United solidarity with Gaza

A woman holds her shoe to the Egyptian embassy in Beirut at a protest against the wall being constructed by the Egyptian government at the border with Gaza. (Matthew Cassel)

On the third night of my abduction by Egyptian authorities last year, after intermittent interrogation and being handcuffed and blindfolded in a two by two meter cell, a state security officer asked me why I had so many “international relationships.” The following night my kidnappers drove me home. I was never given a reason for why state security agents kidnapped me from a march protesting the ongoing siege on Gaza. Though, judging from the focus of the interrogation, the reason had something to do with the two years I lived and worked in Gaza and solidarity efforts I have been involved in since then.

Upon being reunited with my family I started realizing the explanation of what “Nour” — my main interrogator — must have meant by “international relations.” During my abduction by the Egyptian state security apparatus, protests were staged around the world, letters were sent to embassies, some friends initiated a widespread Internet campaign and the press covered the story extensively.

During Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip the Egyptian authorities kidnapped or arrested many Egyptian activists that protested or expressed criticism of the Egyptian government’s role in the Israeli attacks on the Palestinian enclave. Most of these activists were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured. Likely due to my second (German) citizenship I was only threatened with torture during my abduction. From the start I was treated with a different standard than Egyptians without a second passport.

And yet, my quick release I attribute to the multitude that stepped into action around the world. These included friends, family members but also a mass of people I don’t know and who, one year later, can’t thank enough. My final days of interrogation were extremely sped up — though under intense mental pressure of heightened interrogation and accusations. Suddenly “Nour” and his compatriots simply wanted to get rid of me and get this “story” off their backs.

Fast-forward to December 2009. Members of various civil society and human rights groups from around the world organized the Gaza Freedom March (GFM) in response to the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in December 2008/January 2009 and the ongoing siege. The marchers from over 42 countries had set out with a similar message to the 15 person strong march that I had been abducted from earlier that year — an end to the siege of the Gaza Strip. The reason it had been that small is that we knew how the Egyptian state apparatuses work. They follow online organizing and tap phone calls, so we had to organize clandestinely if we were to get anywhere.

The organizers and participants of the GFM who I know are committed activists, and collectively they had an incredible capacity for networking with activists around the globe. Prominent Palestinian activists in Gaza and elsewhere in Palestine provided vital backing to the march and a steering committee was formed to lead the events. Yet, some curious decisions were made early on that should be questioned in retrospect.

For many months, activists in Cairo remained in the dark as to who was organizing the Gaza Freedom March and what its intentions were. Although the idea of a march garnered much excitement, it left many in Egypt asking why they knew nothing more than the few details available on the GFM’s public website. This was all the more confusing considering that the march was going to be launched from Cairo where numerous Palestine solidarity groups are based.

Many Egyptian activists who I know were excited to be involved in an event that would increase global awareness about the siege on Gaza. I called some of the organizers of CODEPINK during a trip to the US in October. They informed me that they had decided to follow the instructions of the Egyptian regime, which included no contact with Egyptian activists and meant they were providing the Egyptian authorities with a list of names of all the participants. Once the marchers arrived in Cairo I repeatedly heard justification that GFM organizers did not want to put Egyptian protesters at risk. Yet, Egyptians regularly protest in Egypt despite the risks. For a group of outsiders to justify the exclusion of our involvement without asking our opinion — in spite of the good intentions of “protecting” us — felt paternalistic and demeaning.

I believe from the start a political miscalculation was made: the colonization of Palestine and the siege on Gaza do not take place in isolation. The network of neo-liberal hegemony in the region includes Egypt as a key player and thus the regime acts as a partner with Israel when shared interests are at stake. Despite my reservations about the organizational dimensions of the march, I believe some very critical sporadic protests were staged all over Cairo that made an impact and caught Egyptian security completely off guard.

One week after most of the GFM participants had left Egypt, the site of a planned protest to commemorate the end of the Israeli assault on Gaza was completely overrun with Egyptian state security. Passersby were barely permitted to pass the square and the march had to be relocated to a less public place. The Gaza Freedom March was an important effort that reminded me of what I had learned upon my release from prison: our best weapon is numbers.

Fast-forward again to Saturday, 23 January 2010. In Beirut various factions including a movement called “The Campaign to Stop the Wall of Shame” staged a significant protest at the Egyptian embassy protesting the regime’s construction of an underground steel barrier on the border with Gaza. This was powerful. When activists of a nearby country move to the street to protest the Egyptian government — and an Egyptian multinational corporation’s role in aiding the Israelis in besieging the Palestinians.

My question is, how do we take it a step further? Can we coordinate actions between Cairo, Beirut, Gaza and other cities against this wall of shame? On 13 February a joint protest against the wall is planned to happen in Beirut and Cairo. The Arab Contractors company that is constructing the wall along Egypt’s border with Gaza operates in 29 countries. Let us move 29 countries to the streets and call for an end to complicity in the siege.

One year on from my abduction I have the liberty to move, act freely and live. The population of the Gaza Strip does not have that luxury. What we have on our side are numbers determined to end the siege on Gaza and call for justice in Palestine. Let us move together.

Philip Rizk is an Egyptian-German filmmaker and freelance journalist based in Cairo, Egypt. Philip lived in Gaza City from 2005 to 2007 where he worked for a nongovernmental organization and as a freelance writer. In 2009 his documentary This Palestinian Life premiered at the London International Documentary Festival. Philip blogs and can be reached at rizkphilip AT gmail DOT com.