The Palestinian cause has been the major politicizing factor for generations of Egyptian youth. Solidarity acts with the Palestinians inevitably develop into anti-regime dissent. History is full of examples.
The 1967 military defeat in front of Israel revived local dissent in Egypt. Student protests in February and November 1968 soon developed into a full-fledged social movement, spearheaded by “Supporters of Palestinian Revolution” societies on university campuses. It reached its climax with a national revolt against the late president, Anwar Sadat in January 1977, which was dubbed the Bread Uprising.
The outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada in 1987 created a shockwave across Egyptian university campuses and among the professional syndicates. News of the Palestinian resistance was censored in state-run media by then President Hosni Mubarak’s infamous information minister Safwat el-Sherif, so as not to stir people to action.
Mubarak launched his “war on terror” in 1992, and dissent in Egypt was almost completely crushed. While the declared goal was fighting militant groups such as the Islamic Jihad and Gamaa Islamiya, in effect Mubarak squashed all shades of dissent, controlled the professional syndicates, and tightened the state of emergency. Throughout the 1990s, industrial actions plummeted and student activism was under siege.
Yet, once again, the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000 proved to be a turning point. With the visuals of popular resistance broadcast to Egyptian households through satellite TV stations such as Al-Jazeera, street dissent was revived once again. Mobilizations in solidarity with the Palestinian intifada and later against the war in Iraq created the political margin the opposition needed to launch the anti-Mubarak movement Kefaya in 2004. From then on, anti-Mubarak activism electrified the country, encouraged the revival of the labor movement, and developed a strong social movement which led to the January 2011 revolution.
Arab regimes have always spoken in favor of the Palestinian struggle, but in reality, they did their best to contain it, dismantle it, or wipe it out completely. The Palestinian resistance in their eyes is a source of instability to say the least. It is regarded with suspicion as a potential trigger for a regional war or a role model that could be copied by the oppressed masses in the region.
After the 1973 War, then President Anwar Sadat shifted to the US camp, and went on to sign a peace treaty with Israel before he was assassinated. Cairo’s regional role was reduced to simply being an enabler of Pax Americana. Sadat, and later Mubarak were tasked with ensuring stability in accordance with US interests, protecting Israel, overseeing the flow of oil to the West, and the security of the Suez Canal.
This also meant Cairo was to play a mediator role between Israel,the Palestinians, and the Arab states, toward reaching some final settlement. But this did not mean the Egyptian regime was a “neutral” actor, especially after Hamas took control of the Gaza strip in 2007. Mubarak pressured the Palestinian resistance groups into de-escalating or accepting political compromises. He collaborated with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority against Hamas, and used the Rafah Crossing, Gaza’s only artery of life that is not under Tel Aviv’s control, as a bargaining chip.
Following the 2013 coup, Egypt imposed a siege on Gaza by frequently closing the Rafah crossing. Emphasizing the shared roots of Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the media propagated conspiracy theories accusing Hamas of involvement in terror attacks against Egyptian soldiers and civilians.
During the 2014 war, Egypt actively collaborated with Israel in an attempt to eradicate Hamas and enforce punitive measures on the entire Gazan population. The counterrevolutionary regime that was evolving simply was exerting revenge and taking an aggressive stance against any causes championed by the revolutionaries from the 2011 uprising.
By 2017, Sisi’s regime slowly became more tolerant of Hamas. The latter proved resilient and continued to rule Gaza with substantial public support. Sisi also needed its help in securing the border, from which Hamas’s Salafi enemies were crossing into Sinai to take part in an Islamist insurgency that left the Egyptian military battered.
The Cairo-Hamas rapprochement efforts involved a partial easing of the blockade, the opening of the Rafah Crossing, and a series of back-and-forth visits and meetings with the leaders of the resistance, all aimed at negotiating a prolonged ceasefire with Israel. Despite these measures, the humanitarian conditions in the strip did not witness significant improvement. Egypt’s foreign policy continued to rely on the guidelines set by the US, which were becoming increasingly extreme during the Trump administration.
The election of Joe Biden was to have a profound impact on how Sisi handled Hamas. Before taking office, Biden had pledged to hold “Trump’s favorite dictator” accountable. However, the eruption of the 2021 Gaza conflict provided an opportunity for Sisi to portray himself as a credible “mediator,” capable of exerting influence on Hamas while ensuring Israel’s security. Utilizing Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS), he successfully mediated a ceasefire, earning praise from the Biden administration.
Since then, Cairo has reverted to its traditional role, a position it has held since Mubarak’s era. The GIS focuses on securing de-escalation and ceasefires whenever tensions arise between Israel and Palestinian resistance groups, consequently bolstering its political influence with Washington and Western capitals.
During the ongoing conflict, Sisi has found himself under pressure from all sides. He is positioning himself before global leaders, some of whom have recently criticized his human rights track record, as a trustworthy intermediary committed to de-escalation efforts. Simultaneously, he harbors concerns about a possible humanitarian crisis that could lead to the displacement of Palestinian refugees to the Sinai.
But even more critically, for him, is the fear of the domino effect. Thousands of Al-Ahly football fans thundered pro-Palestinian chants in a stadium in Alexandria. Journalists gathered in downtown Cairo, in front of their syndicate, to demonstrate and burn Israeli flags. Hundreds of lawyers followed suit. The Actors Guild announced a similar call for protest. Students at the American University in Cairo organized a strong march on campus. In other universities, students are organizing relief and blood donations. The biggest protest was held at the Al-Azhar Mosque, following the Friday Prayer. Demonstrators chanted for Palestine and tried to take to the streets before they were dispersed by the police. Similar protests were reported in Giza and elsewhere.
A decade after Sisi completely squashed dissent, these mobilizations are significant.
Amid worsening living conditions and an economic crisis, Sisi’s popularity has reached its lowest point. He is now on the verge of a presidential election scheduled for the next two months, and his victory seems assured due to the elimination of any strong competitors and the backing of state institutions. Nevertheless, the nation, even after quelling and suppressing organized opposition, remains a potential flashpoint that could erupt spontaneously.
The situation in Palestine could serve as one catalyst, as it did in the previous decades.