Cairo: Cairo is currently experiencing civil disobedience, Western style: during the protest in front of the UN on Monday, four were arrested; along the road to Rafah from Al Arish, Spanish activists have been staging protests; the French delegation have been camped out in front of their embassy since Sunday. On Tuesday the woman’s delegation of Code Pink took a letter to Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, calling for the border with Gaza to be opened.
The fight is now with the Egyptian government and, according to Code Pink, their own embassies’ intransigence.
During one morning meeting it was announced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be visiting to discuss peace talks with Hosni Mubarak. Gasps could be heard from the participants crammed into the small bar at Hotel Lotus. “Where are they meeting?” cried one activist. “At Mubarak’s palace,” answered Rae, that morning’s speaker. People then jumped for maps in an attempt to find the palace and plan a protest out front.
While embassy visits were planed for the 29th, the big event was the afternoon protest at the Egyptian Press Syndicate, next to Cairo’s main courthouse. 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein was fasting and Code Pink organizers were hoping to attract the media’ attention. By 6:00 pm, Egyptian groups opposed to Netanyahu’s visit would come to join in.
When I arrived at the syndicate, riot police with big shields and helmets ringed both sides of the street as activists protested on the syndicate steps. I watched from the sidelines an an older woman from New York came to talk to me. She told me she had recently been in the West Bank and described how she saw Jews from Brooklyn in living houses across from Palestinians in tents. When she was younger she used to tell herself, if anything bad happened to her in the States, she would go to live in Israel, but recently, she had a major confidence shift in Zionism and the State of Israel. “I’m Jewish, but I can’t understand how some Israelis think they can just take land that doesn’t belong to them!”
Later, she confided that the protest on the steps was no more that 200 people, and that Code Pink had been loosing supporters. “I came here to march in Gaza, not in Cairo.” She said many people in the group were becoming disaffected and disorganised. Some were trying to make their way to Al Arish, some were at the French Embassy and others just reverted to being normal tourists. 200 is a big difference compared to the 1,300 that came on day one.
The police were showing remarkable constraint, especially for a country where protests are very uncommon and police are routinely accused of brutality and torture. I wondered if it wasn’t Mubarak’s way of saying to the world: “Look, Egypt is a tolerant place, people can protest if they want.” Of course, Egypt is anything but tolerant of dissent.
Later that night I received a curious e-mail. Is seems Suzanne Mubarak had persuaded Hosni to allow 100 protesters into Gaza. It was first come first serve in confirming a place in one of the two buses, which would depart on the 30th in the morning. Was this concession the result of the protests in front of the Press Syndicate? Perhaps even more curiously, I received another e-mail, a few hours later, saying Code Pink had decided not to accept Suzanne’s offer. It would, they argued, weaken their cause in drawing attention to the siege and would strand over a thousand other protestors in Cairo,who had originally planed to go to Gaza. If a stand were to be made, it would be more effective to show Code Pink was united, whether in Cairo or in Gaza.
On the evening of the 30th, a large meeting was held at the Hotel Lotus, where most of the organizers were staying. It was decided that protestors would meet in front of the Egyptian museum the next day at 10:00 am and march together. The telephone number of a local lawyer and a “break the siege now” t-shirt was handed out to participants and we were sent on our way. On my walk home I passed through the busy Tal’at Harb Square. It seemed like there were much more police here then there were yesterday. It looks like trouble was to be expected.
“You decide the level of your own involvement,” Tyler Durden yelled, Brad Pitt’s character in the movie “Fight Club”. I wondered how involved I would get. During the meeting on the 30th, a number of activists voiced concerns about being arrested and hurt by police. I am Jacks uncontrollable worry.
Arriving at the museum a little after 10:00 am, across the road I saw police dressed in black, ringed around 200 protestors who were waving banners. Moving in for a closer inspection, I found a group of the Code Pink organizers, apart from the main protestors, sitting on the road surrounded by riot police. Plain-clothes policemen were forcefully picking them up and dragging them into the main body of activists. Afraid to go into the protest, I watched from the sidelines, until security men with berets and walkie-talkies came and grabbed me, pulling me into the mush of people. I tried explaining to the large man pulling me that I really only wanted to watch, not to actually go in, but he kept on yelling, “You are my new friend! Where are you from?” before promptly shoving me inside the circle.
Once inside, I stumbled through the throng. The riot police would not let anyone out, despite my pretending I was going to throw up on them, and then my pleads to go to the shop for water. I clearly had to think of another plan. A woman was lying on the ground injured, with protestors surrounding her. A man was holding up her legs, and she rolled over on her side as to vomit. “The police would have to let her out,” I thought. Finally, after a doctor came in to see her, the police parted for a moment to let her through and I took my chance and escaped.
I walked down Tal’at Harb Street to watch a second, smaller protest front of the Hotel Lotus. Cars beeped as they passed and Egyptians slowed to watch, before being hurried on by the security forces, which far outnumbered the protestors. What a strange way to spend New Years Eve I thought.