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Egypt's wall of steel

The steel wall that the Egyptian government is building along its border with the Gaza Strip will cut off the last remaining link between what is left of historic Palestine and Egypt. Although Israel has announced that it is going to build a security fence along parts of its border with Egypt, there are certainly no plans for a steel wall with sophisticated detection and surveillance equipment of the kind planned for the Gaza border. The difference in attitude towards these two borders is ironic, given that from the date of the Nakba, 1948, until 1967 the Gaza Strip was under Egyptian administration and; the Egyptian people and the Palestinians enjoyed a special relationship.

A great deal of nonsense has been claimed about the purpose of and intentions behind the wall, including "Egyptian sovereignty". Conversely, the Cairo government stands accused of collaboration with the Israelis in the oppression of the people of Gaza.

There may be elements of truth in all of these claims, despite the obvious contradictions. However, the core concern should focus on the wall itself, which is not a temporary structure. Descriptions of the wall and the fact that the Palestinians have never been a security threat to Egypt lead one to the conclusion that this is meant to be a permanent device to separate Egypt from Palestine, regardless of what the future has in store for the people of Gaza or the efforts to reunite the Palestinian political factions. The wall is a reflection of the Egyptian government's desire to turn its back on Palestine and abandon any responsibility towards its people. This is a historic moment, for never before has one Arab state built such a structure to keep it apart from another Arab state, no matter how bad the relations between the two nations.

This wall is an extremely radical step for an Arab state to take. It is not so long ago that the governments in Baghdad and Damascus exchanged shrill accusations of conspiracy and plots to overthrow their respective states; car bombs killed and injured considerable numbers of innocent people. However, even after Iraq had fallen under the US-led occupation neither Baghdad nor Damascus dared to consider building a wall like that which Egypt is building against the Palestinians.

No matter how Egypt seeks to justify the wall, the truth is that Hosni Mubarak's government has decided to separate Egypt from the Arab east, physically and ideologically. I might be mistaken, but this represents a turning point after almost a century of modern Egyptian pan-Arabism. The building of this wall at the heart of Egypt's link to its neighbouring Arab state indicates that the forces that have for eighty years sought to consolidate Egypt's belonging to the Arab world have exhausted themselves. We are witnessing the rise of retro-forces seeking to put a physical and ideological barrier between Egypt and its Arab allies.

Historically, starting with the age of the pharaohs right up to the reign of Muhammad Ali, the land of Egypt has been inclined eastwards, an inclination that was necessary for security and strategic reasons, as well as the expansionist tendency of a country heading towards a centralized state.

Post-Ottoman rule, Egypt had to seek a new identity. Neither the tendency of the Mamluks towards self-rule and independence nor the ambitious project of Muhammad Ali, nor even the British occupation from the 1880s managed to separate Egypt from the sultanate based in Istanbul.

The collapse of the Ottomans and the creation of artificial states after the First World War saw the establishment of a kingdom in Egypt (which lasted from 1922 until 1953) with limited independence and a continuing British presence. This prompted an identity debate in 1920s Egypt similar to that in Mustafa Kamal's Turkey. There were essentially three strands in this debate: would Egypt be Mediterranean, focused on the West? Or part of a comprehensive resurgence of the Islamic trans-national Caliphate? Or would it belong to a secular Arab bloc? In the end, the debate over identity was settled inside neither discussion circles nor in the media. The decisive element was the political, strategic and economic realities on the ground.

Pan-Arabism came into existence in the late 19th century, early 20th centuries in Bilad Al-Sham, the area that now contains Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. None of the early advocates of Arab nationalism or the political activists imagined that the Arabism sphere of influence would extend west of the Sinai Peninsula. However, developments were pushing the idea of Arab nationalism and Egypt towards each other into a broad Arab identity.

When it became clear that the Saudi tribe was going to defeat the Shariffs of the Hijaz, Egypt sought to link itself, for reasons of security as well as being host to the Holy Cities of Islam. From the Syrian revolution in the mid-1920s to the Palestinian Al-Buraq Wall uprising in 1929, the movement for Egyptian solidarity with the Arab countries to its east grew. Nothing was more decisive for this, though, than the Palestinian revolution 1936-1939. All Islamic and pan-Arab organisations and individuals including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Youth, Rahid Rida, Muhibbiddin Al-Khatib, Abdurrahman Azzam and Muhammad Ali Aluba had been actively engaged in Palestinian solidarity since the end of the 1920s. However, the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty of 1936, which widened Egypt's degree of independence, made almost all of the Egyptian elite even more engaged in the 'fever' of the Palestinian question; from the leaders of the Wafd and the Liberal Constitutional Party to the craftsman of Egypt's modern industrial renaissance, Tal'at Harb, and a large section of civil action movements, support was widespread.

Egyptians looked at the danger facing Palestine as a threat to their own security and believed that any solution to the Palestine question without a fundamental and effective Egyptian involvement might end up damaging Egypt's interests. A collective awareness began to crystallize on the Arab level across Egypt, not only because of the common bonds the Egyptians felt with the Arab peoples based on language and a shared historical and cultural legacy, but also due to the fact that the vast majority of Egyptians including the state institutions realized that Egypt's security and prosperity could only be developed through its attachment to the Arab milieu.

The Egyptians held an Arab/Islamic parliamentarian conference in Cairo in solidarity with Palestine and were keen to play a key role in other Arab activities. When the British government acknowledged that the Arab states should be involved in the negotiations to find a solution to the Palestine issue, Muhammad Mahmud Pasha, the leader of the Liberal Constitutional Party and prime minister of Egypt in the late 1930s, called for the first Arab high level meeting to take place in Cairo before heading to London to participate in the first round of multiparty negotiations on Palestine.

Throughout the 1940s Egypt's commitment to the Palestine question and its attachment to its Arab surroundings went hand in hand. There were relentless efforts to set up an Arab-wide framework that would unite all Arabs. Egypt hosted the meetings that prepared the ground for the constitution of the League of Arab States and insisted that the league's headquarters be in Cairo with an Egyptian secretary general. Thus, Egypt became a leading member of the official Arab body. When Britain announced its determination to end its mandate over Palestine and the conflict became more intense, Egypt led meetings to coordinate Arab efforts for the sake of Palestine. Al Nokrashi Pasha, the then prime minister of Egypt, was the most important Arab political figure to go to the United Nations and speak about and defend Palestinian rights before Egypt decided to participate in the Palestine war of 1948-1949 after the creation of the state of Israel.

Gamal Abdel Nasser did not invent Arab nationalism or Egypt's Arab identity, nor did Egypt's commitment to the Palestine cause originate with him. He was a creation of the cultural and political atmosphere that prevailed in interwar Egypt embracing pan-Arabism. And if the experience of the first Palestine war was decisive in Nasser's pan-Arab orientation, it was the regime and the kingdom which had sent the young officer to the battlefield in the first place. Hence, Nasser only had to respond to the inherited necessities for geostrategic considerations. His biggest achievement was to push forward Egypt's pan-Arabism option to become the choice and culture of all Egyptian social classes.

After Nasser's death and then the start of the Egypt-Israel peace process in 1974, Egypt took the first steps back from its pan-Arab orientations, reaching its apogee with the signing of the peace treaty with the Zionist state. The setback was not only political but also reflected in the whole culture of Egypt.

However, it is worth noting that this setback was from the very beginning a political project that was never the choice of the ordinary Egyptian people. Over the past four decades they have, more than ever, become attached to their pan-Arab identity, with millions of them living and working in surrounding Arab countries. Similarly, millions of their fellow Arabs visit Egypt every year. And Egyptians live in the same cultural, political and media environment as their Arab neighbours, something that has been strengthened by the explosion in media and communications technology. Regardless of the claims and counter-claims about the reasons for its construction, Egypt's wall on the border with Gaza will be a severe test for the division between the state's agenda and the feelings and aspirations of its citizens.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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