Imagine going to a demonstration with a small group of friends and finding only a thousand pole-wielding riot police alongside plain-clothes colleagues and chiefs looking disturbingly like Chilean dictator Pinochet. Then you are swiftly moved on to the central city square where every walkway, every wall, is lined with the same black-clad riot police. And what were we trying to protest against? Against the arrests of people protesting against the arrests of other people protesting against the arrest of 2 whole villages (which even involved murder and torture). Hold on, have I just stepped out of my life and into a dark sci-fi movie? No, welcome to Hosni Mubarakâ€™s Egypt and its 25-year-old emergency laws. To be fair, not many police were employed that day â€“just 5,000 (against 500 demonstrators)-; Egypt has one million riot police! (one in every 70 people!)
This incident â€“which I witnessed a few days after attending the Third Cairo Conference against Globalisation, Imperialism and Zionism- gives an idea of the very real but hidden dictatorship that exists in Egypt. Donâ€™t be fooled by the limited and phoney elections being planned; US-ally Mubarak plans to hand over power to his son Gamal; and his regime bans independent trade unions, political womenâ€™s organisations and left-wing parties, as well as demonstrations.
This is one of the contexts in which the Third Cairo Conference took place. The other is the US and Zionist occupation and interference in the region, which has led to mass bitterness and struggle. In the last few years dramatic protests have erupted from Morocco to Jordan against Israeli atrocities and the war on Iraq. In the Lebanon recently, the USâ€™s financial and logistical backing of a sectarian-led opposition movement led to 1 million people taking to the streets in protest. And towering over these movements are the heroic resistance struggles in Iraq and Palestine.
All of these movements were present in the Cairo conference â€“participants included Palestinian activists organising in refugee camps and the international spokesman for rebel Iraqi Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr- and they gave it a markedly defiant character.
This was complemented by accounts from representatives of anti-war movements across the world, who inspired from the 1,000-strong opening ceremony to the end: Scottish MP George Galloway, expelled from Tony Blairâ€™s New Labour Party for his opposition to the war, told people how 150,000 people had protested against the occupation in London just days before; a Greek anti-war activist described how the Greek movement had stopped Condoleeza Rice and Colin Powell from entering the country; activists from the Spanish state described how mass protests brought about the downfall of Bush-ally JosÃ© MarÃa Aznar and the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq. Others encouraged people to make the next big international protest against global war and injustice: against the G8 summit in Scotland in July.
The linking of the global movement with Arab activists â€“something that is still a rare ocurrence, unfortunately- was one of the eventâ€™s strong points. But the Egyptian Conference was particularly impressive due to its local roots and the role the event is playing in forging a new opposition movement against Mubarak:
The history of the conference itself reveals much about the progress of this movement. The First Conference had to fight even for its existence -as the state tried to ban it- and had to change venue. Organisers say that it was good on opposing the war but that activists decided against criticising the Arab regimes, such as Mubarakâ€™s, that supported the war. At the Second Conference, Kamal Khalil, Director of the Socialist Studies Centre, did speak out against the regime and was immediately surrounded by police and arrested. This year, after a tentative start â€“hardly surprising due to the large numbers of very-obvious plain-clothed police present- the event soon turned into a challenge to the regime. When a woman activist called on the agricultural minister to be tried for his role in the use of cancerous agricultural products, the trade-union militant Kamal Abou-Aeita added that Mubarak should be tried too, explaining â€œeverything is in one handâ€. Both received massive applause. On the final day a defiant protest took place on the steps of the Journalistâ€™s Union building â€“the host to the event- in which everyone chanted â€œDown, Down Bush, Blair and Mubarak!â€.
The Cairo Conference has been built on a strong foundation: a broad local front involving the three main progressive currents: radical socialists, Nasserists (Arab nationalists) and the Muslim Brotherhood (one of the oldest Islamist organisations in the world and a politically moderate organisation). This broadness means debates and differences â€“over participation in the Iraqi elections, among others- and even irritation â€“such as that caused when some Islamists interrupted proceedings with religious chants.
Nonetheless, I was positively surprised by the high degree of agreement on key issues affecting the movement in the Arab world, something reflected in the very explicit conference slogan: â€œWith the resistance in Palestine and Iraq. Against Globalization, Imperialism and Zionismâ€.
Participation by Islamists â€“something often frowned upon by the left in the West- was generally taken to be very positive. The need for it was clear from the studentsâ€™ assembly, when a series of very young Brotherhood activists denounced how on-campus â€˜security forcesâ€™ had beaten them and expelled them from their universities. While the Conference was taking place, 100 Islamists were arrested for opposing the evictions of poor peasants from their land. In the protest against these arrests Islamists joined revolutionaries and Nasserites to sing chants together. One left activist told me that this had never happened before and showed how the conference was exposing Islamist militants to left-wing ideas.
The meetings at the conference werenâ€™t just limited to the usual denunciations of US imperialism but tackled issues in depth. Economist Samir Amin spoke at a meeting on US imperial strategy. John Rose, a revolutionary of Jewish origin, gave a history of the Zionist ideology behind the State of Israel and the oppression of the Palestinians. There were more practical workshops on how to support the resistance in Iraq and Palestine. In one meeting, Dr. Salam Ismael, a doctor from Iraq, described how when he arrived at the city of Falloujah after the aerial bombardment by the US, he found dogs eating corpses in the streets.
One of the most emotive sessions was the forum â€˜workers and peasants against globalisationâ€™, in which representatives of different struggles across Egypt and beyond spoke about their experiences. Peasants from the village of Sarandu described how they were having their land taken away from them thanks to a new law reversing land reforms carried out 50 years ago! When they and another village protested, they were besieged by riot police and mass arrests took place in which women were beaten with sticks. One 6-month pregnant woman had to be hospitalised due to severe bleeding, and another died after interrogation.
A group of Egyptian workers described their factory occupation against working with cancer-inducing asbestos materials, which had already led to 4 deaths; then they heard from an Australian activist about how trade unionists had fought and won a similar battle in his country.
It was impossible not to feel rage listening to the many injustices described in the Conference, and these are surely the tip of the iceberg. But what I most took away from Cairo was inspiration and strength. At the Conference I met what I can only describe as women and men of steel, whose strength in the face of adversity was breathtaking and whose optimism, contagious.
Iâ€™ll never forget the eyes of Kamal, a man who has spent some time in prison for his tireless political agitation. The conviction they expressed convinced me that â€œwe will win!â€ even before I received the translation of his words! He added, â€œthe [Egyptian] regime is at its weakest pointâ€.
I could see where he was coming from on the protest on the steps of the Journalistsâ€™ Union. While the police chiefs gave orders sitting in the shade drinking tea, their subordinates stood in front of us, sweating in the intense heat, without water. With so many police to pay wages for, police are very poor in Egypt, a situation that has even led to big strikes. And when we chanted against Mubarak and against injustice, there were more than a few policemen singing with us!!
Luke Stobart is an anti-war writer and activist in Catalunya, the Spanish State