A potent cause
Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza creates complex problems for the dictatorial regimes in the region. Yassamine Mather examines the different responses both from above and below
As Moshé Machover has consistently noted over the past month, October 7 marked a devastating day for Palestinians. The Hamas attack was an act of desperation - a revolt born of hopelessness and despair. The ghastly consequences include the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians in north Gaza, persistent attacks in the West Bank, and a predictable, yet glaring, absence of support from Arab states and Iran’s Islamic Republic in defending the Palestinians.
In these challenging times for the Middle East, a single glimmer of hope emerges from the huge protests in nearly every Arab country. They express solidarity with the Palestinians, of course, but also challenge the existing rulers, whether they be kings, emirs or presidents. Contrary to the predictions made by various media pundits, the Arab street has risen up with courage and determination.
Let us look at the most important examples.
Over half of Jordan’s population is of Palestinian descent. Israeli actions against the Gaza Strip have certainly reignited the Palestinian spirit. Tens of thousands rallied in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Gaza. Last week the streets of Amman were thrumming with unity and both Palestinians and Jordanians marched toward the Al Husseini Mosque, chanting: “Open the borders”; “We walk to free Palestine, dead or alive”; and “We are one nation, not two”. Some even passionately declared: “We are heading to Jerusalem as millions of martyrs!”
Protests have become a daily fixture throughout Jordan since the conflict began. The country is a monarchy and effectively is run by the king and his cronies. Abdullah II determines the composition of the upper house of parliament, and while the lower house is elected, the system is skewed in favour of the countryside. Most MPs appear to be ‘non-political’. The media, trade unions and societal groups face considerable restrictions and governmental interference. Nor is the judiciary in any way impartial. The king appoints and can dismiss judges. In 2022, amidst anti-government sentiments, many were arrested under oppressive laws. By the end of the year, transportation workers in southern Jordan were striking against rising fuel prices, with the government’s strong-arm tactics in full display.
There are many leftwing parties and groups but only the Ba’athists and the Communist Party have MPs (one each). The Islamic Action Front, Islamic Democracy and the Islamic Centre Party are better represented but only marginally. The opposition, both leftish and Islamic, is far bigger on the Arab street than in Abdulla’s parliament and is bound to grow further with the current surge of demonstrations - something the king dreads.
This week, pro-Palestinian demonstrators in Lebanon expressed their frustration at the west’s backing for Israel. On October 31 they rallied outside the French embassy, condemning Macron’s support for Israel’s continuous attacks on Gaza. A larger protest occurred on October 29 in central Beirut, where thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese proudly waved the Palestinian flag.
Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, much like his counterparts in Iran, has remained relatively silent amidst the recent hostilities. Contrary to some international leftwing perceptions, it is important to understand that today’s Hezbollah is not the same sort of organisation it was in the 2006 war. It is now deeply integrated into Lebanon’s politics, state and capitalist economy. High-ranking Hezbollah leaders and clerics have financially benefited from the ongoing privatisation policies of consecutive Lebanese governments, which have often included Hezbollah. Personal and political interests have shifted away from defending the poor and the Palestinians. In the intricate realm of Lebanese politics - a legacy of colonial times characterised by sectarian divisions of executive power - Hezbollah is more focused on its own interests. Yet the anger of ordinary Lebanese citizens and the near 200,000 Palestinian refugees poses a serious challenge for Hezbollah and its leadership.
Pro-Palestinian protests have surged in Cairo and other Egyptian cities. However, president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s endeavours to leverage the current situation for his benefit have thus far been unsuccessful. A major demonstration on October 24 attracted a reported 1.5 million people. Arab Spring slogans prominently featured, leading to numerous arrests, although some detainees have since been released.
Sisi’s rule has been autocratic from the start, with limited room for political opposition or civil liberties. Having come to power through a coup against the Muslim Brotherhood government in 2013, Sisi has only managed to hold onto his position through fixing elections. The 2020 elections were particularly controversial, marked by arrests and a low turnout.
Political parties face numerous obstacles. The regime’s critics are often met with severe repercussions, from arrests to savage beatings. While there was a prisoner release in 2022, thousands continue to endure harsh prison conditions. However, it is important to recognise that the opposition is not solely made up by the Muslim Brotherhood. In fact, Egypt boasts over 100 legally registered political parties ranging from Salafi Islamism, to Nassarism, to the secular left. Most, however, have little substance to them. But things could rapidly change.
As the country gears up for presidential elections in early 2024, there has been a noticeable tightening of the regime’s grip. The political landscape remains uncertain, especially in the upcoming months. To navigate the rising tide of protests, Sisi may consider postponing the elections - although such a move could potentially ignite further civil unrest and dissent.
In Damascus, protestors, including Palestinians from the Yarmouk refugee camp established after the 1948 Nakba, gathered in solidarity last weekend. Doubtless this accords, at least in part, with the pan-Arabic self-image of Bashar al-Assad’s Ba’ath regime, which issued an official statement on Gaza celebrating the “inroads” made by the Palestinian resistance towards achieving their rights.
Syria has well known ties with Iran and Hezbollah … and Hamas has recently moved to re-establish relations with Damascus. Much to the fury of the opposition. And, of course, Syria remains a fragmented country.
Turkey has its buffer zone along its southern border, the Kurds, in the form of the Syrian Democratic Forces, still hold parts of the north and east, while groups such as Al-Qaeda and Al-Nusra dominate Idlib and its environs. Some pro-Palestine protests have therefore happened under the auspices of various Islamic opposition groups and have, inevitably, featured anti-Assad banners and slogans: eg, “God bless the steadfast people of Idlib and Gaza.” In general, though, the response has been muted. Statements by the opposition usually omit Hamas.
Meanwhile, both Israel and the United States, have carried out aerial attacks and not only against Iranian proxies. In response the Assad regime cancelled military leave and put the armed forces on high alert - probably as much for internal reasons as over fear that the conflict in Gaza could spill over the borders and engulf the whole region.
According to The New York Times, “This week, as the rulers tried to embrace business as usual, hosting an investment forum, concerts and even fashion shows, grief, fear and outrage over Israel’s bombardment of Gaza simmer just below the surface”.1
Foreign Policy draws an even bleaker picture of life under the Saudi royals:
On October 23, at around the same time the world was learning that the Qatari and Egyptian governments had won the release of two Israeli women who had been held hostage by Hamas, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was featured on Cristiano Ronaldo’s Instagram. The Portuguese soccer star met the crown prince at a panel discussion on the future of esports [ie, ‘electronic sports’ or competitive video gaming] … where the Saudis announced they would host the first-ever Esports World Cup. Important stuff.
The jarring juxtaposition of Qatar and Egypt’s efforts to free hostages in Gaza and the brief Ronaldo-Mohammed bin Salman tête-à-tête in Riyadh suggested that, however much the Saudi leadership has told anyone who will listen that the kingdom is the most important and influential country in the Middle East, it still has a long way to go.
Of course, we all knew about the proposed Israeli-Saudi rapprochement, but now all that is forgotten. On October 12, bin Salman spent 45 minutes on a call with Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi. Israeli-Saudi rapprochement is in tatters and last week Saudi rulers - aware of the strong pro-Palestinian sentiments within their own country - warned the US that an Israeli invasion of Gaza could be catastrophic. Although I have not seen reports of demonstrations in Saudi Arabia, neighbouring Kuwait has witnessed very large protests and the Saudi rulers are certainly very much aware of the historic opposition to their rule.
Here we are dealing with another hereditary dictatorship. The 150 members of the Majlis al-Shura (Consultative Council) are directly appointed by the king and serve advisory roles, with no legislative powers. The last appointment was made by bin Salman in October 2020.
Though Saudi Arabia introduced restricted, non-partisan elections for advisory councils at the local level in 2005, the 2019 elections were indefinitely postponed without a detailed rationale. Political parties are strictly prohibited, and any form of political dissent is ruled illegal. Notable political activists and rights champions face incarceration. Some, like Abdullah al-Hamid, have met their end while held in custody.
In 2020, the National Assembly party was formed by Saudi exiles overseas. According to Middle East Eye, its inaugural statement
… laid out a vision for Saudi Arabia, where all citizens are equal under the law without discrimination, stressing that the resources of the kingdom belong to all of its citizens and areas equally. We believe that authority stems from the people, and this means that every adult has the right to run and choose who represents him in a fully elected parliament that has legislative and oversight powers over the state’s executive institutions.2
But not even this liberal, pro-monarchist proto-party is allowed by the regime.
Two decades after the invasion of Iraq, the nation still grapples with the profound aftermath of that bloody event and the subsequent turmoil. The current sectarian Shia leadership faces growing dissent, especially from young people. The current solidarity with Palestine is not just an expression of empathy, but also a manifestation of hostility towards the US and its allies.
In Baghdad’s Tahrir Square - renowned as the focal point for protests - vast throngs have been gathering. One participant was quoted as saying: “Given our experiences post the 2003 US invasion, we deeply resonate with the Palestinians. As we’ve watched our kin confront occupiers, so too have Palestinian households. Their fight is our fight.”
The newspaper National News quoted another protestor:
Palestine is in the heart of all Muslims around the world … We are ready to march to Gaza and break the siege … We are capable of fighting shoulder to shoulder with Palestinian resistance factions and smashing the Zionist occupiers.3
Indeed, the Palestinian issue is deeply interwoven with broader regional struggles against authoritarian regimes. Many of these dictators recognise that their grip on power is tenuous, and they understand the symbolic importance of Palestine as a unifying cause. Their stance on Palestine often serves both as a reflection of their geopolitical alliances and an attempt to garner domestic and regional legitimacy.
The resonance of the Palestinian cause across the Middle East demonstrates its potent role in the political dynamics and popular sentiments of the region.