Israel-Palestine war: Assault on Gaza reignites suppressed activism in Egypt
On Friday, thousands of protesters burst through security barricades and flooded Tahrir Square, the epicentre of the 18-day revolution of January 2011 that culminated in the resignation of then-President Hosni Mubarak.
The demonstrators stayed in Tahrir for under an hour before they were evicted by the police, with over 100 people reportedly detained that day in connection with pro-Palestine protests in Cairo and Alexandria.
But briefly, the square resembled scenes from 25 January 2011.
“It felt as if a dead body came miraculously to life,” Mahienour El-Massry, a lawyer who had participated in the 2011 revolution, recalled.
The protests erupted after pro-government media figures called for demonstrations in designated areas to show solidarity with Palestine and support for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s leadership amid the Israeli assault on the besieged Gaza Strip.
However, thousands defied this directive, instead descending on Al-Azhar mosque on Friday and storming Tahrir Square.
24 October 2023: Gaza death toll reaches 5,791+ Show - Hide
The following death tolls in Palestine, Israel and Lebanon are accurate as of 12.30pm GMT on 24 October.
They are sourced from Palestinian, Israeli, Lebanese and Hezbollah officials.
Killed: 5,791 (2,360+ children, 1,292 women) -*Data on combatant casualties not yet available
West Bank and East Jerusalem
Killed: 90 (30 children, one woman)
Killed: 1,400 (769 civilians, 307 soldiers, 57 police officers) - *Data on children and women casualties not yet available
Wounded: 5,007 (299 hospitalised)
Killed: 27 (3 civilians, 18 Lebanese fighters, 6 Palestinian fighters)
Wounded: Data not yet available
In the aftermath of Sisi’s military coup, which deposed democratically elected leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013, popular protests had largely been crushed by an anti-protest law and a wide-ranging crackdown on political dissidents.
In 2018, Sisi declared: “That which happened seven or eight years ago will never happen again in Egypt.” A message he reiterated in several other speeches.
Tahrir Square since underwent a makeover; buildings were whitewashed and security cameras were installed to demarcate a space that was no longer public.
They had no fear
According to activists in Cairo, public displays of solidarity with Palestinians had, until recently, been limited to posts on social media, amid fears of arrest stoked by crackdowns on supporters of opposition hopeful Ahmed el-Tantawi.
But on Wednesday 11 October, a small protest gathered outside the Journalist's Syndicate.
Two days later, worshippers at the Al-Azhar mosque erupted in protest after the Friday prayers.
“Security forces surrounded us in every direction and closed the doors,” Aisha** an Egyptian campaigner and former revolutionary activist said.
“They took people out in batches, and anyone who objected was beaten.”
The following week, protests continued to escalate, swelling in numbers. On 18 October, another protest was held outside the Journalist's Syndicate, with hundreds attending.
“I was shocked by the number of people,” Aisha told MEE. “I hadn’t seen anything like it since the revolution.”
“There were lots of people there… they had no fear,” Aisha said.
Following Sisi’s warning that “millions” of Egyptians would protest the forced displacement of Palestinian civilians from Gaza to Sinai, the Egyptian parliament granted the president and military a “mandate” to “defend the integrity of Egyptian lands in the face of Israeli conspiracies".
'I was shocked by the number of people, I hadn’t seen anything like it since the revolution'
-Aisha, Egyptian activist
State-owned media outlets called for protests in solidarity with Palestine in designated squares across the country, including the Rafah crossing, the one route out of the enclave not controlled by Israel that has been repeatedly targeted by airstrikes.
For el-Massry, the calls eerily echoed those that preceded the Rabaa Massacre in July 2013, when Sisi urged Egyptians to take to public squares to “to give [him’ the mandate to face violence and terrorism".
“People want to support the Palestinians [separately] from the government [as] many are doubting its intentions,” el-Massry said.
“I felt like it’s a sort of show,” Mohammed ** a Palestinian business owner based in Cairo told MEE. “The regime is giving people permission to protest about us, but they cannot protest about their own country.”
Bread, freedom, dignity
The week of protests culminated in a renewed demonstration that started from the Al-Azhar mosque on Friday 20 October. Protesters then burst onto the streets and marched towards Tahrir Square, where they vaulted security barriers.
Aisha was among them. “This was a [rare] opportunity for me, “ she said. “I hadn’t been able to even touch the square for 10 years."
El-Massry reported that the square was “full” and resounded with chants entwining the demands of the revolution - “bread, freedom, dignity" - coupled with calls for Palestinian solidarity.
“It deepened in my mind that Palestine will always be the answer and the cause of all causes,” El-Massry said.
For El-Massry, the Palestinian cause was the catalyst of the long process of activism that culminated in the 2011 uprisings.
“I am part of a generation whose eyes were opened by the Second Intifada,” El-Massry said. “We owe our politicisation to the Palestinians.”
"The word Tahrir means liberation,” El-Massry said, “this is what we want for Palestine.”
'The word Tahrir means liberation,this is what we want for Palestine'
-Mahienour El-Massry, Egyptian lawyer
“When the revolution broke out, people were also [calling for solidarity] with Palestinians and Syrians,” Mohammed recalled. “Flags were hung in the square."
In 2011, thousands occupied the square for 18 days. But on Friday 20 October 2023, they lasted for about 30 minutes before the police began violently dispersing the crowd.
According to Egyptian news outlet Mada Masr, 114 people have been arrested for participating in the protests nationwide.
“A number of my friends were arrested in the square, and also from their homes after,” Aisha said. “I am extremely worried about them.”
Despite long positioning itself as a mediator between Hamas and Israel, in the immediate aftermath of the 2013 military coup, intensifying relations between Israel and Egypt saw the tightening of the siege of Gaza with repeated closures of the Rafah crossing.
The crossing is the only exit for Palestinians in Gaza that is not controlled by Israel. It is a vital humanitarian aid corridor for the besieged civilians of Gaza.
** Names changed for security reasons.