Revolution #190, January 31, 2010

The Gaza Freedom March:
A Call to the World Part I: Locked Down in Cairo

At precisely 10 am on December 31, 2009, a dozen or so "tourists" moved swiftly into eight lanes of traffic in the middle of a main thoroughfare through the center of Cairo, Egypt. Hundreds of signs in English and Arabic emerged from suitcases and backpacks: "End the Siege!" "Free Gaza!" This was the signal. Within seconds, hundreds of other "tourists" poured into the streets to join them — the Gaza Freedom March was on! After an hour of pandemonium, security forces had managed to push the protesters to the sidewalk, where they were surrounded and detained by phalanxes of riot police for seven hours. The Gaza Freedom March, which was already front-page news in Egypt and the Middle East, became a living call to the world: Free Gaza!

I participated in the Gaza Freedom March and covered it for Revolution newspaper. This series is the story of how the Gaza Freedom March came to be. Why it took place in Cairo, instead of Gaza, Palestine as intended. It is the story of people who came from around the world to take this stand, and what light the whole experience sheds on the urgent and vital stakes of breaking the siege of Gaza and the struggle for freedom of the Palestinian people.

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The Gaza strip, a region of Palestine, is among the most crowded places on earth—1.5 million people, living in cities, towns, farming and fishing, are packed into an area the size of Chicago. Since the coming to power in 2007 of Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist party, Israel has enforced a crippling siege on Gaza, blockading the ports and land crossings.

At the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, using the pretext of primitive rockets launched from Gaza, Israel launched a massive invasion and massacre. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed, apartment buildings, schools and hospitals were destroyed. Today, Gaza remains in this state, with any attempts to repair the damage shut down by the Israeli blockade. Some 62 percent of Gaza's inhabitants have had a family member injured or killed. After Israeli air strikes, artillery shelling, ground invasions, and jet flybys that simulate bombing raids, the vast majority of Gaza's children exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The call for the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) declared: "The conscience of humankind is shocked. Yet, the siege of Gaza continues. It is time for us to take action! On December 31, we will end the year by marching alongside the Palestinian people of Gaza in a non-violent demonstration that breaches the illegal blockade. Our purpose in this March is lifting the siege on Gaza. We demand that Israel end the blockade. We also call upon Egypt to open Gaza's Rafah border. Palestinians must have freedom to travel for study, work, and much-needed medical treatment and to receive visitors from abroad."

GFM Under Siege in Egypt

Gaza is almost completely surrounded on land by Israel, which also enforces a naval blockade of the Gaza coastline on the Mediterranean. In addition, a small trickle of commerce goes through the Egyptian border town of Rafah. But Egypt has closed the border with Gaza, and recently the Egyptian government announced plans to build a wall that will seal off illegal tunnels that provide the only real avenue for commerce between Gaza and the rest of the world.

It was through the Rafah border crossing that our Gaza Freedom March intended to enter Gaza. Before most of us left from countries around the world for the march, Egypt announced the Rafah crossing would be indefinitely closed due to "tensions" at the border. However, those of us who committed to the Gaza Freedom March had declared that we understood and were willing to take the risks involved in crossing the border. And despite Egypt's insistence that we would not be allowed into Gaza, overwhelmingly we showed up in Cairo, determined to force the issue with the Egyptian authorities.

On the morning we were to leave Cairo, Egyptian officials threatened the bus company that was to take us, and they cancelled our buses. Alternate transportation options were shut down as well—no bus company in Cairo would provide buses. Taxis were not even allowed to drop people off at the departure venue. Those few dozen of us (out of over 1,300 people) who made it to the departure point were surrounded and detained by Egyptian security forces—a precursor to what would be several days of being followed, harassed, beaten, and detained in the streets whenever we gathered in public. The Egyptian authorities banned us from congregating in groups of more than six.

The U.S. Embassy…

In the face of these repressive and challenging conditions, people searched for creative ways to meet, to get organized, to protest. One thing that lifted our spirits and broke through the efforts of the Egyptian authorities to isolate us was hundreds of people occupying the sidewalk outside the French embassy in Cairo—a protest that lasted several days.

In the wake of the French embassy action, a delegation of people with U.S. passports visited the U.S. embassy in Cairo to insist that the embassy intercede with Egypt to allow us to go to Gaza. The delegation was rudely and violently attacked by Egyptian security forces, who pushed and shoved people into a holding area. One person was lifted up by Egyptian police and physically tossed into this holding area. The whole group was surrounded and detained on the sidewalk by Egyptian police.

A couple of representatives of the Gaza Freedom March were inside the embassy when all this happened outside. They complained about the brutal treatment of the 40 or so GFM activists outside. U.S. embassy staff claimed that these detentions were being carried out by the Egyptian government and the U.S. Embassy had no control over them. But all the while, a U.S. embassy "observer" was overseeing the operation outside, without identifying himself to the detainees. And the Egyptian police commander outside the embassy told those being detained that it was the U.S. embassy that was directing things.

After being roughed up outside, GFM delegates with U.S. passports were finally allowed to go into the U.S. embassy, in small groups, to register their grievances before the lowest levels of embassy staff. Again, they were told that this was an action of the Egyptians—that blocking the GFM's entry into Gaza was a decision by the sovereign state of Egypt and it would be inappropriate for the U.S. to interfere.

That absurd charade was emblematic of the relationship between the U.S. and Egypt, where the U.S. issues the orders, and a fiction of Egyptian sovereignty is promoted for public consumption. Egypt is one of the countries to which the U.S. sent detainees to be secretly tortured under the "rendition" program. The Mubarak regime is the third largest recipient of U.S. "aid" in the world (after Iraq and Israel)—some $50 billion since 1975. That money has paid for "Egypt's stability, support for U.S. policies in the region, U.S. access to the Suez Canal, and peace with Israel." (Christian Science Monitor, April 12, 2004)

…and the Egyptian Link in the Chain Around Gaza

Egypt is a critical link in the chain around the necks of the Palestinian people, and in particular a link in tightening the choke-chain around the people of Gaza. In refusing to let us into Gaza, Egypt was collaborating with the U.S. and Israel in keeping the world from knowing about the unbearable conditions being imposed on the people of Gaza.

In addition to detaining the GFM, the Egyptian regime placed obstacle after obstacle in the way of a humanitarian mission led by British Member of Parliament George Galloway.

And the wall being planned to seal the border with Gaza, reportedly with the "assistance" of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers—poses a terrible threat to the very survival of people in Gaza.

But ordinary people in Egypt—very broadly—have close ties to the Palestinian people, and overwhelmingly support their struggle. Over and over people on the street, from all walks of life, would stop us to support the Gaza Freedom March, and to express outrage or shame at the actions of the Egyptian government in collaborating with Israel. And so the regime has a need to portray itself as a friend of the Palestinians, and not a flunky of the U.S. and Israel. While we were in Egypt, several news stories emphasized how Mubarak (and other U.S. flunkies in the Arab world) were "insisting" that Israel follow "international agreements" and move towards Palestinian statehood, all the while these rulers were complicit in great crimes against the Palestinians.

A critical part of the "job description" for being a puppet of the U.S. in the Middle East is support for Israel. Israel occupies a "special place" in the operation of imperialism in the strategic Middle East and beyond. Israel is unique among U.S. allies in the region, in that public opinion in that country—unfortunately—is currently not outraged by Israel's crimes against the Palestinians.

Today, in the context of the clash between U.S. imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism, the U.S. and Israel seem determined to bomb and starve the people of Gaza into some kind of "regime change" that would replace the Hamas government there with one more compliant with U.S. and Israeli interests. On another level, the Egyptian regime has its own fears about the potential for anti-U.S. (to one degree or another) Islamic fundamentalism "spreading" from Gaza into Egypt.1

For all these reasons, Egypt is currently playing a particularly criminal role in squeezing the people of Gaza, and putting them in an increasingly desperate situation.

Our presence in Egypt put the regime in a very uncomfortable spotlight. If they let us into Gaza, we would shine a light on the terrible crimes being committed by Israel, with the backing of the U.S. If they kept us in Egypt, the spotlight zoomed out to reveal the role of the Egyptian government in these crimes.

Opposition in Egypt

Protests in Egypt are illegal—there's no such thing as a permitted protest. Egyptian dissidents are routinely abducted for weeks of torture. But for whatever combination of reasons—some created by our presence—Egyptian forces called a public protest while we were in Cairo, and asked us to join them. The impetus for their protest was a meeting in Egypt between Mubarak and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on December 29.

The protest was held outside the Journalists Syndicate hall, an impressive building in downtown Cairo. Before the Egyptian-called protest, Hedy Epstein, an American delegate on the GFM and an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor, launched a hunger strike at the same location, demanding the GFM be allowed into Gaza. She was joined by over a dozen others, and her press conference there broke into the New York Times ("Protestors Gather in Cairo for March to Gaza," December 29, 2009).

As early winter darkness set in, and a chilly, smoggy Cairo evening arrived, the hunger strikers and other GFM activists were joined by hundreds of Egyptians who erected their banners. For much of the night, the crowd chanting on the steps outside the Journalists Syndicate was roughly half Egyptians and half internationals. The demands: LIFT THE SIEGE OF GAZA! STOP THE GENOCIDE! FREE PALESTINE!

We had become used to being shadowed and harassed, detained, and sometimes violently assaulted by plainclothes Egyptian security forces who jumped out of pickup trucks like the Islamic regime's thugs in Iran. But the police presence at this protest was more intense—rows of riot police with helmets lined up in front of the protest. 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 lit up the packed steps of the Journalists Syndicate building. One student told me that he and his fellow students were watching what was happening in Iran, and that he had a feeling an eruption like that might be not too far beneath the surface in Egypt.

Another man at the protest, a professor in his 60s, told me he had been following our march closely—he seemed amused that I didn't realize how big a deal we were in the Egyptian media: "I know, I know," he said when I described what the authorities were doing to keep us from getting to Gaza. "It is important that you people go to Gaza."

"It's a police state here," he added: "If you foreigners weren't here we'd be getting clobbered bloody right now." And he reminded me: "Your embassy is calling the shots in all this, you know." I assured him that I was doing my best to make people aware of that fact.

Two college-age women were discreetly passing out flyers in Arabic. They introduced me to another person who spoke English. "You are a journalist?" he asked. Yes. "You should be at the press conference, go in the building to the 4th floor." I went inside the Journalists Syndicate and found myself in a crowd of 700 people. A young man responded to my plea for a translator. The event, he explained, had been called by the Journalists Syndicate along with other groups. The crowd was composed of lawyers, journalists, and other professionals, he told me. "And me," he added, "an accountant."

The first speaker introduced the meeting: "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!" Another speaker was an attorney who indicted the Mubarak regime for war crimes. He said that Egypt was an early signer of the Geneva Conventions, and that the wall, which will kill civilians in Gaza, is a war crime. And then he told the audience about how the regime is detaining the Gaza Freedom Marchers in Egypt. He demanded: "They must not be turned around at Rafah [the border crossing into Gaza from Egypt]." "Today," he said, "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 was filled with emotion when another speaker said, "We appreciate people from other countries who stand with us and we welcome them and their sincere activism."

The Great Debate

I was at the Journalists Syndicate when I heard from someone in the Italian delegation that the Egyptian government had offered to let 100 people go to Gaza. I hurried to a hotel, wondering what the exact terms of this deal were. When I arrived, an intense debate was in progress. March organizers had accepted an offer by the Egyptian regime to allow 100 selected people to go to Gaza on buses, not under the auspices of the Gaza Freedom March but as a humanitarian mission. As word spread, delegations from a number of countries hurriedly met and several took formal positions opposing the deal.

Hundreds of people converged in hotel rooms and lobbies to debate whether to accept the deal. Proponents argued that this was the best we could do in a very difficult situation, that it was "a start," and that "the siege will not be broken all at once." But as the debate raged, a strong consensus emerged that accepting this deal would undercut, not advance, our mission of breaking the siege on Gaza. Many participants in the Gaza Freedom March work with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and humanitarian projects in Palestine, courageously trying to do what they can to help people in desperate situations. But they were on the Gaza Freedom March because they felt more was required. As one person who works with an NGO put it, they were here because "putting another band-aid on cancer" was not enough.

Debate and struggle raged all night in many languages. There were moments when it appeared the whole Gaza Freedom March might just splinter and collapse. Eighty-four people ended up getting on the buses, but the deal was overwhelmingly rejected. From the chaos, a higher level of commitment was forged around the need for a powerful political protest that would stick to the basic call for the March: to break the siege of Gaza.

I will have more to say about this important political debate, and its lessons, in a future article. But for now, I'll note that for many students and young people from around the world, this was their first big political struggle within the movement, and it was tremendously unleashing for them. Sarah, a 19-year-old who took time off between high school and college in England to be part of the GFM, told me: "The fact that there were … people rejecting the opportunity to go to Gaza made us remember what it is that we really came here to do, which was not to go to Gaza. That was a means to an end. So after that, we were just completely refocused, reenergized, and it was like, ‘Right, let's do some protesting.' And we moved from doing kind of, very, what I felt to be half-hearted demos where we kind of stood around, waved placards feebly and got summarily ignored by all involved, to a demonstration where we were occupying the main road in Cairo. And that's, that is a fantastic achievement, you know, in a police state."

1. For a concise analysis of why the U.S. is so determined to back every Israeli crime right now, see the section "Israel and Its 'Special Role' in Relation to U.S. Imperialism" in "Bringing Forward Another Way," by Bob Avakian. That entire talk is a critical work in understanding what is driving the wars being waged, and wars being threatened, by "our government," and the nature of the conflict between Western imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism, and the need to bring forward "another way" opposed to both. The talk is available at [back]

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In the future installments of this series, I'll tell the story of how that "fantastic achievement"—the Gaza Freedom March—came off in Cairo, and the impact it had throughout the Middle East and beyond. And I'll describe the people who made the sacrifices and took the risks to go on the Gaza Freedom March, and what their experiences—in many cases in the West Bank, Gaza, and Israel—reveal about the nature of Israel, and the struggle of the Palestinian people.

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