Things Heating Up In Cairo
By Lee Gargagliano at Dec 31, 2009
Dear friends and family,
We're coming towards the end of the Gaza Freedom March portion of our trip and things have been really intense the past few days. Beyond just adjusting to Egypt (the call to prayer greets us promptly at 5am every morning), we have been in the midst of a fractured movement up against an authoritarian police state (Egypt) with a monetary interest in preventing a scene (Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel).
If who we're talking about seems vague at times we don't want to reveal people's identies who we haven't spoken with, especially since much of this will appear publicly on Lee's blog (ruby.zspace.org/zspace/lgargagl). As we confirm names we will amend this.
To give you a sense of who the GFM is: the main organizers are from CodePink, a women's antiwar group that has successfully led several smaller delegations to Gaza in the past. (If you are interested in seeing who the organizers are, they are transparently listed on the GFM's website: www.gazafreedommarch.org). One of the prominent people we've been following closely and getting to know a little bit is Ali Abuminah, the co-founder of the Electronic Intifada (electronicintifada.net) and author of "One Country." There are roughly 1400 internationals participating in the march; the largest groups come from the US, Britain and France, but we are joined by delegations from South Africa, Mexico, India, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Scotland, Australia, Bulgaria, and many, many more. Most groups are organized around their nationalities, but the US delegation has been somewhat less organized and local New York, Chicago and other groups have formed. In addition we have had some Egyptian and Palestinian involvement in our actions. However, this was limited because the Egyptian government stipulated that the only way they would consider allowing the march into Gaza was if we did not engage the local activists.
The main goal of GFM was to show solidarity with the people of Gaza by holding a protest in Gaza which has been under severe surveilance and almost no movement of goods or people in or out of the tiny extremely densely populated area. Leading up to the march, we had been notified by the organizing committee that Egypt was refusing to allow the delegation to enter Gaza despite the agreements and stipulations placed on the march. In light of this the goal and actions of the GFM is in constant flux with new updates every day and every hour. In many instances, this has caused the group to act as independent delegations. One example has been one of our great successes: The French delegation pushed out of Gaza bound buses, pitched tents and have been camping outside their Embassy for the past 4 days and nights. They are completely surrounded by Egyptian riot police carrying shields and billy clubs, but have taken an area of sidewalk the length of 2 city blocks. When we went by earlier today, what we saw through the line of officers was a stirring sight: posters, flags, people dressed in crazy costumes, people making jokes about the Giza zoo across the street and how their encampment was Gaza in Giza. A few people held long flagpoles extending over the police flying the Palestinian flag. Previously non-French nationals could join them, but the police have closed the area to all but the French. In one humorous moment, the French who had been allowed to use the facilities in the embassy called out for the "toilet pour tous le monde" when their non-French comrades were denied access. Please keep your eye out for this beautiful protest. "Le Monde Diplomatique" is a great French leftist newspaper to checkout.
Other people have visited the American Embassy and were penned in for 5 hours without access to the bathroom or food or water or the opportunity to meet with an official (please contact the embassy and express your outrage at this treatment of US nationals). Additional actions have taken place at other embassies as well as the United Nations agencies in Cairo. There was a banner drop over the pyramids a couple days ago. Many delegates have attempted to reach the border and all have been stopped by Egyptian police, including Italians under house arrest (confined to their hotel).
Another action that has recieved a good amount of press has been a hunger strike convened by Hedy Epstien, a holocaust survivor in her 80s and about 20 other participants.
There has been a lot of discussion around the inclusion of Egyptians in our organizing--especially in light of the Egyptian governments refusal to allow the march to proceed. Yesterday evening we participated in an Egyptian led protest outside of the Journalism Syndicate in Cairo. This was one of the more moving actions, given the risk these people faced in expressing their views and in light of the presence of the Egyptian and Arab press. The Egyptian press is not free and is closely monitored by the police.
Representing and supporting International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network (IJAN) has been a powerful experience for us. Before the protest at the Journalism Syndicate we ran to a shop the size of a closet and purchased materials to prepare a sign that read: "Arrest Netanyahu! International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network." The sign was a huge success and drew a lot of attention. Lee was interviewed by Anthony Loewenstein, an Australian journalist (and Jewish Anti-Zionist) preparing a spot for PBS to come out in the coming year. In addition it connected me with an anti-zionist Jew from South Africa and an IJAN organizer from India. At one point an Egyptian protester read the sign, got really excited and said a few times, "God Bless You!"
At this protest the Egyptians made explicit the links between protesting the treatment of Palestinians and protesting their own government. Chants of "Free Gaza" and "Free Palestine" were accompanied by chants of "Free Egypt" and "Down, Down Mubarak!"
Finally, we met a woman who works with Middle East Children's Alliance, who lives in Berkeley. She told us that a delegation of 100 was going to Gaza and that we should talk to them about ensuring that IJAN was represented. This delegation of 100 was not made known to us at that point and we ran to the hotel where many of the leading activists are staying. After much deliberation Lee was placed on an alternate list and was told to meet at the bus stop at 7 am the following day. While it was exciting to have the opportunity to go to Gaza after it has seemed that it was no longer a possibility, the secrecy of the process was disconcerting and uncomfortable. Only the well connected delegates seemed privvy to this information and the decision of who to send was made by the lead organizers and head delegates, some of who represented their groups and some of who didn't.
At 7 this morning Lee traveled to the pick-up spot still unsure how to proceed. When Lee arrived there were only a few people milling around, but slowly the numbers grew to a couple hundred and the situation became very tense. The South African delegation had already presented CodePink with a refusal to join this watered down GFM and in the morning the organizer from CodePink said that they had made a mistake accepting the compromise, but that they were going to allow the people who were selected to go on the buses to decide whether they still wanted to go. We later learned that the delegation of 100 was agreed to in negotiation with Madame Mubarak (the Egyptian first lady) without consulting the delegates first. We further learned that it was being reported in the Egyptian press as a delegation permitted by Madame's benevolence. Furthermore, there was an Egyptian report that the reason why only 100 were going was because CodePink had failed to adequately vet participants and that upon thorough Egyptian vetting, it turned out that only 100 of the participants were non-violent. Lee was deemed non-violent, but watch out for Ina and the other 1200 vigilantes gathered to dismantle Cairo. In light of these developments and a request from the Palestinian organizers to not send the convoy, many of the protesters volunarily refused to board the bus. Tension erupted as the Italian and Canadian delegations made statements rejecting the convoy and Hedy Epstien refused to go as well. Things became negative and people got carried away with many of those outside of the buses chanting, "All or none!" and later even "Shame on you!" to the people on the buses. The issue was more complicated than it seemed because many of those on the buses were Palestinians hoping to see family and/or visit Gaza for the first time. Eventually organizers were able to defuse the anger and turn it into a form of unity. Everyone left after singing "Bella Ciao" and chanting "The People United Will Never Be Defeated."
It was a really compelling moment because it raised a lot of questions around the limits of solidarity:
When is it important to just be there, enter the physical space of a colonized/imprisoned people?
When can your participation in such a delegation make you complicit with the imperialist power structure?
When is it more important to work from your own subjectivity and within your own community? (A lot of organizing around Israel/Palestine focuses on Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions)
When is organizing a collective choice and when is it up to the individual to decide?
How do you make a democratic structure in an authoritarian situation with a multi-lingual group staying at tens of different hotels?
[Let us know if you come up with anything; the jury's still out over here].
Luckily, the energy from this morning was transferred into organizing a demonstration for tomorrow that will attempt to unite all the delegates. To give you a sense of what we're up against, we attended a meeting crowded into a small diningroom and the outside corridor and up and down two flights of stairs. Every word spoken had to be relayed at least three times for everyone to hear. In addition the suited policemen were boldly there holding their digital voice recorders and were addressed openly by the Scotish facilitator. (His best line was: "When you're fighting Mike Tyson, play dead.")
After the meeting a Chicago delegation formed including our celebrities: Ali Abuminah and Bill Ayers. We're off to our hotel room to prepare a sign that says something that will resonate with one of Obama's more resonant speeches given a year or so ago in Cairo.
Thank you so much to those of you who have been following the blog. Please contact anyone you know in the press and check out the coverage around the world including in the Arab press... we haven't had the time to keep up with that. We've overheard that there was an article in the Times and one in the NY Post, the BBC and all over the Arab press which we've heard has been shining a negative light on Egypt's actions.
We'll update you as things progress.
Ina and Lee