Last week, Egyptian authorities released Palestinian-Egyptian activist Ramy Shaath after two and a half years in detention. Shaath had to renounce his Egyptian citizenship in return for his freedom, his family said.
The 48-year-old son of veteran Palestinian figure Nabil Shaath, the PLO’s chief negotiator and PA's former Information Minister, was arrested with his French wife Céline Lebrun from their apartment in Cairo by Egyptian security in July 2019.
As his wife was deported to France, Shaath appeared before the Supreme State Security Prosecution (SSSP) in New Cairo and was charged with “aiding a terrorist group in achieving its goals.” The prosecutor based his accusation on a 2015 secret document by Egypt’s National Security Agency, even though the Court of Cassation rejected the document as evidence on its own.
On the one hand, Shaath is another victim of Egypt’s crackdown on rights groups. The counter-revolution has pushed Egypt into a state that is even more repressive than before the 2011 uprising, and being a figure in the uprising may have placed Shaath under the authorities’ spotlight.
On the other hand, his arrest was also about Palestine, and more specifically Shaath’s BDS activism.
That is not to say that the Egyptian government is anti-Palestinian. Historically, the Palestinian national movement owes much of its existence and continuity to Egypt, and today Egypt acts as a long arm for Palestinian diplomacy globally.
But Egypt is also an interest-seeking and strategically-driven state, and these factors do not always align with Palestinian needs.
Under President Sisi, Egypt’s official support of Palestinians has been anything but straightforward. At the heart of the issue is the Egyptian regime’s tense relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood, and by extension Hamas, historically an offshoot of the Brotherhood and currently the de facto ruler of Gaza.
Following the removal of the Brotherhood government in 2013, the new regime accused Hamas of intervening in the 2011 revolution. Egyptian state media repeatedly claimed that Hamas aided terrorist groups fighting the Egyptian government in the Sinai Peninsula.
Even though Egypt-Hamas ties have improved significantly over the past five years, so did Egypt’s relations with Israel. This allowed Egypt to reinstate some of its regional weight by being the primary mediator between Palestinians and Israelis.
Preserving the new status quo required a delicate balance: continuing to appear as the historical supporter of Palestinians while keeping good relations with Israel and, by extension, Washington.
As such, and in order to prevent inflammatory pro-Palestine sentiments amongst Egyptians that might pressure the regime, the Egyptian government unofficially implemented stricter measures to limit pro-Palestine public activism.
Today, an act as simple as flying a Palestinian flag in a public venue can land you in jail. In 2019, Egyptian security arrested a football fan who waved a Palestinian flag at Cairo Stadium during a match against South Africa.
At the height of Israel's assault on Gaza last May, several Egyptian demonstrators were detained for wearing keffiyehs and flying the Palestine flag in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, the authorities reportedly confiscated Palestine flags from shops in Cairo’s old markets and warned the sellers that they would receive fines or face detention should they ignore the ban.
Some speculated that being the co-founder and coordinator of BDS Egypt made Ramy Shaath an extra headache for the authorities, who prevent any gatherings or explicitly hostile activities against Israel as a national security necessity.
But Egypt is not an exception. In the broader sense, Shaath’s case reflects rather emphatically the complexity that has long characterised the relationship of Arab regimes with Palestine.
The progressive political analysis traditionally frames the Palestinian-Arab relationship in terms of Arab abandonment, manifested in political and economic cooperation with Israel, suppression of Palestine solidarity within Arab states, and utilisation of Palestine to bolster Arab regimes’ legitimacy.
From a socio-historical perspective, the answer might be a lot more nuanced.
The Palestinian cause has been inextricably intertwined with Arab states’ strategic goals, ambitions, post-colonial subservience, internal upheavals, and inter-regional rivalries. That is not to negate the reality of abandonment, but the above factors established a relatively unstable dynamic, despite the appearance of stability, between the Palestine national movement and Arab states.
As far back as 1948, it has been a process of trial and error for Palestinian refugees to pursue national aspirations without clashing with their host Arab countries or other regional allies.
At times, the task proved to be impossible, not least because the goals of Palestinian nationalism proved contrary to the interests of some of the host countries.
In Jordan, Palestinians attempted to build a military presence on the border with historical Palestine. The action destabilised the Jordanian monarchy and in 1970 led to bloody armed confrontations between PLO factions and the Jordanian authorities, now known as Black September.
The reality was just as grim in Lebanon, where the presence of the PLO added to the Lebanese civil war and became a pretext for Israel to repeatedly attack and eventually invade Lebanon in 1982.
Even more challenging is the maintenance of balanced relations with competing Arab regimes, each attempting to hijack the Palestine cause for their own gains. Palestinian efforts to maintain independence in decision-making often triggered these regimes’ wrath, sometimes escalating to crackdown on the Palestinian national movement and Palestinians in general.
In the wake of Egypt’s signing of the 1979 Camp David peace agreement with Israel, the PLO found itself increasingly dependent on Iraq’s support, especially in light of the growing tension between Yassir Arafat and Syria’s Hafez Al-Asad.
In instances when the PLO opposed Saddam Hussein, it was punished. In addition to financial and political blackmail, Iraq used Palestinian splinter groups like Abu Nidal’s terrorist network, the Baathist Arab Liberation Front, to assassinate high-profile Palestinian figures.
With the regional shift following the Arab Spring, priorities changed for most Arab regimes, decentralising the Palestine cause, at least temporarily. The new regional alliances and threats inevitably put Palestinians on a collision course with some Arab states.
But the new geopolitical order also spurred a heightened involvement in Palestinian affairs by traditional Palestine supporters such as Qatar and Turkey and in Gaza’s case, Iran. That put a strain on Palestinian relations with other Arab states, who see these countries as rivals.
So, for Egypt to limit visible Palestine activism by imprisoning Ramy Shaath and other activists is perhaps not a change in nationalist consciousness as much as it is a change of priorities by the new regime.
But, if the history of Palestinian-Arab relations proves anything, it is that the current shift might be just another temporary phase where Palestinians once again - for survival purposes - are forced to take sides.
And as always, the Palestinian choice is not to every regional player’s taste.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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