14 January, 2009

United under oppression

During recent weeks, hundreds of thousands of people around the Middle East have demonstrated against the war on Gaza. In Egypt, at least 50.000 took to the streets in Alexandria last Friday in the biggest protest in the country for many years. In Jordan the anger has reached levels causing some to speculate that the stability of the government might actually be endangered.

To some, however, this tidal wave of anger sweeping across the region is just another sign of the hypocrisy that is somehow enshrined in Arab culture. "In a culture where human life isn't worth much [sic!] it's strange that the masses suddenly takes to the streets to show their rage against violence against civilians," states the blogg of "Peace in The Middle East" a Swedish pro-Israeli group. "Arab dictators and despots must be pleased that their people have something else to think about than their own daily misery."

This argument has been heard again and again in the West, and was recently repeated by Mona Eltahawy when she suggested that "Israel is the opium of the people." But while it's certainly true that totalitarian Arab governments - even staunch US allies like Egypt - often use anti-Israeli and anti-American posturing in their futile attempts to bolster their own legitimacy, the suggestion that anger against the devastation inflicted on the Palestinians serves as a diversion from daily misery - is simply wrong.

In fact, it's more likely that it works the other way around: It is the daily struggle for survival in the face of extreme economic hardship and brutal repression that is preventing even more Egyptians, Jordanians or Syrians from taking to the streets and voicing their support for the Palestinian people. And those who do show up at demonstrations hardly go home and forget about their grievances against their own government - instead, after being confronted by and sometimes beaten by riot police those grievances will most likely be reinforced.

Covering social protests in Egypt since autumn 2006, whether by slum inhabitants forcibly evicted by security forces, or the workers and urban poor battling riot police in Mahalla al-Kubra, there is one phrase that I've kept hearing again and again: "The government is treating us in the same way as Israel is treating the Palestinians!"

The idea here is that people around the region identify and sympathize with the Palestinians not simply because they share a common culture or language (or for that matter an irrational hatred of Jews, unrelated to the Zionist colonisation of Arab land, as some would have it), but also because they share a common experience of oppression and dispossession. First under colonialism, then under authoritarian post-colonial or neo-colonial regimes, often supported by the West (today this can be said about almost every Arab state except Syria and Sudan).

There's another side to this argument: While I've sometimes heard the phrase "fuck the Palestinians" from relatively well-off Egyptians, I've never heard it from a poor industrial worker or slum dweller. Being subject to systematic state violence and constant deprivation of basic necessities, the latter is more likely, not less, to feel sympathy with the people of Gaza. To suggest that this sympathy serves as an "opium" to forget their own miserable situation is just arrogant - especially when it comes from privileged intellectuals who are as isolated from the daily misery of Cairo's slums as the corrupt elite in Ramallah is from the suffering in Gaza.

Pic above: Kafr el-Elou residents forced to live in tents after being forcibly evicted by riot police in October 2007.

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