This article was originally published in the Middle East Report Online
This image appeared on Angry Arab's blog
February 1, 2010
In late December 2009, Arab TV channels aired footage of throngs of demonstrators, surrounded by the usual rows of riot police, on the streets of downtown Cairo and in front of foreign embassies. Street protests in Egypt have been sharply curtailed in the last few years, but the scene was familiar to anyone who had been in the country in 2005, when protests against President Husni Mubarak’s regime and in favor of judicial independence were a semi-regular occurrence. Yet there was something unusual about these protesters: They were all foreigners.
The demonstrators were Palestine solidarity activists from 43 countries, and they had come to Egypt planning to cross the Egyptian-controlled Rafah gate into Gaza and participate in the Gaza Freedom March, a peaceful procession to the border of the tiny coastal strip with Israel. The march was scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of Operation Cast Lead — the winter 2008-2009 Israeli military assault that, according to Amnesty International, killed some 1,400 Palestinians in Gaza — and to protest the ongoing international blockade of the territory.
But the international activists, who started arriving in Cairo on December 27, found that the Egyptian authorities had no intention of letting them into Gaza. Bus companies that had been hired to transport the would-be marchers to Rafah were told by state security to cancel their agreements; activists who made their way to the Sinai Peninsula on their own were turned back or detained.
Hence, the protests. Several hundred French activists headed to the French Embassy, where they briefly blocked traffic, and then staged a five-day sit-in on the sidewalk. Americans tried to reach the US Embassy, but were held up by Egyptian security forces and eventually allowed to enter in small groups to confer — fruitlessly — with State Department personnel. The activists also took more creative tacks. Giant Palestinian flags and banners were unfurled on three separate occasions on the steps of the Pyramids. About 30 people undertook a hunger strike, led by 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Hedy Epstein.
The Egyptian authorities finally offered to let 100 of the 1,400 internationals into Gaza. On the morning of December 31, after bitterly contentious meetings and a fair amount of soul searching, 85 activists departed; the rest rejected the offer, seeing it as a shallow public relations maneuver antithetical to the march’s fundamental demand: free access to Gaza.
Those still in Cairo held a vigorous, day-long rally in Tahrir Square — just across from the Egyptian Museum — and, later, a candlelit New Year’s Eve vigil. The demonstrators held signs that read “Free Gaza” in English; they alternated chants of “Resistance,” “Viva Palestina,” “We are not afraid” and — in a reproach to the Egyptian police — “Shame on you!” They were hemmed in by large contingents of state security forces, who shooed away curious passersby and aggressively discouraged media coverage.
Then, a few days after the Gaza Freedom Marchers left Egypt, another convoy of internationals going by the name Viva Palestina — made up of hundreds of volunteers and vehicles delivering medical aid — reached the Sinai port of al-‘Arish. They entered Gaza on January 6, after clashes with police left 50 activists injured. A Palestinian protest at the border in support of the convoy also turned violent, leaving one Egyptian border guard dead and several Palestinians wounded.
The rallies and aid delegations took place a few weeks after the discovery that the Egyptian authorities have commenced building a subterranean steel wall along the border with Gaza, in order to block the tunnels that Gazans have used to undercut the international embargo upon their territory. Quickly dubbed “the wall of death” by Hamas officials and “the wall of shame” by Egyptian critics, this latest measure to enforce the blockade of Gaza has sparked another heated round of recrimination in Egypt and the Arab world. The debate over the barrier, the foreign protesters in Cairo, the clashes near the Gaza border — all this has focused renewed, intense and, as far as the Mubarak regime is concerned, unwelcome attention on Egypt’s policies toward the besieged Palestinian enclave.
Read Full Post »