Searching for Egyptian unity in Ramallah

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The last few days of the solid millions of protesting Egyptians got me thinking how Palestinians would react in a similar situation. But the fact of the matter is that we are so segmented from each other, with political party allegiances prioritizing over national ones, that it was hard for me to envisage a true Palestinian people revolution where citizens from all walks of life, young old religious secular rich poor students employees etc, intensely unite against a common adversary (either the PA or the Israeli occupation-take your pick) simply for the reason of wanting a proper representative or their basic freedom, without propagating factional or religious interests.

Expressing solidarity for either Tunisia or Egypt in Ramallah has been met with PA saboteurs, which only allowed a small pro-Mubarak demonstration. PA spokesman Adnan Damiri announced that all protests were illegal and not allowed because “our policy is that we don’t intervene in the internal affairs of other countries.” However, Saturday was proclaimed to be the International Day in Support of Global Democracy, an event sponsored by a number of civil society organizations and individual artists and that was largely promoted by social networking media. The announcement included “Participation Guidelines” warning that this was a non-violent rally not coordinated by any political party, therefore only Egyptian, Palestinian, and Tunisian flags be brought and not factional signs. I told my friend the minute I see the yellow Fateh flag I would be going home. The rally would be in sync with ones taking place the same day in Jerusalem and Bethlehem at 2 pm. It looked like the PA had given this one the green light to go ahead, perhaps to save face from its undemocratic decision to ban any solidarity protests. Abbas certainly knows how to pick his friends, and is scared shitless lest the Palestinians in the West Bank get afflicted with the revolutionary fever. It’s the same in Gaza; any protest unbacked by Hamas immediately got shut down.

I’ve already spoken about the university’s nonchalant reaction toward the unfolding events in Egypt, but today on campus a suspension of classes after noon was declared, and a bus was to collect participants and drop them off at the Manara square in Ramallah. It wasn’t clear what time classes would resume, but some of the teachers wanted to take part in the rally. It would be shameful if we didn’t put on at least one good demonstration for the heroic Egyptian protesters. I walked past the bus, where students bundled in with rolled up posters. I hoped the turnout would be good, not just from students but from everyone.

The crowd when I arrived at the Manara square was a sizable one, but the chants could only be heard faintly from a smaller inner group of people. After five minutes of standing there, I went to photocopy a book down the road and returned ten minutes later to a bigger crowd, slowly finding their voices. Along with my friend and my sister, I pushed in to get to where the chants were concentrated most, thanking the young man who gave me a tiny flag of Egypt. Abu Ali, an elderly man in a kuffiyeh known for leading chants at demonstrations, was up on someone’s shoulders shouting rhymes about despotic Arab leaders, Ramallah hailing Tahrir square, and “Thawra thawra hata nasr! Revolution until we achieve victory!” Suddenly, the ever popular staccato that summed up the Egyptians’ protests was given about a dozen rounds: The people deMAND the END of the reGIME! It was simply glorious, everyone in one deafening voice. Then an American flag was burned amidst cheers and whistles of approval, but I thought it was unnecessary and untactful. The USA is the crown of imperialism that backs tyrannical corrupt Arab governments for fear of national independence or pan-Arabism or whatever, but we were protesting in solidarity with Egypt, who in twelve days so far have not burned a single American or Israeli flag.
It looked like everyone was having a good time. The sky was cloudy but had stopped drizzling. Posters with Gamal Abdel-Nasser were held up, Egyptian and Palestinian flags rippled together with one or two Tunisian flags in the distance, and more and more people joined us which added to the buoyant atmosphere. Finally, we were allowed to express our voices, try out the chants the Egyptians made popular, and smile furtively as we chanted them out with other intentions. “The people demand the end of the regime” perhaps wasn’t only alluding to Mubarak’s…

The students from Birzeit University arrived, and they seemed to be a group on their own. They began moving away from the Manara square into Rukab Street, and many people followed suit. Yet unity was definitely missing here. I heard someone say that the PFLP party was leading the procession with their own chants, while the Fateh party was just behind us, also with their own chants. We were all moving together which made it more cacophonous, not knowing whether to repeat after chants of “Down with Mubarak!” or “Egypt is Palestine, and Palestine is Egypt.” Two million people in Cairo shouted together in unison yesterday, whereas a couple of thousand people in Ramallah couldn’t demonstrate in consonance. It was fairly disappointing to say the least. I saw a lot of my teachers who I greeted, and remarked to one of them that this was a good turnout. She quietly replied, “This is not a lot of people.” The days of more than a few thousand milling around the Manara square were over due to the political crackdown by the PA on anything not pro-sulta, as anything otherwise is conceived as a threat to Abbas’s dominion of a few cities sadly riddled with checkpoints and settlements.
We headed back to the Manara, and there were as many as five or six different people intoning all at the same time: national unity, no to division, Ramallah and proud Gaza hail Egypt, the people demand the fall of Erekat, no to negotiations, no to normalization, the people demand the annulment of the Oslo agreement, CIA out of the country, Arab leaders are so shameful, the people demand the end of occupation, etc. Then it sort of fizzled out a bit. Abu Ali was still on the shoulders of a man, but without a loudspeaker no one could hear what he was saying unless he was facing us. Other men were sporadically shouting out slogans but more and more people were just standing there, not knowing again who to repeat after. One guy behind me was discussing the situation is Egypt with his non-Palestinian friend and described Mubarak in delightfully colorful words, my favorite being “He’s such a persistent fuck.”
My friend decided to go home, and my sister and I found my mother standing outside the railings of the Manara. I sighed and began griping about how people couldn’t be united even for this cause when she gave me a look and murmured close to my ear that the plainclothes police were behind us. I stole a look, noting they were weedier and scrawnier than the Egyptian thugs I saw on TV, rolled my eyes and stared back at the crowd from my slightly elevated position, my flag slightly crumpled. All of a sudden I saw a Styrofoam board with “Down with Abbas” written on it in Arabic. I quickly told my sister to snap a picture of it, and sure enough seconds later the board was ripped into pieces and the man holding it up was dragged away. The plainclothes behind me were buzzing, “Keep your eye on him…he’s changed his jacket..” One man jumped out of nowhere and began yelling “The people demand the fall of Abbas!” but no one swarmed up on him which obviously meant that he was part of the secret police hoping to instigate others. Some of the crowd, who were onto him, yelled back “The people demand the end of disunity” but the man was joined by two others who were then all hoisted up onto shoulders, still screaming for the end of Abbas. It was such a poor blatant show of instigation, that even the foreign journalists around us were muttering all too knowingly. A couple of scuffles broke out as the plainclothes dragged away a few men, and that was the end of the Egyptian solidarity rally. It seemed inevitable that Abbas’s goons would screw this peaceful assemblage over. The same men who had shouted for Abbas’ demise were now yelling over and over again “The people. Want. Mahmoud. Abbas!” A few people urged the others to start up one of the popular chants, “Mubarak is a coward, he is America’s agent” in an attempt to drown out the insultingly rude men but the mood was broken and the crowd was slowly drifting apart. A yellow Fateh umbrella was unfurled. My mother, sister and I began walking away from the Manara. When I looked back, more Fateh flags had materialized and we could hear the men yelling out pro-Abbas slogans-our rightful president, our role model, etc. They went further though; chants about Al Jazeera being Zionist and not Arab, chants against Hamas, chants for the division of Gaza and the West Bank, and to demonstrate their imbecilic deficient selves, chants against Tehran. In the end, it had to be all about them.
No one could doubt that these Fateh supporters were planted among us for the very glaring purpose of one way or another, turning it into a Fateh celebration. It’s completely sickening and frustrating to know that we have reached a stagnant point. Any protest must be infiltrated with dozens of plainclothes police. Anyone daring to speak out against the PA or even have the nerve to publicly advocate national unity is promptly arrested. Those outside the country wrote that the PA has lost any shred of credibility it hung on to as a result of the leaked Palestine Papers, but they were disappointed by the lack of response on behalf of Palestinians who did not take to the streets demanding the dissolution of the PA. The Palestine Papers did not reveal anything we did not know. Saeb Erekat’s offer of the biggest Yerushalayim shouldn’t have caused an uproar (minor or not) as for years we have seen East Jerusalem disappearing under its Judaized neighborhoods and incessant settlements. Raja Shehadeh wrote of an emerging strong police state in the West Bank which contrasts ironically with the surge of revolutionary change currently taking place in Arab countries. We have a double fight on our hands-overcoming the corrupt PA and instating a new government devoid of Fateh and Hamas representatives (wishful thinking), and resisting against the Israeli occupation, which should have been our only contest.
A couple of days ago, I was embroiled in an online debate with a friend. He had written that none of the Arabs cared about the Palestinians and that we in turn shouldn’t care about them. I patiently explained to him that the Arab governments couldn’t care less about us because of the nature of their relationships with the USA and Israel who supply them with military aid and business deals, and that they saw us as a tenacious problem, but the average Arab common man were sympathetic to our cause. One thing led to another, and I was spewing out words like “sell-outs”, “traitors”, “corrupt mercenaries” and he countered back with the childish justifications that the PA learn from their mistakes and were a good force for us all-look at how the number of stolen cars have drastically reduced! I pointed out the failure of negotiations, that ever since 2005 we haven’t achieved any small part sovereignty, and that Israel has successfully put up more checkpoints, built more settlements, evicted more Palestinians, expropriated more land-in short, making us more occupied than we ever were. He opened my eyes to the sad truth-one that I refused to believe that likable people could ever be victim to- that there is a large majority who wholeheartedly support the PA and would rise to its defense without thinking. I thought that the only people like that were goons. In today’s rally, I saw people who earnestly shouted for the end of the division and for national unity. They didn’t give a damn about about any political party/faction or had either become disillusioned with them a long time ago, and wanted the Palestinians to be a unitary population. I fear that we might be a tiny minority. If we weren’t, then there would have been protests against the PA. Abbas has been president for six years now, there’s only twenty four years left until we could be level with Egypt-more than enough time for a sufficient people’s revolution.
Linah Alsaafin is a third-year student at Birzeit University in the West Bank, where she is studying English Literature. She’s been living in Ramallah, West Bank since 2004, and despite being only 50 miles away from her grandparents and uncles in the Gaza Strip, she hasn’t seen them since 2005. Alsaafin was born in Cardiff, Wales, and was raised in England, the United States, and Palestine.
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