A protester with his face painted in the colours of the Palestinian flag prays at Tahrir Square in Cairo May 13, 2011. (Photo: REUTERS – Amr Abdallah Dalsh)
Bisan Udwan | , October 13, 2011 | Al Akhbar
Cairo — Little is written about Palestinians who have been living in Egypt for more than half a century. For generations of Palestinians, Egypt has been their only home — and place of exile — an Egypt they love and hate.
Generations of Palestinians have grown up fearing Egyptian security forces. They fear leaving Egypt and not being able to return and fear daily discrimination in education, work, and health. Palestinians lived in Egypt while the ruling party incited Egyptian public opinion against everything Palestinian, a strategy employed to distract Egyptians from their own repression. These developments created a Palestinian-Egyptian identity that is both distorted and confused, reflecting Palestinian fears of displacement and deportation.
The Palestinian cause is still at the center of revolution in the Arab world, particularly in Egypt. Over the last three decades, Egyptian demonstrations in support of the Palestinian cause were a crucial rehearsal for Egyptian protests against the state’s repressive authorities. For many, the movement to support the intifada was the first step towards the Egyptian uprising on 25 January 2011. At the same time, Palestinians living in Egypt experienced systematic marginalization. This affected their relationship with…their Palestinian identity, as well as the impact of other identities on theirs.
Between January and May 2011, Egyptians were not just concerned with their own revolution. Despite the many problems of Egypt, Palestinian issues were a genuine concern of the protest movement. The first Friday of May was called ‘The Friday of National Unity and the Palestinian Cause.’ With prior agreement, demonstrators and marchers set out to ‘March to Palestine.’ In Egyptian squares, people were commemorating the Nakba with slogans such as “Palestine from the river to the sea,” “Freedom for Palestine,” and “Yes to the return of the refugees.” Young people marched towards the Israeli embassy calling for the expulsion of the ambassador and the removal of the Israeli flag from the skies of free Egypt.
No one can ignore the status enjoyed by the Palestinian cause in Egypt’s collective consciousness, particularly among the revolutionary youth. But in the new Egypt, Egyptians have only been able to read a few articles about Palestinian interests. It was no coincidence that the reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas took place before the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, with the aim of containing the marches organized by Arab revolutionary youth under the banner of March to Palestine. As for the sit-in organized by Egyptian mothers in front of the headquarters of the cabinet, demanding the right of citizenship for their Palestinian children, the event was poorly attended, superficial, and not preplanned. The demonstration did not address the tragedy of 70 percent of Palestinians who hold Egyptian travel documents, 50,000 of which are identified as refugees.
This is only one of the contradictions that Palestinians experience in Egypt. They face a duality of exile and homeland, a place which is both temporary and permanent. After the Egyptian revolution succeeded in ending Palestinian division, there was also the duality of joy and anticipation, the possibility of passively observing change in the Arab world and the seeming impossibility of beginning a revolution towards Palestine.
The Forgotten Society Forsakes the Revolution
The overwhelming position among the Palestinian community in Egypt was disengagement with the revolution. We adopted this position because we felt the revolution had nothing to do with us. There were exceptions to this, whereby several activists came out into the public arena. After the famous withdrawal by the police on January 28, most Palestinian participation was limited to forming popular committees to defend their neighborhoods.
Rami Abu Yazan, 33, says: “I participated in the private protection committees in Hilwan, where I live. We all feared for our lives, our homes and our streets. I did not participate in the youth revolution in Tahrir Square because that was a battle for the Egyptians themselves.” He explained that this was because Palestinians get into political trouble after every demonstration or popular protest. The security forces view us “as agitators, the reason behind protests. This makes us vulnerable to arrests and deportation.”
“We are always the accused,” says Mohammad Taluli, 28, commenting on the situation of Palestinians in Egypt. Taluli adds, “The Egyptian authorities incite public opinion against the Palestinians in Egypt whenever it suits them and whenever there is any danger. The government accused the Palestinians of being present in Tahrir Square and claimed that members of Hamas had broken into the prisons.” The government also led the people to believe that the man who bombed the church in Alexandria at the beginning of the year was a Palestinian.
Nabil al-Samadi, 29, says that he did not participate in the Egyptian revolution because it was an Egyptian domestic issue, while, for him, Palestinian problems took precedence, such as ending Palestinian divisions. He continues: “If the Egyptian revolution fails, we will be the scapegoats. We will be attacked in Egypt or even in Palestine itself.”
In the few existing social studies on the legal status of Palestinian refugees in their country of refuge, the Palestinians in Egypt were termed “Transit Palestinians,” because their legal status is fragile. In 1989, Elias Sanbar described this group as living in “permanent liminality,” in a temporary state with an eternal feeling of waiting. This “liminality” is evident in their economic lives and in the social networks they build amongst each other. Most of them come from Gulf countries, Egypt, and Lebanon and are refugees of 1948 and 1967.
A Divided Identity and Poor Participation
In the past few decades, many Palestinians avoided admitting their origins for fear of harassment, despite official claims that Egypt wishes to preserve Palestinian identity. Despite the Egyptian revolution’s accomplishments — which created a climate where Palestinians may openly demand citizenship — many Palestinians supportive of the revolution or who participated in the March to Palestine still conceal their identities. These Palestinians still fear reprisals from elements of the Egyptian security apparatus as the political and security situation remains unstable.
Writer and journalist Sama Jaradat, 33, tells us that for many years she has “lived in a state of temporariness.” Her identity is divided because she is a Palestinian who has lived two-thirds of her life in Egypt: “I am neither an Egyptian nor a Palestinian. This causes me trouble at various levels in my work, my creativity, my culture, and my private life. But January 25 was a turning point for me personally. It was the day I resolved my identity: I am a Palestinian-Egyptian.” During her university days, she participated in all Egyptian protests in support of Palestine, and lately she has felt that she has to support the Egyptian people “for whom the Palestinian cause has always been important and cherished.”
Yafa al-Haj, 35, is a human rights activist. She explains her participation in the Egyptian revolution: “The success of the Egyptian revolution is a step towards the liberation of Palestine. From the first day, I was convinced that these protests were not like any others before them and that they would stay strong. But I really did not imagine that they would succeed in overthrowing a corrupt authoritarian regime this quickly.” She adds: “I joined a political group which was set up after the revolution, but I have to stay in the background because of my nationality, due to fear of the military authorities or the media, who incite public opinion against any non-Egyptian who participated in the revolution or supported it, which may harm my group.”
Anticipation, caution, and fear of the unknown overwhelm the Egyptian streets because the revolution’s demands have not yet been met. Palestinians fear they will remain forgotten in the new Egypt. There is no talk of Palestinians right of return or of lifting Egypt’s discriminatory policies against Palestinians. Rather, the Palestinians are talked about as if they are under the control of the Palestinian embassy.
In 1958, emergency law no. 162 gave the authorities wide ranging powers to suspend basic freedoms: these included outlawing demonstrations and public meetings and arresting those suspected of wrongdoing, holding them without trial for long periods, and using military courts for their trials. Under the emergency law, the actions of Palestinians were severely restricted. There were wide scale arrests and surveillance of all charity and cultural activities. This affected Palestinian’s daily lives and forced them to fear one another.
Inas Salim, a 30-year-old lawyer, says her public work and human rights background encouraged her participation in the Egyptian revolution several days after it began: “The violations against the Egyptian youth were horrendous, such as arrests and deliberate killings by the police. I was compelled to participate, though in a limited way, through the lawyers’ union. Being Palestinian prevented me from going down to the Square even though I believed in the demands of the Egyptian revolution.” She adds that The Battle of the Camel, the February 2 attack on protesters, subdued her fear to join the youth in Tahrir Square. She believed that if the people remained in the square, it would accelerate the downfall of the regime. It would also grant Palestinians in Egypt the rights which had been suspended by security laws: “We are a part of Egypt because our mothers are Egyptian.”
Inas’ wish came true. After Mubarak’s overthrow, Palestinian attitudes changed. They began with chants, “I am Palestinian, my mother is Egyptian and it is my right to have citizenship,” and “I am Egyptian, I love my country and Palestine is not a charge against me.” These Palestinians realized that their citizenship was withheld by the security apparatus, and not because the authorities were interested in “preserving Palestinian identity,” as previously claimed. As a result, Egyptian mothers and their children from Palestinian fathers stood outside the Egyptian cabinet offices, demanding rights for their children. A number of seminars and conferences followed where Palestinians discussed the discrimination and abuse they faced from authorities. The Egyptian state rapidly responded to their demands, granting citizenship to children of Egyptian mothers. This ushered in a new dawn for the Palestinians in Egypt.
Mahmoud Ajmaan, a Palestinian human rights activist, believes that giving Palestinians whose mothers are Egyptian the right to citizenship has only solved two-thirds of the crisis. He wonders, “What about the Palestinians who have two Palestinian parents?” The policies practiced in Egypt against the Palestinians under Sadat and Mubarak are still in place. Palestinians are still restricted in their freedom of movement, travel, education, residency, and work, in clear violation of the international Human Rights Charter and the Refugee Charter of 1951. These discriminatory practices also contravene Egyptian laws passed during the sixties and the Casablanca Protocols, which were signed by the Egyptian government.
Virtual Entities and a Changing Identity
Some Palestinian youths in Egypt contribute to the resistance by joining online activist networks, creating a electronic space where they can resume their battle against the Israeli occupation.
Hatem Nazmi, 31, created a Facebook page called “Palestinian/Egyptian,” which contains the following message: “If you see someone on the street walking alone, talking to himself, his face looking tense, angry, protesting, sad, etc., you can be sure he is a Palestinian and not a mad man. He keeps to himself, does not attack you, and does not threaten your life. His eyes are focused inwards and he does not give you dirty looks. His anxiety is beyond the ability of human beings to bear, so he speaks to himself in protest against a world that does not listen to him. All of this because he carries a Palestinian travel document with the words ‘The Egyptian Arab Republic’ written across it.”
Nazmi points out that many Palestinians “do not know about the problems that face us in Egypt. Many among us do not know our rights. They do not even know about routine Egyptian measures that could solve the problems they face, particularly because the PLO or the Palestinian embassy in Egypt treats Palestinians badly. What is strange is that Egypt itself prevents those who carry their travel documents from entering the country without an Egyptian visa. They need the personal permission of the minister of the interior and state security, even if they fulfill all the conditions of entry.”
Nazmi believes that more people have joined his page over the last few months because of the Egyptian revolution and youth’s desires to get to know their society closely. Three years after it first appeared, the group page was updated every three or four days and had 157 members. After the revolution and the announcement of the March to Palestine, there were more requests to join the page and more interaction. The page now has 1,000 members and is updated daily.
Virtual activism is not restricted to individuals only. Palestinian factions took advantage of social networks to express themselves publicly after the revolution. Groups like the Palestinian Students’ Group in Egypt and Palestinian Media Forum in Egypt and pages such as “I am Palestinian and proud” and “Palestinian Journalists and Writers” began to appear.
The Palestinians in Egypt were reluctant to participate in the revolution because of their tenuous status in Egyptian society. As the revolution progressed and won some of its demands, particularly after the Battle of the Camel, the mood of the Egyptian public and Palestinians in particular dramatically changed. The events and effects of the Egyptian revolution are still too fresh for academic appraisals. Similarly, valuations of the Egyptian revolution’s impact on the ‘forgotten Palestinian society’ remain unclear.
Bisan Udwan is a Palestinian writer living in Egypt
This article is an edited translation from the series The Great Syrian Revolt published in al-Adab Magazine (Issue 7-9-2011). Al-Adab was founded by author, literary critic and renowned linguist Suheil Idriss in 1953. Currently published by his son, Samah Idriss, who is also an author, critic, and activist, al-Adab is a primary source and record of Arab cultural, social, and political debate and discourse.