Cairo: The dateline for this should have been Gaza but it is not simply because Egypt decided that it would not open its borders to allow the entry of 1400 activists and journalists from across the world to participate in a Freedom March in the Israel occupied territory on December 31. The occasion was the first anniversary of the Israeli massacre of 1400 Palestinians in Gaza last December, with US organization Code Pink giving the call for concerned groups and individuals to participate in the ambitious effort. Hundreds poured into Egypt with sleeping bags, confident that President Hosni Mobarak would have no choice but to open the borders and allow them entry from the Egyptian border town Al Arish. The largest contingent was from US followed by France with 43 countries participating. It was a major exercise, with Boycott Israel shirts, Viva Palestine flags, End the Siege placards dotting the huge city of Cairo as activists waited for the clearance.
It never came. Negotiations that had spanned months came to nought as Mobarak’s regime made it clear that while the activists had managed to get in, largely on tourist visas, they could visit Giza (Pyramids) but certainly not Gaza. This was apparent within minutes of arrival, and while the international committee continued the negotiations, the others trooped out to take “action” as they saw fit. A couple of hundred French activists decided to quietly take buses in the dark hours of the night and travel to Al Arish, hoping to escape notice. The buses did not turn up at all as the police just went to the bus companies and made it clear that they would be in jail if they complied. The angry delegation marched to the French embassy, took out their sleeping bags and stayed there for over a week in protest. Mobarak’s riot police surrounded them but the strong stand taken by a particularly sympathetic French ambassador prevented forcible eviction from the pavements. Men and women over 80 years sat with their younger colleagues, day and night, to step up international pressure on Egypt to give them permission to join the Palestinians in Gaza.
Another group of French, Indians, Belgians, Greek decided to make yet another attempt to reach Al Arish again and filtered into buses at pre-designated spots in twos and threes. The buses took off leading to cheers and excitement within, but in just about an hour on the outskirts of Cairo the police arrived and surrounded the activists. Three hours of negotiations came to nought, and eventually the buses had to return to the city where again the riot police was lying in wait to ensure that the groups did not protest, but quietly went back to their hotels.
The instructions to the police were clear. Do not touch the activists at all as given the interest being taken by the embassies this could become an international incident. Surround them wherever they gather, block them from moving in a procession, block the others from joining them, and stay until they disperse. On one occasion the police even requisitioned taxis as a “thoughtful gesture” so that the activists could step in and be driven back to hotels. Policemen were standing by to open doors and help them in! Wherever possible the police caught hold of the local Egyptians, bus or taxi drivers, to warn them not to drive the activists to any demonstration site or out of Cairo. Strict instructions were given to bus companies and taxi drivers but even so the determined activists managed to get out on the streets, surround embassies urging ambassadors to take a position, to march down the streets shouting slogans in support for the Palestinians, and staging huge demonstrations outside the United Nations in protest against international silence. The Cairo police resources were stretched in barricading demonstrations that erupted in all corners as well as hotels where the delegations were staying. On several occasions the policemen themselves were sympathetic, with some even chanting slogans. A French demonstrator swore that he saw tears rolling down the cheeks of a policeman.
The Egyptian government was embarrassed. No doubt about that. More so as the civil society action in Cairo also drew attention to the famous steel wall it is building on the Gaza border to ensure that the Palestinians are not even able to use the tunnels to get at least some meager food and medicines essential for survival. Many who did not know got updates about the wall, and the fact that the governments of the west were helping and encouraging Egypt to complete trap the Palestinians into Gaza. It was also very clear that Cairo was now listening more to Israel and taking directions from both Tel Aviv and Washington on the Palestinian issue. As this realization found its way into slogans Mobarak decided to relent and got his wife to meet a leading Code Pink organizer. The result of the meeting was that 100 of the 1400 would be allowed to go to Gaza, but the organizers were given instructions that this should be a sanitized list and no “troublemaker” should be allowed on the two buses sanctioned for the purpose. Early the next morning 100 selected activists trooped into the buses only to be surrounded by those left out of the process. Chanting slogans the agitators exerted pressure on their colleagues to get off the bus, they resisted, and finally the Palestinians from Gaza urged them not to come as it would not help their case in any substantial way, and would only fracture the peace movement outside.
By this time tempers were boiling and those gathered in Cairo for five days without being able to express their solidarity for the Palestinians in real terms were pressing for action. It was then decided by many to gather outside the Cairo Museum to march in procession but anticipating big trouble the police was out in force. Every single hotel was barricaded, with activists not allowed to leave. Even so nearly 300 managed to turn up at the Museum where a huge contingent of riot police in full gear was waiting. This demonstration turned violent with the police beating up the activists, hitting them with canes, with no distinction being made between the men and women. It was another example of not just state brutality but the complete capitulation of the Mobarak government that has been talking of reconciliation but doing nothing to help the Palestinians. Humanitarian relief in the form of medicines and food is also being stopped as Egypt now has lost its sovereignty to Israel and the US. It is more concerned about the smuggling of arms into Gaza than in stopping the illegal use of arms by Israel against the innocent Palestinians living in Gaza.
At the end of the day, it was the Freedom March in Gaza that never did happen despite the enthusiasm and the effort.