A Million Yassins?

Egypt was the first Arab country to make peace with Israel, but the future of diplomatic relations between the two countries now looks shaky. Israel’s assassination last Monday of Hamas founder and prominent Palestinian, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, has set off zealous anti-Israel reactions among Egyptians. An estimated 50,000 university students protested at major Egyptian cities, and even those who were previously unaware of Yassin’s involvement in the Arab resistance movement felt that this “atrocious act” has “awakened” the fear that all Arab countries are under attack by Israel. Invoking international law, the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights claimed that Yassin’s assassination is “a crime against humanity, a violation of … the Fourth Geneva Convention of which Israel is a signatory.” But what is perhaps most disconcerting to observers the world over is that with the assassination of Sheikh Yassin, hope for peace in the Middle East appears dim. In the wake of the assassination, extremist Islamist groups are claiming that “resistance and jihad are the only way to liberate Palestine,” and many Egyptians seem to agree. – YaleGlobal

A Million Yassins?

Shocked at Sheikh Ahmed Yassin's assassination, Egyptians are crying resistance
Amira Howeidy
Friday, March 26, 2004

"You going to the demonstrations?" the taxi driver asked Al-Ahram Weekly. "May God curse the Israelis." It was noon on Monday and the Cairene driver had heard of Israel's assassination of Hamas's founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin earlier that morning. "It's the first thing I heard when I woke up. I'm still furious."

A few hours after Israel assassinated Yassin in the early hours of Monday morning, reactions in Egypt -- the first Arab country to make peace with Israel -- came fast and furious. President Hosni Mubarak was swift in announcing Cairo's condemnation of the "atrocious act" and the "end of the peace process", after which he cancelled the controversial visit of a parliamentary delegation to Tel Aviv to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Camp David Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. The official response was meant to be in harmony with an outraged public mood and it was met with the approval of many who feel it is high time Cairo severed diplomatic ties with Tel Aviv.

Angry demonstrations that erupted across the nation's universities called for retribution, cutting all ties with Israel and deporting the Israeli ambassador to Egypt. Students criticised Arab regimes for their apathy, prompting one student to ask: "What are the Arab rulers waiting for? Yassin's assassination is an insult to all of them and a deliberate attempt to humiliate all Arabs." The student refused to reveal her name.

Until the Weekly went to print, demonstrations were still unfolding in most Egyptian universities and professional syndicates. Angry protests that swept Cairo, Ain Shams and Al-Azhar universities in the capital, as well as those of Tanta and Kafr El-Sheikh in the Nile Delta and Alexandria, were the largest since the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq one year ago. Estimates put the number of students who participated in the protests at 50,000.

"Our first demand is to shut down the Israeli Embassy and expel the ambassador," a 2,000-strong student demonstration chanted as it toured the Cairo University campus on Monday. The students walked in organised rows, led by a dozen male students wearing T- shirts with "Baghdad=Jerusalem=Cairo" printed on them. They marched with heavy footsteps and cried, "We're coming", four students holding a mock coffin of Sheikh Yassin leading the demonstration.

The students chanted what appeared to be unified slogans in most universities: "Our beloved Yassin, your assassination woke our hearts", "Remain steadfast Hamas, jihad is the solution". "We are all Ahmed Yassin!" and "Students, revolt! Till victory, revolt! Revolution in Egypt and Palestine!" protesters at Cairo University cried, while their counterparts in Tanta chanted, "Sharon is a coward!"

Most student unions are dominated by Islamists. The largest demonstration took place in Alexandria as 10,000 students from the various faculties boycotted their classes and stormed out of campus onto the street shouting, "Revenge, revenge, Qassam Brigades!" Students burned the Israeli flag amidst whistles and cries of "God is great!"

Yassin formed the Islamic resistance movement Hamas in 1987. It started off as the Palestinian branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. It was not until the eruption of the Palestinian Intifada in September 2000, that Egyptian universities and even public squares became regular scenes for massive popular demonstrations in solidarity with the Palestinians. It also became frequent for students from the Islamic stream to invite Hamas leaders to address many of the demonstrations in Egypt by phone.

Thousands of riot police were deployed across Cairo -- focussed on the downtown area -- in anticipation of bigger demonstrations on Tuesday and Wednesday. But this only blocked traffic, especially in Tahrir Square, giving passers- by the wrong impression that demonstrations were taking place behind security lines. These lines prevented demonstrators from demonstrating. A demonstration scheduled to take place in front of the Press Syndicate was literally blocked by dozens of armoured vehicles and rows of riot police limiting the protesters to a few hundred at the entrance of the syndicate's headquarters. Meanwhile, the Arab Doctor's Union on Wednesday noon staged a symbolic sit- in protesting against Yassin's assassination.

Until the Weekly went to press, the Muslim Brotherhood together with leaders of the various opposition parties -- including the left-wing Tagammu', Nasserist and Wafd parties -- were scheduled to hold an aaza (a ceremony to receive condolences) for Sheikh Yassin's death on Wednesday evening in Nasr City's Rab'a Al- Adaweya Mosque. The Egyptian Popular Committee in Solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada (EPCSPI) is organising a demonstration today at noon in front of Cairo University to be followed by a march to the nearby Israeli Embassy. A demonstration is also expected to erupt in Al-Azhar Mosque on Friday following the noon prayer.

Outraged by Yassin's assassination, political parties, human rights groups and professional syndicates have issued a stream of statements that in addition to the plethora of commentaries reflected fury at Israel's "glaring insolence". Yassin's assassination is "a crime against humanity, a violation of international humanitarian law and the Fourth Geneva Convention of which Israel is signatory", cried the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights which also called for indicting Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for "acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing".

Meanwhile, the Federation of Arab Journalists (FAJ) warned that the Hamas leader's assassination will "open the door to the assassination of top Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat". The FAJ statement urged Arab officials to sever all communication with Israel "and to send a strong message to the US to end its support for the terrorist government of Israel".

To the Muslim Brotherhood, "Sheikh Yassin is not the first or last martyr as long as there is occupation." Resistance and jihad are the only way to liberate Palestine, the group's statement said. The Brotherhood accused the US of being the "primary" cause for chaos in the region given "its political and military support for the Zionists". The US "is also using American taxpayers' money to shed innocent blood everywhere".

The discourse about the peace process, according to the opposition Wafd Party Chairman No'man Gom'a, "is an act of self-deceit -- and that is the worst form of deception". Al-Azhar, the Egyptian Fatwa Authority and the Islamic Research Institution agreed that Sheikh Yassin died as a "martyr" and called for retribution.

Official and popular consensus on Sheikh Yassin thus appears to constitute an approval of what the man stood for: his affiliations with the Muslim Brotherhood, a symbol of the Islamic resistance and suicide operations which until very recently were very much politically incorrect. For a moment everyone agreed that Israel was the enemy and should be resisted. Official political jargon on "the peace track" and complicated, dishonoured and violated peace agreements seemed inappropriate, if not embarrassing, after Israel killed the Hamas leader.

"Hamas was formed in 1987 with the first Intifada," argued Tareq El-Bishri, a prominent intellectual and former vice-president of the State Council. Until that date, the Palestinian question and power of decision was caught outside the Palestinian occupied territories. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation was in exile while Arab countries were assuming active roles on the issue. "Everything was external until 1987 when the spirit of resistance materialised with the Intifada and the formation of an Islamic current," he said.

"Resistance, leaders and movements with an infrastructure emanated from inside at this stage, all in an Islamic context of martyrdom and armed resistance that confront an occupation that seeks to eliminate the Palestinians altogether. Sheikh Yassin was at the heart of all this. And this is why we are witnessing an overall approval of the man and what he stood for," El-Bishri went on.

Mohamed Abdallah, 21, is probably unaware of Yassin's role in the rise of the resistance movement in Palestine. Yet the life and death of the 66-year- old sheikh is still an inspiration for this Cairo University Faculty of Commerce student. "Thank you, Israel. What you did woke the Egyptians and a million Yassins," he said as he joined Monday's campus demonstration.

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, 25 - 31 March, 2004 (Issue No. 683).