– “Taskot, taskot Israel… Al-Quds a’semet Philistine.”
These are the words that reverberated off the walls of the American University in Cairo’s (AUC) campus the day after the Trump decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Roughly translated to “Down with Israel…Jerusalem is the capital of Palestine”, similar chants have sounded all across the Middle East this week in protest of U.S. President Donald Trump’s unilateral decision to recognize the Holy City as the capital of Israel.
The day after the announcement on Jerusalem, AUC Student Union announced its intention to hold a strike on their official Facebook page.
The student march began during assembly hour and stretched across campus.
And while this sudden resurgence in student activism seems to suggest a more politically active student body, it also raises questions. Why now? What do these demonstrations tell us about our relationship as people to the Palestinian Question? And in turn, what does that tell us about AUC, Egypt and the Arab World?
AUC Students’ Response to Trump Decision
At AUC, students were particularly mobilized by Trump’s declaration. But they did not mobilize for Iraq, for Syria—aside from a meager silent stand against the Syrian government’s alleged use of chemical weapons. Nor did they march for Yemen.
As such, it appears that Palestine occupies a specific place in the hearts and minds of AUC students.
There is a sense among Arabs that a grave moral wrong that has occurred. This has led to outrage for millions across the Middle East, where strong anti-Israel sentiments reside.
Is it because we are generally Egyptian at AUC and we are raised with strong anti-Zionist tendencies? Or do we have a desire for retribution after a series of wars Egypt fought against Israel? After all, “el ‘adew el Israeli” (the Israeli enemy) is never far from mind, though we’ve long maintained working relations with that state.
Or is it because the Palestinian cause has become tokenized in recent years? Images of carnage and destruction coming to define it in our local imagination.
The intifadas, the Gaza wars, the West Bank Barrier, settlement activity in the Occupied Territories. These spectacular images make the Palestinian cause an easy rallying cry.
Activism becomes a social endeavor. And while at its core it retains a political function, we must also consider what that political function really serves.
The Arab youth, like ourselves, have inherited the Palestinian Question. Unlike the Palestinian youth themselves, we are not confronted with the terror tactics of an occupying power on a daily basis.
We do not live under the systematic and institutionalized oppression they do, but for some reason we are moved by its most egregious manifestations—such as Trump’s embassy move.
Relocating the American embassy is hardly the worst Palestinians have, or likely will, experience under this apartheid regime.
But it does signify a denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination, their right to statehood, their right to exist in a world whose contours are defined by a potentially waning global superpower.
The Arabs had long since abandoned the Palestinians in their quest for freedom from domination when the UN General Assembly vote formally recognizing their right to statehood in 2012. This event renewed hope in the Arab world—a new chance to deny Israel its own right to statehood.
This denial is what Arab peoples have, in part, formed their identities around. The promise to eradicate Israel has been a unifying element in all Arab national identities, stretching beyond class, age and sex.
While we are still far off from any possible dissolution of the Jewish State, the international recognition of Palestine delivered a powerful blow to Israel’s legitimacy.
Trump’s move signaled a move in the opposite direction.
So when Arab youth are shaken out of their usual political apathy, it’s worth considering to what extent the demonstrations are motivated by the promise of eradicating Israel, versus genuine support for a dispossessed people.
This is not to doubt the integrity nor moral sense of the demonstrators. It is more to call into question the dominant perception of the Palestinian Question and how we as youth organize ourselves around it.
What does it say when we turn a blind eye to the systematic oppression of Palestinians, to human rights abuses across the Arab World, to the denial of water and electricity to millions and instead marshal our efforts on this one ‘spectacular’ event?
Perhaps it suggests that we are willing to tolerate their abuse so long as it does not threaten their existence—a focal point by which we can, for nationalist purposes, center our anti-Zionism.
The Egyptian Connection
This response in Egypt was of course not limited to AUC. On Friday, December 8, hundreds took to the streets in Cairo and Alexandria to protest in front of the Al-Azhar and Al-Qaed Ibrahim mosques, respectively, in a rare display of international awareness.
Again, it was not Syria or Yemen or Iraq that brought Egyptians onto the street, but Palestine.
Demonstrators both at AUC and around Cairo burned the Israeli flag, an indication that the anger and sense of injustice is directed not only toward the United States or Trump himself but toward Israel in principle.
But whereas students and citizens, for the most part, lack the awareness and the will to demonstrate against every grand act of injustice, many states have called out Israel for its campaigns in Gaza, its separation barrier and the construction of settlements.
Yet just as many Palestinians have, in turn, called out state leaders for focusing on the spectacular event and forgetting the structural violence Israel imposes on Palestinians everyday—a distinction that emerged in recent anthropological work that traces how the violence of specific catastrophes seeps into and reproduces itself in everyday life.
Protests have erupted in front of American embassies all over the Arab World. Egypt’s leading religious authority, Imam of Al-Azhar Mosque, Sheikh Ahmed Al-Tayeb cancelled a meeting with U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence in protest over Trump’s declaration.
But how many Arab governments have followed his lead and withdrew their ambassadors from the United States? Or expelled American ones from their own territories? How many rushed to impose sanctions on Israel?
Under pressure from the U.S. administration, it seems likely that the Arab states will cave in to the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem.
The bitter truth is that the Arab powers most invested in the Palestinian Question—Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan—are too dependent on U.S. goodwill and aid.
National interests will, once more, trump solidarity with the Palestinians and Arabism at large.
Mohamed Kouta is an undergraduate student at the American University in Cairo (AUC) and the editor-in-chief of the AUC student news paper The Caravan. On Twitter: @mohamedkoutaa.
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