Special Reports

Egypt prevents Gaza march, strengthens seige

Letter from Cairo
Cairo:  Not long ago Egypt used to be the "Pulsating Heart of Arabism" and I personally witnessed part of that era while pursuing studies in Egypt during 1966-1973. Things started to change soon after Sadat's overtures to Israel and the US. Camp David and Sadat's visit to Israel paved the way for a total change in Egyptian policies. Egypt concluded peace with Israel and started receiving huge aid from the US (the largest American aid to a foreign country after Israel). For a few years, the whole Arab and Muslim world boycotted Egypt and it was briefly expelled from the Arab League. Sadat established a phoney "League of Muslim Peoples" but soon, in the fashion of Arab politics, everything was forgiven and forgotten and Egypt was back into the fold and the Arab League returned to its imposing building in central Cairo's Tahrir Square but Egypt remained steadfast in its pro-West and pro-Israel policies protecting western interests and pushing other Arab and Muslim countries to normalise relations with Tel Aviv.

Egypt not only failed to lift the cruel Israeli siege of Gaza Strip for the last two years, it is actually outdoing Israel in strengthening the siege and making the lives of the innocent Gazans more difficult. It failed to do anything to stop the Israeli criminal onslaught on Gaza a year ago and now it is building a first of its kind underground iron wall to prevent the smuggling of food and other vital supplies into Gaza through tunnels across Rafah border which in no way threaten Egypt, rather Egyptian traders made huge profits as a result.

Voices against this criminal, illegal and inhuman siege of 1.5 million people have been mostly raised in the West and the 1400 marchers who assembled in Cairo late last month from 42 countries also came mostly from the West with a sprinkling from Arab countries (one from Syria and one from Libya!) including five from India (this writer, Firoz Mithiborewala, journalists Seema Mustafa and John Cherian and CPIM activist Prabir Purkayastha). The idea was to march into Gaza through the Rafah Crossing controlled by Egypt. Negotiations were going on with the Egyptian authorities for weeks and there were strong indications that the marchers will be allowed into Gaza where they were going to hold a huge three-mile-long march along with over half a million Gazans on 31 December from Abu Drabo (a community in which nearly every building was destroyed during the invasion) to the Erez Crossing into Israel. Besides the marchers wanted to visit localities devastated by the Israelis and meet leaders of civil society. They were slated to return on 2 January.

The marchers were in place in Cairo in the morning of 28 December although the scenario had changed and the Egyptians had made up they mind that they will not allow the marchers into Gaza as they had picked up “leaders” of the march from various hotels in downtown Cairo previous night. Yet the marchers were adamant on going to Gaza.

Starting in small groups so as to evade the attention of the Egyptian plain clothes, just after noon we assembled at a point near the island west of the Nile Hilton hotel. At 2 pm our group, comprising mostly of the French, started towards Al Arish in five buses. At 3.30 pm, when we were on the road leading to Ismailia, the drivers stopped the buses apparently on orders from their company which in turn must have been contacted by the police. Soon some policemen alighted from a few vehicles. They started negotiating with the leaders of the group telling them that they cannot proceed and would have to return to Cairo. Group leaders refused. More plainclothes came and soon a "colonel" arrived at 5 pm while we are still in the buses and were being briefed from time to time by the French. Thus we were forced to return to Cairo at 8.15 pm. The leaders decided to hold a press conference at the point from where we had embarked at noon. But when we reached the place we were cordoned off by the police and plain clothes who requisitioned all passing taxis and ordered us to go back to our hotels. After a stand off for some time, people started  leaving in those taxis and were shocked to see the police at their hotels too. Now the security people were standing at the gates and sitting in the lobbies of every hotel where marchers stayed. Some who had managed to reach Al Arish in smaller vehicles were arrested that night.

Now the French marchers went to their embassy and staged a sit-in which continued for days. The Americans went to their jail-like embassy next morning but the Egyptian police was careful not to let them cross the barricades; male policemen were seen violently pushing away American ladies; an officer was yelling in Arabic that it will not be good if the marchers got past the barricades. Others went to the Israeli embassy. Next day in the morning the Democratic Front allowed the marchers to hold a press conference in their office. In the afternoon a big demonstration was held at the gates of the Journalists Syndicate which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood. The marchers included Heidy Epstein, an American Jewish survivor of Aushwitz and the Filipino member of Parliament Walden Bello. They raised slogans like "We will not be silent"; "Viva Gaza", "Viva Palestine" and "Free Gaza". The police were all over the place but they did not stop us. In the evening a mammoth press conference was held by the Journalists Syndicate presided over by its chairman Muhammad Abdul Quddoos and his deputy Salah Abdul Maqsood. I was invited to speak on behalf of the marchers. The Egyptians were extremely harsh on their government, rather their President, and said that the stopping of the march and the iron wall being built at the Gaza border is a matter of shame for Egypt. Speakers called for the liberation of the Egyptian will from American and Israeli grip. I said, it is strange that 1400 foreigners from 42 countries have assembled here to do what you should be doing and your government is stopping us from proceeding to Gaza for a peaceful and totally legal purpose. It is an irony that foreigners have come to remind you of your duty but you are stopping them from even expressing their opinion. Dr Abdullah Al-Ash'al, a former deputy foreign minister who resigned over policy differences, said that this is not the Egypt we knew. He said that it's high time Egypt returned to Islam. He said that the iron wall being built is illegal as international law does not allow a country to do anything inside its borders which may harm other countries; also it is collaboration with occupiers and participation in the crime of genocide.

Late that night the Egyptians tried the age-old divide-and-rule trick. Mrs Susan, wife of President Mubarak, made contacts with some American participants in the march and told them that one hundred “decent people”, mostly Americans, will be allowed to go to Gaza for two days. This caused great friction among the marchers and it was decided next morning that either all will go to Gaza or none will go. Some still went as "individuals" and not as part of the march and spent the next three days in Gaza without any fanfare. The movement was brilliantly broken up by the Egyptians. As it became clear that the Egyptians will not relent, with heavy hearts marchers started to trickle out of Cairo. Many stayed put in Cairo and continued with their protests but the police now turned nasty and started using force against the marchers. As I write this report some are still in Cairo hoping against hope to raise their voice for Gaza. What an irony, what a contrast...

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-31 January 2010 on page no. 17

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