Egyptian activists are mobilizing to organize a humanitarian convoy to Rafah, the vital artery connecting Gaza to the outside world, which has been closed by Egypt under Israeli pressure since the start of the war on October 7.
The Global Conscience Convoy will leave for Rafah on November 24. The organizers have issued a press release calling for an end to the war, the peaceful reopening of the Rafah crossing to allow the sustainable passage of humanitarian aid (food, water, medicine, fuel) and the unconditional exit of the seriously wounded, permission for medical, humanitarian and journalistic groups to enter Gaza, and support for the Palestinian people against Israeli plans for their expulsion.
Israel bombed the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing at least four times at the start of the war, and has threatened to target humanitarian convoys. For its part, Egypt closed the crossing despite repeated calls from Hamas and Palestinian civil society to keep it open.
Egypt’s foreign minister repeatedly denied that the crossing was closed, blaming Israel for obstructing passage for aid convoys. In previous wars, Egypt did not ask Israel for permission to send aid to Gaza. The strange Egyptian behavior this time can be traced to two reasons.
First, the Egyptian regime has territorial security concerns. Israeli officials have expressed a desire to move at least half of Gaza’s population to Sinai. Cairo has decided to respond to these threats by simply sealing off Gaza and appealing to the Palestinians to remain in their land.
Second, Cairo’s regional influence has been in steady decline since the July 3, 2013 military coup that brought the then-Defense Minister, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, to power. Cairo has depended on Arab Gulf sheikhs to stay afloat since Al-Sisi began squandering the country’s wealth on gargantuan projects. Egypt’s foreign debt has now topped $160 billion.
The coup also marked the beginning of the growing alliance between Cairo and Tel Aviv. Israel has become a major supporter of Al-Sisi, happy with the latter’s deposition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s president-elect, its strongly anti-Islamist stance, and the fact that it is allowing Israel to conduct unprecedented airstrikes against suspected terrorist targets in the Sinai.
However, it was precisely this economic decline and dependence on regional financiers that resulted in the erosion of Egyptian influence in the region, even in its traditional areas of influence such as Sudan, Libya and Palestine. This resulted in a limited number of humanitarian convoys reaching Gaza, only when Israel “allowed” them to, and only after they had been inspected by the Israeli military. Even the few wounded Palestinians that have been evacuated to Egypt were first approved by Israel.
The international convoy being prepared in Egypt has its own local importance, which is not limited to a simple act of charity by Egyptians towards their Palestinian neighbors.
The convoy is being organized in the midst of a resurgence of grassroots politics, long suppressed by Al-Sisi. The 2013 coup was followed by a crackdown on dissent of all kinds, leading to the eradication of the opposition. Al-Sisi targeted both Islamist and secular activists, dismantled opposition parties, disbanded student groups and destroyed civil society organizations.
Whereas the previous dictator, Hosni Mubarak, would “manage” dissent, Al-Sisi “eradicates” it completely. The automatic response to any initiative independent of the state, even if not overtly political, is repression.
Revitalized by the economic crisis that weakened the regime, dissidents in Egypt have resumed their activism, albeit slowly and one step at a time. This year has seen anti-regime electoral successes and mobilizations in labor unions. For the first time in nearly a decade, street protests have taken place in Cairo and elsewhere with the start of the war in Palestine.
It is no coincidence that the organizers behind the Global Conscience Convoy are members of the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate, an institution in which leftist and independent candidates succeeded in defeating figures close to the regime in elections held a few months ago and now control the leadership of the union – thus embodying a change in the general mood of society towards Al-Sisi and his regime.
The Palestinian cause has long been a politicizing factor for Egyptian society. Acts of solidarity with Palestine have historically developed within local anti-regime dissent. After all, the 2011 uprising was the climax of a long process of accumulation of dissent triggered by the Second Intifada in 2000.