Egypt’s shameful ban on freedom marchers

January 4, 2010

Laura Durkay reports from Cairo on the efforts of the Gaza Freedom Marchers to show their solidarity with Palestine—and the crackdown by Egyptian authorities.

IN THE last week of 2009, 1,360 activists from 43 countries converged on Cairo for the Gaza Freedom March. We intended to enter Gaza through the Rafah crossing, controlled by Egypt, for a display of mass international solidarity with the Palestinian people on the one-year anniversary of Israel's punishing attack that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and injured thousands more.

Organizers in the U.S., Gaza and around the world spent the past six months planning a December 31 march of Palestinians and internationals to the Eretz crossing with Israel, in the north of the Gaza Strip--plus two days of meetings and trips to the areas of Gaza most heavily damaged by Israel's attack. Many people were calling it the largest-ever gathering of international solidarity activists in Palestine.

As it turned out, the Egyptian government had other plans. No doubt under pressure from the U.S., which provided $1.5 billion in military aid to Egypt last year, the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs informed organizers of the Gaza Freedom March just a week before many delegates were scheduled to arrive in Cairo that they would not be allowed across the border at Rafah.

Participants in the Gaza Freedom March call for an end to the siege at a Cairo protest
Participants in the Gaza Freedom March call for an end to the siege at a Cairo protest (Mike Connolly)

The reaction of the vast majority of delegates was immediate and clear. We had purchased plane tickets and collected tens of thousands of dollars' worth of humanitarian aid, including school supplies, winter coats and medical aid. We were coming to show our solidarity with the people of Gaza, and if we couldn't march in Gaza, we would march in Egypt.

Organizing protests of hundreds of people from dozens of countries on a week's notice in a foreign city, where many of us didn't speak the language, would have been difficult under the most favorable conditions. But Egypt is a police state, where political gatherings of more than six people are technically illegal.

Even before most delegates landed in Cairo, the Egyptian government had revoked the permit we had secured for our opening night gathering, and canceled the buses we had booked to take us to the border with Gaza. Cab drivers and bus companies were told in no uncertain terms not to take foreigners to El Arish, the closest Egyptian town to Rafah, and delegates who managed to sneak out of Cairo in small groups were stopped at military checkpoints and turned back.

Since we were blocked from meeting in large groups, communication and democratic decision-making became challenging. We resorted to meeting in hotel lobbies and restaurants, and relying heavily on e-mail, text messaging and daily morning briefings at several hotels where many delegates were clustered to organize and spread information.

DESPITE THE obstacles, we were determined that the Egyptian government would not silence our effort to break the siege of Gaza.

The tone for the week was set early by the French delegation. When the group of around 200 people arrived in Cairo December 27 to find our buses to Gaza had been canceled, they marched in a group straight to the French embassy and occupied the street, demanding that the French government intervene on their behalf. Although they were quickly forced onto the sidewalk by lines of riot police, they maintained their encampment for a week.

In the following days, delegates organized protests outside the Cairo offices of the United Nations and the U.S. embassy, where two groups of demonstrators--a total of about 50--were completely surrounded by riot cops and detained for several hours. Eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein announced she was beginning a hunger strike until we were allowed into Gaza.

International activists also participated in an inspiring protest alongside Egyptian activists on the steps of the Syndicate of Journalists. Egyptian groups have been focusing on the underground steel wall that Egypt is constructing at the Gaza border--designed to cut off many of the tunnels that Gazans use to smuggle in everyday goods to survive. Chants in English and Arabic included "Free Gaza" and "Down with Netanyahu," but also "Free Egypt" and "Down with Mubarak."

While the police presence was heavy, no arrests were made. "It is only because you're here that they're allowing us to do this," said one Egyptian activist, who stood next to me on the crowded steps. "Without you, we'd all be locked up straight away."

Midway through our week of demonstrations, we received word that Suzanne Mubarak, the first lady of Egypt, had apparently intervened to allow a small group of delegates, 100 of the nearly 1,400 present, into Gaza with all our humanitarian aid.

While some felt that it was a concession won by the pressure of our demonstrations, and that having some internationals on the march in Gaza would be better than none, others felt that it was a calculated move to divide and distract us--especially after an Egyptian official made a statement to the local media that the 100 people who would be allowed on the buses were the only "truly peaceful" members of the Gaza Freedom March, while the rest of us were "hooligans" here to make trouble for the Egyptian government.

After an intense and heated debate, a small group of about 85 internationals did choose to go on the buses to Gaza, including many Palestinians with foreign passports who had never seen members of their family living in Gaza. On December 31, the delegates marched with about 500 Palestinians to within a few hundred yards of the Eretz crossing with Israel. At the same time, several hundred Palestinian and Jewish Israeli activists marched to the Israeli side of the crossing.

In Cairo, the demonstrations culminated in a mass action on December 31, the same day that the protests were taking place in Gaza and Israel. While the stated intention of our march was to head for Gaza on foot, we knew we would be stopped by Egyptian police almost instantly. So we decided to start our march in Tahrir Square, Cairo's equivalent of Times Square, and one of the busiest and most public spots in the city.

Because the police had made it impossible to congregate in large groups without being instantly surrounded, protesters gathered in the square in small groups, dressed as tourists. At a pre-determined time, a small group of volunteers pulled out flags and marched into the street, chanting "Free, free Gaza" and stopping traffic on a busy street.

Within minutes, a group of around 500 people had assembled. When the police tried to push us onto the sidewalk, dozens of people sat down in the street until police removed them by force--often quite violently, grabbing and dragging people who nonviolently resisted, and hitting at least one person in the face with a walkie-talkie.

The police succeeded in penning us in a small, controlled area on a sidewalk within minutes. We hung banners from a conveniently located tree, held a speakout with representatives from all the country delegations present, and chanted in English and Arabic. We renamed our bit of sidewalk "Free Gaza Square." Throughout the day, we received gestures of solidarity from ordinary Egyptians--from hastily flashed victory signs to food and water passed through the police lines.

We maintained a presence on the street for seven hours, dispersing in the late afternoon, but returning to ring in the New Year with a midnight candlelight vigil in a different part of the square. During the vigil, we got in touch via phone with Deema Meshal, one of the Palestinian organizers of the march inside Gaza. While Deema expressed sadness that we could not all be marching together in Gaza, she also said: "We feel your solidarity from Cairo, and it gives us the strength to keep fighting for our freedom."

The following day, we opened a new year of protest with a demonstration at the Israeli embassy in Cairo, which is hidden in a high-rise apartment building near a heavily trafficked bridge. We were delighted when residents of the building came out to flash victory signs and wave hello to us.

WHILE WE didn't get into Gaza, what we achieved in Cairo may be looked back on as a step forward for the global Palestine solidarity movement.

The extent of Egypt's complicity with the siege of Gaza was revealed quite pointedly for all the world to see. Our demands to lift the siege and end the occupation, and for full equality and justice for Palestinians were not silenced, despite the best efforts of a formidable police state, backed by the strongest nation in the world. "We started with suitcases to go to Gaza, and we ended up with street demonstrations that I know many of us thought we could never pull off," said New York activist Felice Gelman.

Our message reached the front page of every newspaper in Egypt, and even mainstream media outlets like the New York Times, Britain's Guardian newspaper, CNN and Newsweek. Individual activists in Egypt told us that our actions inspired them to figure out ways to target their own government's collaboration with Israel in maintaining the siege of Gaza--including a lawsuit being filed in Egyptian courts to stop the construction of the underground wall. Members of the delegation who went into Gaza reported that everywhere they went, Palestinians were asking for updates on our actions in Cairo.

Furthermore, the Gaza Freedom March functioned as an ad hoc global gathering for the Palestine solidarity movement on a scale that hasn't occurred before, bringing together hundreds of people from dozens of countries and creating networks that will last long after the delegates return to their home countries.

Perhaps the most significant thing to come out of the week of Gaza Freedom March actions was a document that is being called the Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid. Initiated by members of the contingent from the Congress of South African Trade Unions, it is designed to provide a framework for internationally coordinated actions for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

Throughout the weekend, "Boycott Israel!" was one of the most popular chants, and there was broad support for strengthening the international BDS movement. "Israel can kill Palestinians at will," said Mick Napier, chair of the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. "What they cannot do is move goods into South African ports. We're weak against Israeli guns at checkpoints. I want to fight where we're strong, and they're weak, which is pretty much everywhere in the world outside of apartheid Israel."

We know the difficulties, harassment and violence we faced from the Egyptian government were minor compared to what both ordinary Egyptians and Palestinians face on a daily basis. Nevertheless, they were serious enough that they could have derailed the Gaza Freedom March and left many activists demoralized.

Instead, many of us emerged from the week of action feeling stronger, more determined and better organized to break the siege on Gaza, and support the movement for freedom and justice in all of Palestine.

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