additional powers to President Sisi to give him all the power to protect the “Sinai borders” and prevent the scenario of Gazans being stationed on Egyptian territory.
The protesters chanted against the Israeli aggression, but they did not forget the situation in Egypt, and how President Sisi is trying to exploit this war to his advantage. They realized the danger of giving a new “absolute mandate” to a dictatorial president who exploited his call to the Egyptian people to give him an “absolute mandate” through the pro-army protests in 2013. He had then used this to suppress supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood regime and it marked the beginning of a fierce campaign against any opposition, especially the political and revolutionary organizations and activists.
On the other hand, the Egyptian security authorities also took advantage of the escalation of events in Gaza to arrest several members and supporters of the campaign of former presidential candidate Ahmed Al-Tantawi, who is against the current regime, while former prisoners also received warnings not to participate in any future protest activities, otherwise, they will again face arrest.
The authorities aborted many protests during the recent period, following its disappointment with demonstrators cutting up pictures of the president, despite the mobilizations supporting him in Matrouh Governorate and several other governorates across the republic.
Sinai under danger?
On October 23, protesters even reached the area bordering Gaza. Hundreds of residents from North Sinai, hailing from the tribes of Al-Rumailat and Al-Sawarka, gathered near the villages of Al-Husaynat and Al-Mahdiya near the city of Rafah and the village of Al-Zawara’a near the city of Sheikh Zuweid. They once again demanded their right to return to their lands after the deadline set by the Egyptian authorities for their displacement had passed. The authorities had broken their pledges to allow the residents to return by no later than 20 October 2023, as agreed upon during a meeting between tribal leaders and the Second Field Army Commander, Brigadier General Mohammed Rabei, in the city of Al-Arish in August of last year. This meeting took place in response to a protest by displaced and relocated individuals at the time.
According to Egyptian human rights organizations, the army forces used unjustified violence against the protesters, intentionally firing shots to disperse them and arresting at least nine people, who are still being held in unlawful detention at the headquarters of the Sa’ha Battalion (the largest military camp inside Rafah). In addition to this, security personnel assaulted one protester brutally after an armored military vehicle intentionally collided with his car to stop him, resulting in head injuries and loss of consciousness. On the morning of the following day, 24 October, Sheikh Saber Al-Sayah Al-Rumailat, one of the prominent tribal leaders in North Sinai and the leader of the August 2023 protest, stated on his Facebook account that there were two attempts to arrest him based on orders from the Second Field Army Commander; he announced his intention to surrender himself at the headquarters of Battalion 101 in the city of Al-Arish. On the same day, dozens of participants in the protests were arrested by security forces at an al-Shallaque checkpoint at the entrance to the city of Sheikh Zuweid.
The recent protests by the population in North Sinai have arisen out of fear due to repeated media reports about Israeli plans to displace Gazan residents in Palestine to the northern Sinai region. There have also been indications of intense pressure on the Egyptian government to permanently accept Palestinian refugees from Gaza in Sinai. Adding to these fears is the displacement of residents of areas in eastern Sinai, and the destruction of their infrastructure, especially in the city of Rafah and several villages in Sheikh Zuweid, as a result of a full decade of military operations against the Sinai Province organization and decisions by the Egyptian president that emptied the region of its population.
The Egyptian regime has long been criticized for its rights record during the decade-long rule of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who oversaw a crackdown on dissent. Human rights groups estimate the country has around 60,000 political prisoners.