As activists around the world mobilise protests against Israeli occupation, Egypt’s campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions is defying the military regime of Abdelfattah al-Sisi to join the global wave of solidarity with the Palestinian resistance. Despite heavy repression, students in Cairo, Alexandria, Zagazig and other Egyptian universities have organised vigils, poster displays and impromptu meetings over the last few days to counter the pro-government media’s lies about Palestine. Writer Ahdaf Soueif and campaigning lawyer Khaled Ali were among the speakers at major conference in the Journalists Union headquarters organised by the Popular Campaign to Boycott Israel (BDS-Egypt) on 18 October, which was followed by a protest rally outside.
We spoke to Ramy Shaath and Haitham Mohamedain from BDS-Egypt about the impact of the campaign so far.
BDS-Egypt launched in April 2015, on the anniversary of a massacre of Egyptian schoolchildren by Israeli warplanes in 1970. “The date was picked to remind people of Israeli crimes and atrocities against Egypt and Egyptians, not only Palestine”, explains Ramy. Holding the founding conference at all was a major achievement in itself. “We were unable to hire a hall for our founding meeting, and we spent more than a month in negotiations with the Doctors’ Union, the Lawyers’ Union and the Journalists Unions before eventually reaching an agreement with the Journalists’ Union to host the event, on condition that there would be no chanting against the military regime inside the building,” Haitham says.
Even the simplest forms of political activity are highly risky for BDS-Egypt supporters. “The campaign faces difficulties in distributing leaflets,” he adds, “as the security services have told printers to inform them of anyone attempting to print political materials. Activists from the campaign face arrest if they distribute leaflets to the public.”
“The latest assaults on activists took place at Cairo University, where a display of campaign posters which the Revolutionary Socialist students had put up was torn down and men and women students were beaten up on the orders of the University president in his office. Protests and human chains or poster displays in the streets are also very difficult to organise because of the anti-protest law which bans all kinds of movements.”
A hostile media makes it difficult to get the campaign’s message across, Haitham explains. “The Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people have faced a huge smear campaign since the military coup, accusing the Palestinian resistance of being behind terrorist bombings in Egypt, and of supporting the Muslim Brotherhood. These and other accusations are churned out day and night by private and state media channels in Egypt.
This has had a negative effect on Egyptians’ solidarity and sympathy with the Palestinian cause, and increases the difficulties faced by the campaign, which relies fundamentally on direct action by ordinary people.”
“State and private media which is owned by pro-regime businessmen have been boycotting us as much as we have boycotted Israel”, says Ramy.
Seven months on, and despite the difficulties, the movement has attracted a wide range of support, including ten political parties, four movements, six student unions, six trade unions including the Doctors’ Union, and many independent union branches. “We were certainly late in starting BDS-Egypt,” Ramy adds, “but late is better than never. With the rise of Israeli racial cleansing in Gaza and other parts of Occupied Palestine, we could no longer keep on only giving moral support to the Palestinians, or just donating aid and medication. We must take a stand which stops those crimes rather than just denouncing them.”
The movement can already claim some important successes. “We started with a campaign against Orange – Mobinil that caused Orange to clash with the Israeli government and eventually leave the Israeli market”, Ramy explains. A varied programme of activities, including exhibitions, seminars, conferences and book readings is bringing the message of BDS to a broader audience.
Giving Egypt’s hard-pressed activists a small space to breathe is crucially important, as the dictatorship continues to tighten its grip. “The campaign is an important initiative at this time because it opens up spaces for political action in the streets,” argues Haitham, “following blow after blow by the regime. The Palestinian issue has a big echo, particularly among young people and students, and the campaign can attract support from a section of the masses, despite the frustrations many have experienced since the military coup.”
What you can do:
- Join protest against the visit of Egyptian dictator Sisi to the UK. 5pm, Weds 4 November, Downing Street. More details here