-Ramallah and Cairo - January 2009
Doublespeak absurdity is plentiful at the moment; I thought I'd had more than my fair share of it in the West Bank this week, watching Israel's brazen PR zealots deliver soundbite after soundbite into television cameras, each of them notable only for their heart-stopping audacity. But that was before I returned to Cairo to hear the Mubarak government's breathtaking contortions as it tried to justify its complicity in Israel's Gazan bloodbath.
The pages of Egypt's state-owned newspapers are an inky testament to George Orwell's claim that "Political language ... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." A few brief examples:
• Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni visits President Mubarak on the eve of the military offensive to secure his approval; her Egyptian counterpart claims that Mubarak had got wind of what was about to happen and had summoned "that woman" to Cairo to persuade her to stop the attack.
• Egypt leaves the Rafah border largely sealed as bombs fall on Gazans, citing in its defence an expired treaty to which it is not even a signatory; government spokesmen insist that Egypt is acting in the Palestinian national interest by thwarting Israel's plan to annex Gaza to its Arab neighbour.
• Protecting his own fast-melting political skin, Mubarak spends months helping to isolate Hamas and maintains a brutal crackdown on its Egyptian colleagues, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood; as Israeli missiles seek out Hamas targets, he keeps a straight face while telling the Egyptian people that Zionist leaders have blood on their hands and that the Palestinians must stand united.
Orwell also said that "During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act." When deceit is so pervasive though, it's hard to know where to begin the revolution. One good place to start is the prism through which Egypt's role in the Gazan mess is viewed by the domestic and international media. It's a prism that distorts and misdirects, both masking and deepening the most important dividing line in the Middle East today - the one between neoliberal regimes and their people.
Egypt's beleaguered politicians have come under sustained fire since the Gazan assault began, and are smarting from the verbal volleys. Hassan Nasrallah's call on the Egyptian masses to rise up in their millions to force open the Rafah border gate received short shrift from Mubarak minister Aboul Gheit, who told the Hizbullah leader that his country's armed forces were ready, if necessary, "to protect Egypt from people like you".
And resentment at Egypt's growing pariah status in the eyes of the Arab world is not limited to regime acolytes. Demonstrations outside Egypt's international embassies, the shooting of an Egyptian border guard by Hamas gunmen, and finally a widely-circulated article by the Independent's Robert Fisk which attacked Egypt's national "disgrace" and "malaise" have provoked a backlash even among trenchant government critics. "I'm sick of the sudden 'let's blame Egypt' mentality," wrote "Fattractive woman", a female Muslim blogger. The blogger known as Sandmonkey went further in a post about Jordanian, Lebanese and Syrian responses to Egypt's position, laying into "all of you f*****s who are badmouthing my country, which – by the way – fought four f*****g wars for the Palestinian cause and lost more people than all of you."
The international press has largely sought to explain and frame these clashes between Egypt and its critics in one of two ways. The first is geopolitical, lining up the pro-western governments of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia against the counter-alignment of Libya, Syria, Iran and its proxies, Hizbullah and Hamas. The second is domestic, ranging the forces of moderation and reason (personified by Mubarak and his party, the NDP) against the darker recesses of political Islam in Egypt (embodied by the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporters). Either way, the critical distinction is drawn between the calm and sensible mindset of a US and Israeli-allied Egyptian government and its irrational and hate-filled detractors, be they terrorist mouthpieces in the Arab League or Egypt's own Islamists marching in their thousands in support of Hamas.
The emphasis on this distinction is deliberate and wrong. Certainly there are two regional political blocs in the Middle East and this has helped fuel the diplomatic war of words over Egypt's stance on Gaza. And yes, the Muslim Brotherhood has been out in force in the streets here, using Palestinian deaths in Gaza to energise its support base. But the key to unlocking the complex Egyptian response to Gaza is the battle between the Egyptian people and its crony-capitalist regime. It's a battle that largely goes unreported in the western press, not least because it doesn't fit comfortably with pre-existing stereotypes about the political dynamics of the region. These focus on religious and sectarian division or high-level spats between autocratic leaders; there is no space for supposedly banal news about the impact Washington-imposed economic orthodoxy is having on citizens, or the popular fightbacks that break out daily against it.
As many Egyptian activists have shown me, the Palestinian cause has always been inextricably linked in Egyptian eyes to Egypt's own home-grown struggle against corruption, repression and the naked looting of state assets by a western-propped business and political glitterati. Early demonstrations against Mubarak's dictatorship in the 1990s rallied around the slogan "The road to Jerusalem lies through Cairo"; those attending understood that the status quo in Palestine was reinforced by the financial interests of their own regime and the security apparatus that supported it. The aggressive new privatisation programme pursued by the Mubarak regime since 2004, and the corruption scandals and spiralling unemployment and inflation accompanying it (even as the country delivers IMF "poster-boy" figures on economic growth) is seen as part and parcel of the global interests that keep Gaza under siege and consign Palestinian self-determination to a pipe dream.
Despite internal disunity, opposition movements often understood that forces of money and power – governments in America, Europe, Israel and their Arab-regime cheerleaders, plus the local and international corporate entities profiting from economic liberalisation in the region – acted as a coherent and effective cabal, and resistance to it in Egypt could not be isolated from resistance in Palestine.
Mubarak and the ruling NDP party understood this too, which is why it has been so quick to shut down any popular expressions of support for the Palestinian people within its own borders and why it is so nervous about the latest wave of protests. The Gazan crisis has emerged just as popular actions to subvert the systems of social repression that keep Egyptians alienated from their own economic and political processes are snowballing. The previous two years have seen more strikes and sit-ins than at any time since the second world war; a second major industrial sector has managed to break free of the five-decade state monopoly on trade unions; over 2,000 police officers have just resigned en masse over the use of torture as a security tactic and woeful working conditions.
As ever, developments across the border help to give fresh impetus to these anti-regime struggles and provide a wide range of opposition political interests – from socialists to liberals, secularists to Islamists – with an opportunity to unite around a potent and effective political symbol which advances their cause. And as ever, the regime reacts brutally, putting Cairo University under siege even as its figurehead publicly bemoans the fate of the besieged Palestinians of Gaza. The students struggling to make themselves heard on campus behind the batons and riot shields of Mubarak's law enforcers are not pawns in the geopolitical fissures that the media obsess over, nor are they blind footsoldiers of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.
They are, for the most part, simply fired by the Gazan catastrophe into giving voice to the simmering anger felt by much of the population at the twisted and tragic policies of an Egyptian government which, as the author Alaa al-Aswani recently wrote, has created its own generation of martyrs killed by "corruption and abuse of power" – through accidents and negligence and the poisonous grip of poverty – a government also colluding in the subjugation and destruction of Palestinians on Egypt's border. Unable and unwilling to break free of its well-worn preconceptions, most of the media prefers to ignore this crucial fault-line in the Arab world's largest state when "explaining" the Gazan assault. By throwing attention elsewhere instead, they are carrying out a dangerous conjuring trick which insults and undermines Egyptians and Palestinians alike.