Bringing BDS to Egypt

Activists in Egypt have organized a historic effort to bring the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel to a new generation, reports Noura Khouri.

Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square carry Palestinian flags in a show of solidarity  (Hossam el-Hamalawy)Protesters gathered in Tahrir Square carry Palestinian flags in a show of solidarity (Hossam el-Hamalawy)

CAIRO HELD its first official boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) event in Egypt at the independent media center Mosireen on August 27, a critical first step in challenging the government's continuing economic relations with Israel and building solidarity with Palestine.

BDS campaigns in Europe and the U.S. have grown considerably over the past seven years, but such campaigns have been slow to take off in the Arab world, where governments and the economic elite also profit from relations with Israel. Although popular hostility toward Israel is widespread among Egyptians, the Egyptian government is one of only two Arab countries, alongside Jordan, to maintain official trade relations with Israel.

The ferment unleashed by the Egyptian Revolution has included strong shows of solidarity with the Palestinians and demonstrations against Israel's diplomatic presence in Egypt. Protests in Cairo forced the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador in March 2012, and protesters twice pulled down the flag at the Israeli embassy.

Historically, there has been a deep reservoir of support among Egyptians for their dispossessed Palestinian brothers and sisters, but decades of Egyptian government propaganda deliberately sought to undermine this identification in order to deflect the class resentments of ordinary Egyptians away from the regime and onto Palestinian scapegoats.

For example, the Egyptian regime has attempted to pin the blame for gas and electricity shortages in Egypt on the diversion of these resources to Gaza. Egyptians are regularly exposed to negative stereotypes of Palestinians, who are cast as "thieves" to be held responsible for their own plight.

The shocking reality is that despite their shared suffering at the hands of Zionism and U.S. imperialism, many Palestinians and Egyptians do not know each other politically, socially or culturally. Bringing BDS to Egypt represents an opportunity to bridge this gap and find intersections between the struggle in Egypt and Palestine.

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LONGTIME EGYPTIAN journalist and Palestine solidarity activist Lina Attalah opened the event by noting the lack of a sustained solidarity movement in Egypt.

There have been a number of attempts to launch a localized version of BDS in Egypt, targeting major corporations such as Starbucks and McDonalds. While these initiatives took off initially, they did not have a sustained movement behind them and were therefore limited in their potential. Since those early efforts, BDS has become a widespread international campaign, and some key victories have propelled it forward.

Zaid Shuaibi, a member of the BDS National Committee (BNC) in Palestine, came from Ramallah for the meeting. Shuaibi outlined the history and importance of BDS and provided detailed examples of successful campaigns in Europe. He discussed the case of Agrexco, which was a partially state-owned Israel export company "responsible for the export of a large proportion of fresh Israeli produce, including 60-70 percent of the agricultural produce grown in Israel's illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories."

In October 2011, following a campaign that spanned more than 15 countries over the course of six years, Agrexco entered into liquidation. The campaign against the company was one of the major factors behind its collapse. "The company has now re-formed, but is no longer the dominant player that it once was," Shuaibi noted.

Shuaibi also discussed Veolia and Alstom, two French multinational companies helping build and operate the Jerusalem Light Rail project. The Light Rail links illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territory and is "designed to literally cement Israel's grip on the illegal settlements and tie them more firmly into the state of Israel," according to a statement by Palestinian Trade Union Coalition for BDS.

As a result of the global campaign, financial institutions across Europe sold their shares in the two companies, and public authorities in the UK, France, Sweden, Australia and beyond have excluded them from bidding on public contracts. In late 2010 and early 2011, Veolia and Alstom both announced that they would sell their shares in the Jerusalem Light Rail. So far, these companies have lost billions of dollars in contracts throughout Europe because of their involvement in this illegal project.

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AFTER LISTING some of the successes of the BDS movement, the discussion turned to the Egyptian context, where business dealings with the Zionist state have grown considerably since the revolution. In 2011 alone, exports from Israel to Egypt grew 60 percent to $236 million.

The chief vehicle for the increasingly close economic cooperation between Israel and Egypt is the Qualifying Industrial Zones (QIZs). Companies located within QIZs are granted duty-free access to U.S. markets, provided that Israeli raw materials make up at least 11.7 percent of inputs. When they were initially established in 2005, there were seven QIZs hosting 397 companies. Today, there are "over 15 currently designated industrial zones, with nearly 700 qualified companies, and more qualifying each quarter, producing more than $1 billion [in goods] annually," according to Egyptian government statistics.

One of the main companies to profit from this relationship is G4S, which has offices in the Nile Towers and handles security equipment and services for use at checkpoints, illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, and Israeli prisons. G4S is also involved in privatized policing, detention and deportation in Egypt itself.

The company staffs 5,000 "private security" guards in residential, commercial, and industrial buildings throughout Egypt. G4S's aggressions against the poor and jobless residents of Egypt's al-Boulaq slum poignantly illustrate how Egyptians and Palestinians alike suffer from some of the same tools of repression.

The QIZs are notorious for the awful conditions their workers face. Workers in QIZ factories earn less than workers elsewhere in Egypt, and women workers contend daily with sexual abuse and rape. The Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party formally opposed the QIZs prior to coming power, but now its highest members of government publicly state they have no intention of ending the QIZ arrangement.

Because of the massive profits that accrue to Egypt's wealthy from the QIZs, it will take a determined campaign by Egyptian workers and civil society to put an end to this naked collaboration of the Egyptian government with Israel.

The evening included a heated discussion of the commonly held belief among Egyptians that they should not travel to or visit occupied Palestinian territory for fear of "normalizing" relations with Israel. This dynamic contributes to and exacerbates the lack of relations between the Palestinian and Egyptian peoples and is an obstacle to be overcome.

In closing remarks, Shuaibi reiterated the importance of understanding the true meaning of "normalization." The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) defines normalization as:

the participation in any project, initiative or activity, in Palestine or internationally, that aims (implicitly or explicitly) to bring together Palestinians (and/or Arabs) and Israelis (people or institutions) without placing as its goal resistance to and exposure of the Israeli occupation and all forms of discrimination and oppression against the Palestinian people.

But activities that place resistance to Israeli occupation at the forefront are a different matter entirely. Organizers hope this event is the first step in closer relations and a sustained BDS campaign in Egypt. Such a movement would be a powerful tool to assist Egyptian civil society in bringing about a just economic system for its own people as well as its Palestinian neighbors.

By the end of the night, everyone left with a better understanding of BDS, how it can undermine economic trade that supports Israeli apartheid, and how the struggle for justice in Egypt is linked to the struggle for justice in Palestine--and for all of us.