Marks & Spencer opening in Egypt revitalizes calls for boycott
The boycott movement against Israeli products and services in Egypt is just over a decade old. Domestically, the movement is closely associated with the boycott of US goods and services, which began to gain momentum during the second Palestinian Intifada in September 2000 and again during the US-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003.
The movement campaigned against the opening of the first Starbucks Coffee in Egypt in December 2006. And, most recently, it has been campaigning against UK department store chain Marks & Spencer, due to open an outlet in Egypt by the end of this year.
This domestic boycott movement has been criticized as being ineffective (there are now 24 Starbucks outlets in Egypt) and confined to pan-Arab nationalist, Islamist, and leftist activists who sympathize with the plight of the Palestinians. Yet the movement is growing, both locally and internationally.
An international campaign to boycott, divest from and impose sanctions on Israel began in July 2005 and has since spread to numerous countries around the world. The boycott, divest and sanction (BDS) campaign seek to isolate Israel--on the economic, academic, cultural, and political levels--due to its ongoing occupation of Arab land and its abusive and discriminatory policies towards the Palestinians.
This international BDS movement has campaigned against multinational corporations that do business with Israel and/or have close ties to the Zionist movement, including Starbucks, Marks & Spencer, Coca-Cola, McDonald's, and Nestle, amongst others. Marks & Spencer in particular has been the target of a burgeoning BDS campaign in the UK and Ireland since 2006.
In Egypt, the boycott campaign against Marks & Spencer commenced in November. The campaign's website, dubbed "Stop Marks & Spencer in Egypt," lists 15 reasons why Egyptians should boycott the soon-to-open department store.
"We’re calling on Egyptians to boycott because we know that it is easier and less risky to abstain from purchasing products than it is to engage in activism and street protests,” campaign organizer Salma Shukrallah told Al-Masry Al-Youm. "We are specifically targeting Marks & Spencer because it is one of the primary corporations that support the Zionist movement.”
Shukrallah went on to say that the Jewish owners of the store chain had been involved with Zionism since the early 20th century, "decades before the establishment of the Zionist Entity [Israel]."
"We are not campaigning against Marks & Spencer because its owners are Jewish, but rather Zionists,” she stressed. “Nonetheless, accusations of anti-Semitism are typically leveled against the BDS movement by supporters of Zionism."
Marks & Spencer failed to reply to Al-Masry Al-Youm's questions by email regarding the corporation's historical links to Zionism and its position on BDS campaigns targeting the store’s new Egypt operations. The company’s customer-service section did, however, send a standard reply to activists’ inquiries, which read as follows:
“At M&S we do not support or align ourselves to governments, political parties or religious bodies. Despite this, we are sometimes asked to boycott products from various countries for a number of political, moral and social reasons.”
“Israel is one of over 70 countries we source our products from. It is important that we visit each factory or supplier location to check that our quality and ethical standards are maintained. As we are not able to do this in the West Bank or Golan Heights areas, we are not sourcing goods from there.”
“We do not feel that we should impose any specific views on our customers. All our products are clearly labeled with the country of origin or production to enable customers to make their own informed choice about what they wish to buy.”
The first Marks & Spencer store is to scheduled to launch operations in early 2011 in Dandy Mall, located on the Cairo-Alexandria desert highway. A larger branch is also scheduled to open in the Cairo Festival City shopping mall by spring 2012.
"People in Egypt are sympathetic with calls to boycott these businesses, but most are not active in these campaigns,” said BDS campaigner Tarek Shalaby. “There are a few who are willing to actively boycott, while there are more people who are willing to spread the word via online petitions, social networking sites and blogs."
Shalaby estimates that there are around half a million Egyptians currently involved, directly or indirectly, in the campaign--and, he says, that number is growing. Shalaby added that BDS campaigns and solidarity with Palestine were among the few issues on which both leftist and Islamist activists could find common ground.
According to Wael Khalil, founder of the Anti-Globalization Egyptian Group, which was established in 2000, the momentum behind the group's boycott campaign against US products "reached its peak between 2002 and 2004," during the second Palestinian Intifada and the US-led war on Iraq.
"While thousands of young people are still involved in boycott campaigns, the movement began to run out of steam and energy following the conclusion of these conflicts," he said. "US stores, restaurants and products were the focus of local boycott campaigns, especially since there are very few Israeli goods available in Egypt, while Israeli investment is limited to some agro-businesses and services."
Other activists have called for a boycott of Egyptian-Israeli business deals, especially cement and natural gas exports to Israel. A small group of Egyptian activists had briefly organized around the slogan "Mesh hanedfa'a el fawateer tul ma fi tasdeer"--"We won’t pay our (gas) bills as long as exports (to Israel) continue"--but this campaign's impact has been negligible.
Local BDS activists have also called for the closure of Egypt’s Qualified Industrial Zones (QIZs), which operate using a percentage of Israeli industrial input. Other local groups calling for the boycott of businesses that engage in trade with Israel are "Kulena Muqawma" ("We are all Resitance") and "Nushata' Min Agl Filistin" ("Activists for Palestine").
*Photograph by Tarek Wageeh