You've reached your limit of free articles.
To read the full story, start your free trial today.
Get unlimited access. Cancel anytime.
Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries.
Already a subscriber? Log in
In Egypt and elsewhere in the region and the world, families and movements are mobilizing against companies that support Israel's war on Gaza. The power of the people lies in their control as consumers — and the list of companies and brands to boycott grows longer.
CAIRO — Ali Al-Din’s logic is simple and straightforward: “If you buy a can (of soda), you'll get the bullet too...”
Those bullets are the ones killing the children of Gaza every day, and the can he refuses to buy is “kanzaya” – the popular Egyptian soft drink. It is just one of a long list of products he had the habit of consuming. Ali is nine years old.
The clarity and simplicity of this logic has pushed Ali Al-Din to boycott all the products on the lists people are circulating of companies that have supported Israel since the attacks on Gaza began in October. His mother, Heba, points out that her son took responsibility for overseeing the boycott in their home.
A few days ago, he saw a can of “Pyrosol” insecticide, but he thought it was one of the products of the “Raid” company that was on the boycott’s lists. He warned his mother that this product was on the boycott list, but she explained that the two products were different. Ali al-Din and his younger brother also abstained from eating any food from McDonald's. “They love McDonald’s very much,” his mother says. “But they refuse.”
The Egyptian family had never been active in any similar issue before, because she “wasn’t really interested.” But the two-month-long all-out assault on Gaza is different. “It's time that this farce should stop,” she says. That's why she is looking for a role to play, and like millions of others in Egypt, the Middle East and around the world, Heba now recognizes the power she has as a consumer to try to respond to Israeli policy.
History of boycotting
For years, boycotting Israeli products has been part of the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement. But this current moment stands out, revealing both the depth of the changes that have affected society over the past two decades, and the depth of the current crisis. It's part of a long history that has played out in times of both war and peace.
Boycotts have been a weapon advocated by resistance and liberation movements around the world. During World War II, a movement by American Jews called for a boycott of Nazi Germany. That was followed by a boycott of the Apartheid regime in South Africa that began in the late 1950s and is largely credited for raising awareness of the injustice in the following decades.
These movements tend to address a wide audience around the world with the same kind of direct logic as Ali Al-Din: Purchasing Nazi products in Germany or the Apartheid regime in South Africa supports their crimes and gives their existence and activities a legitimacy that enables them to continue. That's why everyone should boycott these products and companies, as much as possible.
People weren't expected to manage personal boycotts by themselves; the state was doing it on their behalf.
It’s the same position regarding the boycotts of Israel, which date back decades. In the first years after the Nakba, (the forced transfer of Palestinians in 1948), boycotting Israel was an official position of all Arab countries. Many of these countries had offices that helped manage the boycott, explains Hazem Jamjoum, a Palestinian historian and BDS activist. These offices were responsible for tracking products – authorized and unauthorized products, and companies normalizing relations with Israel. The people weren't expected to manage personal boycotts by themselves; the state was doing it on their behalf.
But the question arose after some Arab countries began striking peace treaties with Israel. I remember this in my childhood. It was after the Oslo Accords, the agreement concluded by Yasser Arafat with Israel in 1993, after which the Palestinian Authority was established. This agreement came after a series of similar agreements initiated by Egypt with Israel, followed by Jordan in the 1980s. The official Arab position was leaning toward normalization.
Turkish protestors outside of Starbucks calling for a boycott
Against Israel and the U.S.
The second Palestinian Intifada that began in 2000, followed by the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, reopened the question of boycott in the Arab world. New consumers have searched for a role in Arab countries that have recently begun normalization of ties with Israel.
Campaigns to boycott American and Israeli products have spread in Egypt, mainly adopted by the Muslim Brotherhood, the Popular Committee for Supporting the Intifada, and the Egyptian Anti-Globalization Group (AGEG). Posters with the slogans of various products with drops of blood from victims of war and aggression, compared the act of drinking “Coca-Cola” or “Pepsi” to drinking the blood of dead children.
But the protest would soon spread beyond Arab countries.
Various groups began calling for a boycott in Europe and the U.S., though with a different logic. The strategies and tactics of these groups differed from their counterparts here because they operated in contexts that were completely different in their relations with Israel and with the Palestinian cause in general.
In contrast to the state of post-war normalization and rupture with Israel in the Arab world, the West has long had good relations with Israel, and thus boycott campaigns had a primary mission to spread awareness.
The BDS movement
The accumulation of this activity culminated in 2005 with the establishment of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which was co-founded by dozens of Palestinian popular federations, unions, parties, popular committees, and civil society organizations. In itsfounding statement, the movement called for “a broad boycott of Israel and the implementation of divestment from it, in steps similar to those applied against South Africa during the apartheid era.”
Different branches of BDS began to be active across different countries. Each branch has its own plans and strategies depending on the context in which they operate. There are cross-border campaigns (such as campaigns to boycott PUMA sportswear or HP computers and printers) or extremely local campaigns.
The movement has been active for nearly two decades around the world. It has witnessed ups and downs. One of the most important successes it has achieved around the world has been the academic and cultural boycott, and some of them have achieved relative successes (the most recent of which was the American Anthropological Association’sdecision last July to boycott Israeli academic institutions). Economic boycott campaigns also continued.
The movement has faced criticisms even among supporters of the Palestinian cause.
Some argued that the boycott, in the end, is only an individual act that gives satisfaction to those who adhere to it, which may prevent them from participating effectively in the struggle against the Israeli occupation by other available means.
Wael Gamal, an economic researcher and member of the “Agej” campaign, recalls that some considered that the boycott campaigns two decades ago were being used “retroactively” because demonstrations and popular movement for Palestine were allowed, and thus the focus was on the boycott’s message: “Stay at home and boycott. Don’t go out into the street,” was seen as a step back.
A Protestor in New York carrying a boycott sign on Black Friday
Power of consumers
In contrast to the more organized and politically mature boycott movement, there is the movement that has been more widespread in recent weeks. It is the movement of Heba and her son Ali al-Din, and perhaps hundreds of thousands like them. The growth is based on the same logic: the power we possess is that we are consumers.
Heba also says that social media networks this time have brought the suffering so much closer. Even in 2014, one of the largest Israeli attacks on Gaza, she does not remember ever experiencing things so acutely. This time, “the disaster is massive, and there is a lot of blood.” And on social media, “you feel that you are sitting with them, and the bomb will fall on you.”
Comparing the casualty numbers makes this clear. In the 2014 war on Gaza, which lasted six weeks, Israel killed about 2,300 Palestinians. This time, the Palestinian death toll exceeded 12,000 during the first six weeks. On the other hand, there is virtually no space for any movement beyond the Internet. With the exception ofone day a few weeks ago, the Egyptian government has banned any demonstration of any kind, even inside universities, which used to be natural spaces for expressing anger towards what is happening in Palestine. But none of that takes place now. The potential price has become much greater. Any act of protest in Egypt now could easily lead to long imprisonment.
What if there's no substitute to boycotted product?
For Shorouk, who began the boycott on the second day the Gaza bombings in October, she didn't initially know what list of products she should boycott. She began researching and realized the breadth of the list of large companies around the world, owning hundreds of famous brands, that operate in Israel or support them in one way or another.
Shorouk relies on a skin care product made by L’Oréal, one of the companies on the boycott list, because this is the only product that works for the eczema (a type of dermatitis) she suffers from chronically. In this case, boycotting is not possible.
This also applies to other less dire cases: There is no substitute for Nescafe coffee or Heinz products. All types of packed soup such as “Maggi” and “Knorr” are on the boycott’s list. Even if such alternatives are available, it is mostly in Cairo and to a lesser extent other large cities, but they are scarce outside the central cities.
Posters in Bangladesh calling for a boycott on Israel products
Md Rafayat Haque Khan/ZUMA
Going to the source
Another example of this ambiguity shows what some people circulated on the Internet calling for a boycott of Heineken beer and replacing it with Egyptian Stella beer. What many Stella fans do not know is that Al-Ahram Beverage Company, which produces it, is now owned by the international company Heineken itself.
Shorouk, for example, provides direct answers to the question of Egyptian companies carrying international brands. For example, “Franchises can change their name, as happened in Russia. They can sever ties. They have solutions.”
The possibility of opening the door to local products represents one of the most important features of the boycott discourse now taking shape in Egypt. Boycotting Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola no longer means replacing them with “Mecca Cola,” the drink that spread from London at the time of the first boycott two decades ago, but rather with “Spiro Spates,” the ancient Egyptian drink that returned to the market years ago.
There are serious debates about the importance of supporting local products. Even some shopping apps have started advocating local shopping on their home-pages. This local discourse does not necessarily stem from an Egyptian nationalist discourse, but is most likely from the influences of the culture of preference for local shopping (and ethical shopping in general), which has spread across the world, and continues to reach broader segments of the new global consumer citizen.
Shaping the discourse in such a way allowed Shorouk to move from boycotting everything to trying to come up with choices that would give the boycott action real political effectiveness within a discourse that seemed more coherent and conscious.
I asked nine-year-old Ali Al-Din when he would stop the boycott. “When the issue is resolved,” he declared. “When Palestine wins.”
For my side, my anger at the war in Gaza, I decided to boycott Seinfeld, my favorite show of all time, after Jerry Seinfeld signed a letter supporting Israel. I stopped watching any episodes or online clips of him, — I also stopped using his jokes. I don't know what benefit might come from this, but I know in my heart it's the right position.
- Renewed Global Boycotts Put Israel On Defensive ›
- Gaza, A View From Istanbul: Why I Still Believe In Western Values ›
- From Berlin To Paris, Gaza Support Seethes With Anti-Semitism ›