Arab nations where monarchies typically quash dissent and that have normalised or are considering improving relations with Israel are coming under growing public pressure to cut those ties because of Israel’s war with Hamas.
Tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Rabat and other Moroccan cities in support of the Palestinians. In Bahrain - a country that almost never allows protest - police stood by as hundreds of people marched last month, waving flags and gathering in front of the Israeli Embassy in Manama.
The demonstrations, which mirror protests across the Middle East, present an uncomfortable dilemma for governments that have enjoyed the benefits of closer military and economic ties with Israel in recent years.
In Egypt, which has had ties with Israel for decades, protesters rallied in cities and at universities, at times chanting “Death to Israel.” A parliamentary committee in Tunisia last week advanced a draft law that would criminalisze normalisation with Israel.
In Morocco and Bahrain, the public anger has an additional dimension; activists are demanding the reversal of agreements that formalise ties with Israel, underscoring discord between the governments and public opinion.
The US-brokered Abraham Accords, aimed at winning broader recognition of Israel in the Arab world, paved the way for trade deals and military cooperation with Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates starting in 2020. Their autocratic rulers - as well as American and Israeli officials - continue to frame the deals as a step toward a “new Middle East” in which closer ties could foster peace and prosperity.
The accords marked a major diplomatic victory for Morocco because they led the US - and eventually Israel - to recognise its autonomy over the disputed Western Sahara. Morocco’s Foreign Ministry did not respond to questions about the agreement or protests.
Thousands of Moroccans take part in a protest in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza and against normalisation with Israel, in Casablanca, Morocco. Photo / AP
The accords also led Washington to remove Sudan from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, presenting a lifeline for the ruling military junta fighting a pro-democracy movement and spiralling inflation.
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Large protests against the Israel-Hamas war have not erupted in Sudan or the United Arab Emirates.
A highly sought-after agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia has become less likely due to the war and region-wide protests, Steven Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told The Associated Press in October.
“I think this dynamic of normalisation will likely slow down or come to a halt, at least for a period of time,” Cook said.
Opponents of normalisation say the protests make clear the governmental wins that resulted from the accords did little to move public opinion.
“Hamas isn’t terrorists. It’s resistance to colonisation. Imagine someone enters your house. How would you behave? Smile or make them leave by force?” said Abouchitae Moussaif, the national secretary of Morocco’s Al Adl Wal Ihsane, a banned but tolerated Islamist association that has long supported the Palestinian cause.
The group, which rejects King Mohammed VI’s dual authority as head of state and religion, organises throughout Morocco, where undermining the monarchy is illegal.
Morocco has not always been so lenient with opponents of normalisation. Before the war, authorities broke up protests and sit-ins outside Parliament and a judge in Casablanca sentenced a man to five years in prison for undermining the monarchy because he criticised normalisation.
Now, law enforcement personnel mostly stand aside as the large daily protests take place.
“Normalisation is a project of the state, not the people,” Moussaif said. “The protests touched on a project of the government, more specifically a project of the King.”
Zakaria Aboudahab, a professor of International Relations at Universite Mohammed V in Rabat, said the protests likely won’t lead to Morocco overturning normalisation but that allowing them works as a “safety valve” to temper public outrage.
“The Moroccan state knows very well that when popular anger reaches such proportions and people express injustice and so on, it has to listen to the people,” he said.
Bahrain had banned protests since the 2011 uprisings, when thousands poured into the streets emboldened by pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen. But in recent weeks, demonstrations have been allowed again.
“Now people are taking some risks to be in the street and participate,” said Jawad Fairooz, a former leader of Bahrain’s outlawed Al Wefaq Party who lives in exile in London. “Governments want to give some relief to people’s anger by allowing them to get together.”
As the war intensified, Arab leaders moved from condemning violence and calling for peace to more pointed criticism of Israel’s attacks in Gaza.
The United Arab Emirates Foreign Ministry initially called Hamas’ October 7 raid in southern Israel a “serious and grave escalation,” and its finance minister told reporters the country does not mix trade with politics. After Israel struck Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp on Tuesday, the UAE warned that “indiscriminate attacks will result in irreparable ramifications in the region.”
Morocco’s Foreign Ministry initially said it “condemns attacks against civilians wherever they may be.” But it later blamed Israel for the escalation of violence - including an explosion at a hospital in Gaza City - and highlighted its humanitarian aid efforts in Gaza.
In a statement last week, Morocco called its delivery of food, medical supplies and water part of the king’s commitment to the Palestinian cause.
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