As Gaza is bombed and starved, the Arab world is watching – and it’s angry | Nesrine Malik

There is something about the protests that isn’t really about Palestine: a rage that has been suppressed but could yet erupt

A few years after the end of Lebanon’s civil war, when the country seemed like one that had buried its past of conflict for ever, I heard an interview on the BBC with a Lebanese woman from Beirut that has stayed with me for 30 years. She was asked if the country, then a flourishing cultural hub that seemed to take over the Arab airwaves and satellite TV almost overnight, had healed the deep divisions that fuelled the war. “They are buried,” she said. “But if you squeeze me very tight, it’s all still there, deep inside me.”

Perhaps it was still too soon after the end of the civil war, and that woman would feel differently today. But her words instilled in me a formative awareness that, no matter how dormant grievances are, they can still, under pressure, for good or for bad, come alive. Little flashes and large upheavals have validated that view, over and over again. The Arab spring was an uprising of grievances that several strongmen and deep states thought had been put to sleep for ever. But even as the forces of the status quo regrouped and the Arab spring was consigned to the tragic file of history, rumblings in places such as Egypt show that no matter how strong the crackdown, the threat of eruption remains.

The issue of Palestine is a constant. For years it can be forgotten, even closed, as it was by successive peace and normalisation treaties signed between Israel and Arab countries. But it doesn’t take much to open it again. The generations that lived through the wars with Israel are now passing away, and with them goes the lived experience that proved war with Israel was always going to be a lost cause. In their place, new generations knew Palestine only as a relentless injustice, one that they had to accept as a bitter inheritance from their forebears.

When Hamas launched the attacks of 7 October, its actions were meant to disrupt the status quo inside and outside Israel. A large part of that disruption is how Arabs would react to the inevitable Israeli response, with the sort of anger that would either force or stay the hand of their governments.

Only two weeks later, that has played out predictably and most drastically in the Arab countries that have normalised relations with Israel – the signatories of the 2020 Abraham accords, and Egypt (1979) and Jordan (1994). Jordanian police clashed with protesters on their way to storm the Israeli embassy in Amman. In Beirut, there was another clash between protesters and police, this time at the US embassy. Last Friday, like the Friday before, Egyptians protested against Israel’s strategy to “rehome and displace” Palestinians in their country. Thousands demonstrated in Morocco, chanting: “The people want the criminalisation of normalisation.” The Israeli liaison office in Rabat was closed and its staff repatriated. Protesters marching to the Israeli embassy were dispersed by police in Bahrain. If Sudan were not in the throes of its own war, protests like those that arose when the government normalised relations with Israel in 2020 would certainly have erupted.

These are not just fits of pique. They are not just a spasm of muscle memory of the regular protests that flare up and die down every time the Palestinian issue becomes live. They are large shifts that threaten the stability of Arab regimes themselves. That is a headache they could do without. There is something about the pro-Palestine anger that isn’t really about Palestine at all, but what the entire state of the Palestinians represents. The protests are increasingly an immersive cathartic state of mourning for all the losses that many have to reconcile themselves with; the weakness and lack of solidarity and compact between a large bloc of countries that have chosen to pursue self-interest rather than pan-Arabism, the dearth of democracy in the region, and the lack of dignity and human rights that comes with it. That shrunken space for civic protest and expression renders Palestine demonstrations a sanctioned space for channelling national frustration that, if named, would incur not just the pushback of security forces but detention, disappearance and, notoriously in the case of Jamal Khashoggi, death and disassembly.

Already protests for Palestine have spilled over into that forbidden territory. On Friday, an attempt by the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, to channel the anger into support for him – by authorising a day of pro-Palestine demonstrations – backfired, as protesters broke out of the designated venues and made their way to Tahrir Square. They chanted for “bread, freedom, social justice”, a slogan from the 2011 protests, voiced in an iconic focal point, that would have sent chills down the government’s spine.

The Arab world has changed since the last war in Gaza almost a decade ago. Egypt is in the grip of an economic crisis under a jittery government. So is Jordan. And, like Saudi Arabia, it is a monarchy constantly balancing the tyrannies of absolute, unaccountable power with the appeasements, subsidies, patronages and oppressions which that style of government is built on. Qatar, host to Hamas’s political office, is powerful and ascendant, having become the world’s largest exporter of natural gas in the last decade; it is now competing with the US to replace Russia’s supply to Europe. The US, Israel’s point of leverage in the region, is no longer as influential as it was – a combination of a sclerotic Middle East policy, high energy prices dropping a confidence-boosting windfall to oil- and gas-producing countries, and decreased distracting tensions within and between Arab countries themselves, diminishing the need for the US’s security profile in the region. The remaining influence it does have can be severely constrained by domestic calculations and pressures.

It is not difficult to see hard-won rapprochement reversed. Normalisation with Saudi, a big asset for the Israelis had it been achieved, is paused, and probably dead for the foreseeable future. Instead, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, spoke to the Iranian president, Ebrahim Raisi, in reportedly their first phone call ever since relations were restored in March.

This leaves Israel in a bad position, one that renders its response in Gaza not only brutal – without plan or endgame – but foolish. Bombing Gaza, cutting it off and lashing out, has drawn not just the ire of the “Arab street”, too easily disregarded as a place of regular futile flag-burning anger, but also global human rights organisations in New York and London, which now accuse Israel of war crimes.

Arab countries will not go to war with Israel. But they do not have to for Israel’s position to become significantly weakened, for regional brokers to withdraw – as they have already done when a summit with Joe Biden in Amman was cancelled – and for non-state actors to be drawn into the war even further. The Palestinian grievance is then resurrected in the worst possible way – with no resolution or peace for the Palestinians, permanent vulnerability for Israel, and the agitation of a region whose capacity for revolt by no means fell asleep after 2011. Squeeze people tight enough, and it’s all still there.

  • Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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