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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

Arab ministers meet in Egypt amid anger at the US

As Arab League formulates response to Donald Trump's recognition of Israel as Jerusalem's capital, protesters and leaders demonstrate their feelings 

Saudi foreign Minister Adel AlJubeir arrives for the Arab League foreign ministers' emergency meeting in Cairo on December 9, 2017, which was called to discuss US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters
Saudi foreign Minister Adel AlJubeir arrives for the Arab League foreign ministers' emergency meeting in Cairo on December 9, 2017, which was called to discuss US president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Mohamed Abd El Ghany / Reuters

Arab League ministers met in Cairo on Saturday to draw up a response to the United States' shift in position on Jerusalem as the wave of rage sweeping the Arab and Islamic world over the move washed into Egypt over the weekend.

Dozens of armoured cars and lorries full of troops deployed in Tahrir Square and blocked roads around the American embassy on Friday but authorities appeared reluctant to invoke strict anti-protest laws as demonstrators poured into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

That force was still on display Saturday as the Arab League foreign ministers convened an emergency night-time session to address the implications of president Donald Trump's decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital and to move the US embassy there.

Arab foreign ministers are expected to announce measures to “defend occupied Jerusalem and its legal, historical and religious status”, according to the organisation’s spokesman Mahmoud Afifi.

Despite a heavy police presence, several thousand demonstrators made clear Egyptian public support for Palestinian claims to Jerusalem and rejection of President Trump’s move, widely seen as underscoring Israeli claims to sovereignty over Jerusalem.

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In Alexandria, protesters chanted “Jerusalem is Arab” as they burned Israeli flags outside the Al Qaed Ibrahim mosque in the centre, a cry that is reverberating throughout the region.

Angry worshippers filled the squares and streets of Cairo’s medieval Islamic quarter after Friday noon prayers.

“All those who care about human rights in the world should support the defenceless Palestinian people in the face of murder, displacement, and the falsification of facts,” said Nour Khalil, a 24-year-old graduate of Al Azhar University law school and a researcher on refugee affairs. “Today's demonstration in front of the Al Azhar mosque was a popular demonstration of all Egyptian sects and social classes.”

Since president Abdel Fattah El Sisi assumed power in 2013, Al Azhar has made strides to promulgate a moderate and peaceful vision of Islam — rejecting religious extremism and the terrorism espoused by jihadi groups — but the US decision has drawn fierce reaction from clerics at the historic seat of Sunni Muslim scholarship and theology.

“This is a terrorist decision on par with the recent attack on the Al Rawda mosque,” thundered Abbas Shouman, Al Azhar’s Wakil, or deputy preacher, in a nationally televised Friday sermon, referring to the November 24 militant attack that killed more than 300 worshippers in the North Sinai.

Washington’s decision has complicated plans for the advance team that arrived in Cairo on Saturday to plan US vice president Mike Pence's visit later this month.

The Egypt leg of Mr Pence's tour was designated as an opportunity for the United States for express its interest in the security of the country’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christians and to embrace the “new religious discourse” promulgated by President El Sisi and advanced by Al Azhar.

But Al Azhar’s grand imam Ahmed Al Tayyeb announced he would not be meeting Mr Pence in light of the American plan to relocate its Tel Aviv embassy to Jerusalem.

"The American president and his administration should bear full responsibility for inciting hatred in the hearts of Muslims and the hearts of all advocates of peace in the world,” Mr Al Tayyeb said. “How can I sit with those who promise what they do not own to those who do not deserve?”

The head of the Coptic Orthodox Church, Pope Tawadros II, also cancelled his meeting with Mr Pence

"The invitation is revoked because of the decision of the American administration and now is not a suitable time for such an audience because of the hurt feelings of millions of people in Egypt and the region," the pope's spokesman said.

Mr Pence is still slated to meet President El Sisi, but Egyptian authorities are increasingly dismayed by the American approach to the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

“The American decision will have very negative consequences on the peace process, which was based upon considering Jerusalem as a final settlement case that would be resolved through negotiations,” Egypt's ambassador to the UN, Amr Aboulatta, at a special Security Council meeting held late Friday to discuss the Jerusalem issue.

Cairo had hoped to be a key mediator role alongside President Trump, who had declared his intention to put together “the deal of the century”, for the Middle East in meetings and phone conversations with Arab leaders early in his term.

“Trump has lost all credibility as peace broker,” said Ahmed Noubi, former press attache for the Egyptian Embassy in Washington. “Regional leaders and the Arab street are both outraged and it’s increasingly difficult to envision positive diplomatic outcomes.”

The US decision has emboldened Egypt’s Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement, with pro-Palestinian activists now joined by the Cinema Professions Syndicate in a call to boycott American as well as Israeli consumer products including movies.

“When it comes to the rights of the Palestinian people, Egypt and the Egyptians have much to offer,” said Mr Khalil, the refugee rights researcher. “There are always alternatives to all products, and the boycott is a legitimate form of resistance and peaceful expression of our anger.”

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