12/29/09, Cairo: Tonight our GFM internationals were invited to join with Egyptian students who were protesting Egyptian president Mubarak's meeting with Israel's prime minister Netenyahu. Ostensibly the two were meeting to restart the "peace process" that has unfolded in the form of more and more death and horror for the Palestinian people. But, in the midst of widespread outrage and fury in the region over the situation for the people in Gaza, the meeting served as an in-your-face statement about the role of the Egyptian regime in all this. The protest was outside the Journalists Syndicate hall, an impressive building in downtown Cairo.
For the first time, in our time here, we are working with Egyptian students -- the crowd chanting on the steps was roughly half Arabic and English. The demands: LIFT THE SIEGE OF GAZA! STOP THE GENOCIDE! FREE PALESTINE!
Egyptians, including sizeable numbers of college-age women, are half the crowd -- the other half internationals with GFM. We are used to being shadowed and harassed, detained, and sometimes violently assaulted by plain-clothes Egyptian security forces who ride around in pickup trucks they can jump out of like the Islamic regime's thugs in Iran. But the massive police presence at this protest was on another level -- rows of riot police with helmets lined up in front of the protest, and trucks to haul in police, and haul people away were lined up at the end of the block.
But the atmosphere was electric -- almost literally, as bright spotlights flooded the steps of the Journalists Syndicate building with white light in the dark Cairo evening. In the organized chaos, I grab any Egyptian student I can to talk to. The first one tells me that there are other protests elsewhere in Egypt against Netenyahu's visit, and the planned wall to strangle Gaza by closing the Egyptian tunnels. I ask him about the risks he is taking. He talks about what is happening in Iran, and that he has a feeling an eruption like that might be not too far beneath the surface in Egypt.
Next I find myself interviewing a professor who has studied in France. He is in his sixties, and his command of English is elegant and nuanced. He knows about the Gaza Freedom March: "I know, I know," he says when I describe what the authorites are doing to keep us from getting to Gaza. "It is important that you people go to Gaza" he tells me. I ask him for an assessment of the movement of opposition in Egypt
"It's a police state here," he says with the tone of a prof patiently explaining something basic to a slow student. He pauses to indicate with subtle eye motion the phalanx of riot police. "If you foreigners weren't here we'd be getting clobbered bloody right now." I ask what impact it is having on Egyptian society that the regime has detained the GFM people in Cairo (and other cities in Egypt)? "They have made a huge mistake. They're dumb," he says. "They have ended up making a bigger deal out of this." He is sticking his neck way out to be on the steps tonight, and he reminds me that "your embassy is calling the shots in all this, you know."
Two young women college students are discretely passing out flyers in Arabic. Can anyone translate? They appear to ignore my request and walk away, but come back in a few minutes with a guy who speaks English. "You are a journalist?" Yes. "You should be at the press conference, go in the building to the 4th floor." I consult with friends from the GFM -- does anyone know what's going on inside? What is at the 4th floor? Anybody seen anyone go in there? Or come out? Nobody knows, but it seems important to find out. I exchange cell phone numbers with GFM friends, and people promise to respond if I do not return from the building. I go in, and take the elevator to the 4th floor.
The Journalist Syndicate building is big and modern -- similar in size and amenities to a newer classroom building at UCLA or NYU. Another striking feature: It's the first building of almost any size I've been in in Egypt without cops or security hovering around.
I get off the elevator and follow the crowd into a massive meeting hall. Quick headcount: 700 people. Everyone is speaking Arabic. Help! A young man comes to my aid. The press conference, he explains, has been called by the Journalist Syndicate along with other groups. The crowd? Lawyers, journalists, professionals, he says, "and me - an accountant," he smiles. It's all being explained quickly, but he tells me the panelists are prominent, respected journalists in Egypt who cannot be heard in the mainstream media, along with at least one attorney, and an Indian journalist (I believe from a Muslim paper in India, he speaks Arabic).The list of sponsoring organizations is hard to follow but I recognize the word "communist" in the name of one of the groups - whatever that might mean here. And it does seem that there is what one might call a "secular left" in the region that has some influence. I direct all interested in something besides capitalism (or Islamic fundamentalism) to check out "Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage, A Manifesto from the Revolutionary Communist Party." Wish it was available in Arabic right now! Anyone capable of providing a translation?
My newly enlisted translator is fluent, poetic and simultaneous. Not bad for an accountant... or anyone else. I do my best to keep up -- madly scribbling notes --but errors in the following quotes are my fault, not his. The first speaker welcomes the crowd: "Today, a terrible crime is being committed. A war is being waged against Gaza in the form of a wall. Mubarak is building it. Egypt can wait no longer to stand with Gaza!"
The format takes some getting used to for me - this is not a traditional rally. Applause is restrained. Attention is rapt. A cell phone goes off, and the mc stops the event to sternly warn against that happening again. I learn later that the Journalists Syndicate facility is, for a combination of reasons including its proximity to a major court facility, is so-far off-limits to the security forces, with the proviso that events are confined within its walls and do not extend onto the steps and into the street (as is happening tonight). And it appears the press conference format serves as a form of protest under conditions of extreme repression.
One speaker is an attorney who indicts the Mubarak regime for war crimes. He says that Egypt was an early signer of the Geneva Convention, and that the wall, which will kill civilians in Gaza, is a war crime. And then he begins telling the audience about how the regime is detaining the Gaza Freedom Marchers in Egypt. My translator nudges me - "he's talking about you! right?" People nearby hear that. "You're one of them?" Yes.This creates a buzz on our side of the room. The speaker issues a demand: "They must not be turned around at Rafah (the border crossing into Gaza from Egypt)." "Today," he says, "is a different feeling for us. We are standing up together as Muslims and Christians. I find no polite words but am trying. People are angry. The wall is going up, people in Gaza will die. We can talk all night about utilizing proper procedures but that won't change anything!"
I have heard about the long detentions, the beatings, and torture that are the fate of those who defy the regime here. There has been discussion amongst us about the appropriateness of connecting with the struggles of the Egyptian people. I am thinking about this, and am filled with emotion -- I nearly cry -- when a speaker says, "We appreciate people from other countries who stand with us and we welcome them and their sincere activism."
I emerge from the press conference back into the Cairo night. The crowd of protesters has thinned considerably, and -- unable to understand the Arabic messages on my cell phone -- I finally realize that the SIM card I bought from a dude on the street has run out of time. Luckily, a couple friends who are shooting documentary footage of all this have stayed to wait for me. We find a quiet spot, and they interview me about the experience for their project.
Then we rush off to the hotel where major discussions and debate is going on over how to advance the cause of the Gaza Freedom March. I share the experience at the press conference, and it becomes part of the picture of complex, contradictory, and rather intriguing mix of factors we are dealing with. There are other interesting experiences of interacting with Egyptians, who are singled out viciously by the authorities for threats and attack when they associate with us. We didn't come here to protest in Egypt, we thought we had an arrangement to quickly pass through into Gaza. But the struggle for justice, let alone profound, radical, social change, is never a straight line. It's a complex, multi-level, windy road. And the struggle to break the siege of Gaza is -- as is being brought into increasingly sharp relief -- a global one that ultimately can only rely on the people of the world.
So, here we are in Egypt.... struggling to get the Gaza Freedom March into Gaza.
And in that context, we are working to wrench opportunity out of difficult conditions. Egypt is a big country, the largest (in population) in the Middle East, and the 2nd largest in Africa. Right now, Egypt is a link in the chain around the necks of the Palestinians, and a brick in the wall* of global imperialist exploitation and oppression. But there are pressures from below (I'll share more on that factor later), and it seems, profound anger and discontent stirring among important sections of the middle class.
Someone passes me a daily paper from Cairo -- the heroic French Gaza Freedom March delegation, who has been camped out in the hundreds on the sidewalk in front of the French embassy for 3 days now, is the main story. Egyptians will wake up to that story tomorrow.When will the sleeping giant awaken?
* See the video statement by Roger Waters in support of Gaza Freedom March