Gaza Freedom March marches in Cairo against blockade

Members of the Gaza Freedom March stage a sit-in outside the French Embassy in Cairo, 30 December 2009. (Mashahed)

The international delegation of the Gaza Freedom March originally planned to arrive in Gaza on 29 December 2009 to join a march against the Israeli blockade together with residents of Gaza two days later. Instead, most of its delegates remained in Cairo, having been blocked from going to the Rafah border by the Egyptian government, and instead marched against the Egyptian blockade on Gaza.

The Gaza Freedom March sought to highlight the plight of the 1.5 million residents of Gaza on the first anniversary of Israel’s invasion last winter. They hoped to enter the densely-populated Palestinian territory with humanitarian aid for water purification, school materials, medicines and other much needed supplies. Following Hamas’ electoral victory in the January 2006 election, Israel began tightening its blockade on Gaza. The blockade was strengthened after Hamas took control of the territory amidst factional fighting with the rival Fatah party. In addition, Egypt has refused to give permission for foreign citizens to enter Gaza through Rafah until the last minute. Organizers of the Gaza Freedom March hoped to obtain permission to enter Gaza, but were disappointed when Egypt closed the Rafah border in December 2009 under intense pressure from Israel.

The French ambassador to Egypt, Jean Felix-Paganon, told members of the French delegation of the Gaza Freedom March that the Egyptian government was preparing to grant permission for the march to proceed to Gaza until the deal was rejected by Israel. With 1,360 delegates from 43 countries converging on Cairo, Egypt revoked the permit to hold a large meeting in Cairo as well as the permits for buses to take them to the Rafah border via the northern Sinai town of al-Arish.

Protesting the Egyptian blockade

In response, the Gaza Freedom March launched protests in the streets of Cairo on 27 December 2009. The day began with a silent action, tying letter cards expressing solidarity to the people of Gaza to the railings of the Qasr al-Nil Bridge. Many Egyptian passersby stopped to add their own messages of friendship to the people of Gaza and Palestine. When police finally broke up the vigil, they ripped the cards off, leaving only the strings by which they were attached.

In the late afternoon, a plan to sail in dozens of traditional Nile sailboats called feluccas was aborted by police, who closed off an entire section of the Corniche al-Nil where the feluccas are docked. The purpose of going onto the Nile River was to float 1,400 candles in biodegradable cups in memory of the Palestinians who died in the Israel assault one year ago. Instead, Gaza Freedom March delegates held their candlelight along the busy Corniche al-Nil street.

The more than 300-strong French delegation had gathered in front of the French Embassy in Giza, expecting to board buses for al-Arish. When the buses failed to arrive because their permits were pulled by the Egyptian authorities, the delegates in a courageous act of defiance sat down in the busy four northbound lanes of Murad Street and set up tents. Hundreds of riot police from Egypt’s notoriously brutal Central Security Forces were mobilized to enclose the protesters and move them onto the footpath in front of the French Embassy. At one point the security force cordon increased to three layers. However, the French ambassador was apparently supportive, discouraging Egyptian authorities from using force and pressing for permits to travel to Gaza. Eventually the security cordon was relaxed, allowing anyone to freely enter and exit the encampment. The encampment lasted continuously for four days.

Other large delegations including those from the US, Canada, Britain and Italy, approached their own embassies to appeal for support in pressuring the Egyptian government to open the Gaza border. The US and Canadian embassies were particularly unhelpful because their governments had taken an official position of not dealing with Gaza because they classify Hamas as a “terrorist” organization. An additional special delegation went to the offices of the Arab League to seek its intervention.

Nonviolent civil disobedience

When the Egyptian government revoked the permit for Gaza Freedom March delegates to meet in Le College de la Sainte Famille (a famous Jesuit school), organizers defiantly moved the meeting into the open, directly under the nose of the state in the plaza in front of al-Mogama, the monolithic state office building that houses the public entry point into much of the central government bureaucracy. Police quickly moved in to try to stop the assembly, demanding, “Stop it! Stop it! This is not allowed!” Delegates then burst into signing, and the police reluctantly melted away into the shadows of the crowd.

Meanwhile, other Gaza Freedom March participants defied the lack of permits to travel to al-Arish. Thirty arrived successfully and checked into a hotel, after which they were placed under house arrest. After diplomatic negotiations, they were allowed out of the hotel, but blocked from going to the Rafah border. Over several days another 50 delegates boarded commercial buses at different times in Cairo and successfully passed through the multiple checkpoints outside of Cairo and along the highway from Port Said to al-Arish. However, they were all halted at the bus stand in al-Arish or at the final checkpoint before entering the town. Police forced all foreign travelers, including those holding Palestinian passports, back to Cairo (or at least up to the Suez Canal) under police escort. Eight Europeans refused to go back, choosing instead to camp out at a checkpoint. A subsequent directive from the Ministry of Interior blocked all non-Egyptians from traveling east of the Suez Canal.

On 28 December, while negotiations continued with the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs for permits to enter Gaza, a new avenue was opened through the United Nations office in Cairo. A negotiating team led by Philippine parliament member Walden Bello met with UN officials, but to no avail. Bello confided, “I know it’s a bit difficult right now with the situation here, but I don’t think they will be able to keep us away from [Gaza] forever.”

The negotiating team was supported by nearly a thousand delegates rallying in front of the Cairo World Trade Center where the UN office is located. The scene was abuzz for hours with chants of “We want to go to Gaza,” “Free Gaza,” “We shall overcome,” and many more. There was music led by guitarists and an accordion player. Meanwhile, organizing meetings of the various national delegations were constantly going on in the background.

Eighty-five-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein used the occasion to announce her hunger strike to demand passage to Gaza. She explained, “I have come to a point in my life in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian issue, especially the Gaza issue, where I think I need to do something else because what I have done so far has not really caught the attention of my own government or the governments of the world who are silent on this issue. And so I’ve decided to go on a hunger strike.” She was quickly joined by others.

As at the French Embassy, the rally was visually contained by a solid wall of black-uniformed members of the Egyptian Central Security Force. But the wall could not hide the banners, Palestinian flags and chants that flew high above the security cordon. The young recruits frequently expressed sympathy and smiles with the delegates. One symbolically crossed his wrists, signaling that his hands were tied. The Central Security Force recruits carried no arms, and have not done so ever since a 1987 mutiny. However, police (some of whom are armed) did filter the crowd and remove three Egyptian nationals. They also removed one Palestinian-American woman, punched her in the face, and then released her. Twelve international delegates remained camped at the World Trade Center overnight.

Many Egyptian passersby and individuals in buses and cars also signaled their sympathy by waving to the delegates, for the Gaza Freedom March was exercising a limited freedom of assembly and speech accorded to internationals that would not be permitted among Egyptians.

On 29 December, the Syndicate of Journalists invited the Gaza Freedom March to join their members at their trade union headquarters for a rally for Gaza that lasted into the evening. The combined voices of Egyptians and internationals sent a powerful message of unity and solidarity on Palestine and opposition to the Egyptian government’s role in upholding the blockade on Gaza.

Divisive breakthrough

CODEPINK organizer Jodie Evans used her personal contact with Suzanne Mubarak, wife of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and chairwoman of the Egyptian Red Crescent, to appeal for permission for the Gaza Freedom March to carry its humanitarian aid into Gaza. The response from Suzanne Mubarak’s office was positive with instructions to “help in any way possible.” After reviewing the details of the request, by the next day Suzanne Mubarak secured permission for 100 delegates and two buses to cross into Gaza on the morning of 30 December. CODEPINK organizers were given only two hours to come up with a list of names.

The initial acceptance of the offer proved to be tactically divisive for both the Gaza Freedom March and for the Egyptian government. After raging internal arguments and calls by Palestinians for “all or none,” the Gaza Freedom March belatedly, but wisely, decided to decline the offer and allow only Palestinians with family in Gaza, key media personnel such as the team from teleSUR television and a handful of individuals to deliver humanitarian aid to board the buses. Meanwhile, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit tried to drive a wedge through the Gaza Freedom March by praising those selected (falsely as if by the government) to go to Gaza as “good and sincere,” while denouncing those remaining in Cairo as “hooligans” “acting against Egyptian interests.” However, that divide-and-rule tactic only served to unify delegates.

Free Gaza Square

On 31 December — the day of the actual Gaza Freedom March — delegates in Cairo planned to symbolically “march to Gaza” by walking peacefully in the streets of downtown Cairo. But because of the official ban on public political demonstrations, organizers adopted the tactic of initiating the march with “flash mob” and “swarm of bees” techniques. It worked for only about 20 minutes before the “swarm” became trapped between the traffic and hundreds of police.

In the ensuing melee, a solid wall of Central Security officers first began pushing demonstrators away from trapped buses, while their counterparts attempted to ram the human wall from behind. Once the buses were cleared out of the way, uniformed Egyptian police began grabbing delegates and throwing them onto the footpath. Some officers used fists to hit delegates, including several women. Two reported that their headscarves were ripped off. Seven delegates were reportedly injured. One American man had blood on his face that required treatment at the medical station set up by march organizers. He had been clubbed with a two-way radio by a plainclothes police officer.

Once confined to a 500-square-meter area of footpath, Gaza Freedom March delegates erected banners and Palestinian flags, and proclaimed the site “Free Gaza Square.” Within its confines they spoke about the political accomplishments of the week, and the unfinished tasks ahead. Challenged by the lack of democratic rights in Egypt, delegates were more determined than ever to break the siege of Gaza and challenge their governments’ acquiescence to the blockade.

Ali Abunimah, a cofounder of The Electronic Intifada and a delegate to the march, observed that “Gaza is harder to visit than a prison…. It is too bad we didn’t get into Gaza. But the most important thing is that Al-Jazeera has carried it [Gaza Freedom March protests in Cairo] throughout the Arab world.”

Late in the evening, hundreds of Gaza Freedom March delegates gathered once again in the open plaza in front of al-Mogama to hold a candlelight vigil to celebrate the new year. They held candles and arranged more candles on the pavement to create the luminous word “Gaza” within a circle. Individuals spontaneously began passing out sweets. The novelty of this action was immensely popular with Egyptian passersby who joined in the hundreds, swelling the crowd. Then plainclothes police moved in to filter out and sweep away all Egyptian nationals. A double-row contingent of the Central Security Force also moved in, until senior commanders were told to back off, removing the contingent to a distant corner of the plaza. The state itself held no official new year festivity, as if fearing that it would turn into a spontaneous protest for Gaza and against the policies of the Mubarak regime.

The Cairo Declaration

The Gaza Freedom March concluded with three important events. First, it convened an ad hoc convention to ratify the “Cairo Declaration” jammed into a small hotel restaurant. In a move spearheaded by the South African delegation, an international working committee drafted a document putting forth a globally-unified plan of action for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israeli apartheid and “to compel Israel to comply with international law.” With the concurrence of civil society representatives in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the document reaffirms commitments to “(1) Palestinian self-determination, (2) ending the occupation, (3) equal rights for all within historic Palestine, and (4) the full right of return for Palestinian refugees.” The historic document includes 128 initial signatories from 16 countries.

Second, the Gaza Freedom March hunger strikers held a press conference at the Syndicate of Journalists to conclude the official hunger strike, although a few vowed to continue their hunger strikes until they returned to their home cities. Over the course of the hunger strike, the number of participants had swollen to 27. Hedy Epstein said that she felt “strengthened” by her actions seeking justice for the people of Gaza.

There was the usual Central Security Force cordon. But it was plainclothes police that disconnected and took down the Al-Jazeera video camera and escorted the cameraman away from the scene. In previous incidents during the Gaza Freedom March, three Egyptian journalists were arrested for photographing demonstrations, and one was arrested while conducting an interview of a Gaza Freedom March delegate. One Egyptian photojournalist even asked me to send him a photograph, saying that “I would be arrested for taking photographs of the demonstrations. Egypt is no democracy.”

Third, a flash mob demonstration was organized in the afternoon in front of the high-rise building housing the Israeli Embassy. Demonstrators rapidly appeared from the south side of the traffic circle between the University Bridge and the Giza Zoo. For at least ten minutes, demonstrators swarmed throughout the crossroads and the end of the bridge before Central Security Force personnel in riot gear arrived to move them onto a narrow strip on the south side of the bridge opposite the embassy. While there was little police intimidation inside the security cordon, aggressive harassment by plainclothes police outside the cordon was particularly severe. One French cameraman was physically threatened on the University Bridge even as he was walking away from the demonstration and showing his French passport.

Shortcomings and accomplishments

Mass media coverage of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo reached around the world, even though many major western media networks refused give more than cursory attention. In Egypt, the events received front-page coverage in opposition newspapers like al-Wafd, al-Sharouq, al-Dastur, and the independent newspapers al-Masri al-Youm and Daily News Egypt. But newspapers like the semi-official, al-Ahram, and government-owned al-Akhbar and al-Gumhuriya ignored the events as if they did not exist. Yet even the pro-government Egyptian Gazette could not avoid publishing a front-page photo of the demonstration at the Israeli Embassy. While avoiding day-to-day coverage, al-Arabi and al-Karama end up splashing headline photos of the Gaza Freedom March activities in their weekend editions.

Except for the Syndicate of Journalists, the relative absence of Egyptian participation and solidarity with the Gaza Freedom March could have been interpreted by delegates as the result of either severe political repression or political indifference. But anti-government Egyptian activists pointed out that Gaza Freedom March organizers failed to reach out to them and establish coordination. In fact, Egyptian labor unions, students and organizations of civil society have a long history of struggle in the streets of Cairo and other towns for democratic rights in the face of the overwhelming force of the state apparatus. Yet six full days of political demonstrations in Cairo by a large group of visiting internationals is without historical precedent.

The struggles in Cairo and the new construction of a steel wall deep into the earth at the Rafah border highlights Egyptian complicity with the siege on Gaza and deference to US foreign policy dictates in the region. Although delegates of the Gaza Freedom March were defeated in their desire to travel to Gaza, as a result of the struggles in the streets and embassies of Cairo, they were more determined than ever that the blockade of Gaza by both Israel and Egypt must be lifted. Bitur Nabi Tammam of Bahrain saw the bright side, “Even if they don’t allow us to cross, I think it has accomplished the purpose that from all over the world you see people left their families, left their homes, to come here to say ‘freedom for Gaza,’ ‘freedom for Palestine,’ ‘open the gates!’”

Sharat G. Lin is president of the San Jose Peace and Justice Center.