The Gaza War is Shaking up the Authoritarian Arab World

The Gaza war and the strong anger it has stirred among Arab populations came at an awful time for many authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and North Africa region, especially those who had normalized their relations with Israel following the Abraham Accords or even before. As misfortunes never come singly, since at least the summer, a social and political crisis has been raging in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Bahrain, and Palestine itself, particularly in the West Bank, before the war on Gaza began.

The tough emotional impact of this war on Arab populations is unmatched by any other regional armed conflict, at least since the conclusion of the Oslo Accords between Palestinians and Israelis thirty years ago. Even the bloody Israeli invasions of Lebanon in 1982 to eradicate Palestinian Liberation Organization and 2006 to weaken Hezbollah did not have the same kind of impact on the Arab and Muslim world. This climate of great tension has provoked a widespread rejection among Arab peoples of their regimes, with many perceiving them as cowardly, impotent, and even as accomplices in the conflict in Gaza. This rejection seems unprecedented and has been met with governmental diversion attempts and repression.

I will focus on two Arab countries that had normalized diplomatic relations with Israel, while extending the commentary at times – as analytical logic obliges – towards the Muslim World and the Global South.

Egypt – Gaza protests turn against el-Sisi’s government

Egyptian opposition groups have been trying to prevent a “new rigging” of the forthcoming presidential elections for months, thus making the regime nervous. The security forces responded, particularly in October, by arresting or prosecuting anti-regime politicians, including Ahmed al-Tantawi, the most dangerous among the presidential candidate’s potential rivals.

The severe social and economic crises affecting the country has reinforced such political tension, symbolized by the successive devaluations of the Egyptian Pound and the dizzying fall in living standards. With the outbreak of the Gaza war and its thousands of deaths, the situation had become unbearable for the regime. Sensing rising popular anger, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a master of the art of evasion, called for demonstrations against the transfer of Palestinians to Sinai. He also called to delegate the necessary powers, he said, to the President (himself) to manage the conflict situation. He uses the same term (tafwid) that he used in 2013 to prepare the coup d’état against former President Mohamed Morsi and crush the masses of sit-in opponents in Cairo. The aim is precise, namely, to frighten. Similarly, the pro-government media argue that “fortunately” Egypt is led by a military leader, the only one capable of dealing with the situation in Gaza and the ensuing threats of war.

The intelligence services and political parties close to el-Sisi’s regime organized these demonstrations. However, much to the regime’s surprise, the protests sometimes turned against it. Thousands of activists, particularly in Cairo and Alexandria, called for el-Sisi’s departure. They shouted the famous Arab Spring slogan “Irhal!” (Get out!). Tahrir Square, off-limits to demonstrators, was invaded by anti-regime activists. Many arrests followed in major cities. According to media report the demonstration in Tahrir Square is the largest anti-regime demonstration since January 2011.

In Morocco people mobilize against the monarchy’s normalization with Israel

Rising prices and the resulting hardship has affected most people, including the lower middle class in Morocco. This is due to several factors: the Covid-19 crisis, the Ukraine-Russia war, the rentier economy, and the imprudent financial choices of a government made up of billionaires that has been in office for two years. Added to this is citizens’ anger following the highly controlled elections of 2021, which observers described as the least credible parliamentary elections since King Mohammed VI ascended the throne a quarter of a century ago.

In Morocco, the strategy of containing popular anger at the regime’s inaction in the wake of the killings in Gaza resembled that of Egypt in some respects. The Ministry of the Interior (MoI) allowed the first sit-ins to occur, initially gathering just a few dozen or a few hundred people in many towns. The public forces only intervened when there were slogans against the regime. About the large demonstration in Rabat on October 15, the MoI initially stated that it did not have permission to take place. However, when it realized that preparations were already well underway throughout the country, the MoI authorized it a few hours ahead of schedule. The main slogans combined support for the Palestinians with condemnation of the normalization agreements between Morocco and Israel.

On the web, many users openly called on the King to close the Israeli liaison office in Rabat and end the normalization process. The climate was becoming unbearable for the Makhzen. Even police sometimes sympathized with demonstrators in the streets. The government tried to divert attention by making a big noise about an attack in the Sahara unofficially attributed to the Polisario, despite the latter’s denial. A campaign entitled Al Maghrib Awalan (Morocco first) is launched on social media.

Despite the normalization with Israel, the regime continued to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause. However, it has also given up on this, at least during the first weeks of the war, given the firmness of American support for the war on Gaza. State media such as the RTM TV channel as well as some intelligence oriented online media outlets have tried to set Moroccan interests against support for the Palestinian cause, to no avail. The commitment of Moroccans to the Palestinian cause dates back to the struggle for their own country’s independence. Several Moroccans lost their lives in the ranks of the Palestinian resistance. Pro-Palestinianism was almost synonymous with opposition to the authoritarian monarchy. The latter had established relations with Israeli security forces as early as the 1960s.

Three weeks after the outbreak of war, the intelligence service responsible for guiding public opinion seemed to recognize its failure. It changed its posture. It launched a smear campaign against pro-Palestinian opinion leaders, portraying them as traitors and secret friends of Israel. The allegations are based on fake news, such as alleged membership of Israeli anti-Moroccan organizations. One such example is a series of articles entitled ‘Kulluhum Mutabbiûn’ or ‘They are all normalizing with Israel’  published by a site close to the main intelligence agency.

This brief description of the impact of the conflict on these two countries shows that the diplomatic and economic normalization agreements between the Arab regimes and Israel serve neither the Palestinians, nor the cause of peace between them and the Hebrew state. Through these agreements, the authoritarian Arab regimes seek above all to serve their own interests, the first of which is to remain in power thanks to the support of the United States and its allies. The Israeli government, on the other hand, has succeeded through these agreements in isolating the Palestinians in a balance of power that is overwhelming for them.

 Transregional implications of the conflict

In what might be called the Planetary Islam (i.e. Muslim-majority states plus other Muslim communities around the world, including in the West), unwavering support was expressed for the people of Gaza after the start of the Israeli war. Although some Muslim actors condemned Hamas’s attacks on October 7, they are in the minority. So, with the help of the new media, the Gaza war has given rise to a unifying current of sympathy that has swept across the length and breadth of global Islam with transnational political consequences, starting in the Middle East. Mohammed Bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, has spoken with Iranian President Embrahim Raisi to better coordinate their action on the conflict. The war could consolidate the rapprochement already begun some time ago between Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states on the one hand and Iran on the other. The war has also produced an intense moment of exchange between the League of Arab States (LAS) and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) at the ad hoc meeting of these two organizations to discuss the ongoing conflict.

This tightening of emotionally-based ties between the powers of the Muslim world, including Turkey, Malaysia, Indonesia and Pakistan, can only strengthen, in the opposite direction, the rapprochement between India, with its radical Hindu government (perceived as Islamophobic by Pakistan and Indian Muslims), and Israel, and consequently the United States. New Delhi’s position at the United Nations was the most favorable to Israel since India’s independence and the founding of the State of Israel in the late 1940s. Indeed, New Delhi and Washington are concerned about the unprecedented development of Chinese power in Asia and the Pacific. In fact, through the voice of Xi Jinping, China, which would like to weaken America’s presence in the wealthy Middle East and strategic Southeast Asia, has taken advantage of the current conflict to call on the Muslim world to speak to Beijing with one voice on Palestine. Likewise, Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, the leading African member of BRICS and a symbol of the anti-apartheid struggle, and a fervent supporter of Arab-African cooperation made statements during a state visit to Qatar that showed sympathy with Palestinians and Arabs in general.

Could this umpteenth Israeli-Palestinian war finally change the world’s perception of the seemingly endless Palestinian tragedy? Will the Global South, which is broadly sympathetic to the suffering of the Palestinians, become more involved in imposing a just and lasting solution to this conflict, which has been going on for decades?

Professor Maati Monjib is a Moroccan historian and human rights defender, who is a specialist in North African politics and African history.

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