(Cairo) — People are surrounded. Some have been beaten and injured. Women for Gaza stand surrounded in front of the Hotel Lotus. Canadian postal workers hold their flags high. Locals on the street pass discreetly while giving thumbs up. In contrast, the marchers who were able to get out of their hotels and hostels this morning and planned to start a march to break an illegal siege and deliver aid to the people of Gaza have been beaten, terrorized, and denied food, water or bathroom privileges. The demonstrators near the Egyptian museum are confined by rows of serious looking riot police and scores of plainclothes agents who direct everyone away from the scene and confiscate cameras.
Presently it is impossible to get an interview with any demonstrators. Even the Reuters team, backed by their large media apparatus, has been refused contact. Canadian reporters, like their embassy, were nowhere to be seen as recently as an hour ago, their silence indicating "a slippery slope to incompetence or fascism" as one put it.
If the plan was only to take the street to Gaza then the protestors were outmaneuvered by police. Some, suspecting a police dragnet around their hotels left early to avoid the net but now find themselves camped out at the self declared "Camp Gaza" within site of the Nile River and the Egyptian museum. But it is now the police who appear outmaneuvered bringing even more attention to a cause they wished to bury.
Police refuse to provide an English speaking liaison to answer questions and get clarification of their position. Somehow, I feel oddly sympathetic, even though it is a tactic. This is Egypt. People speak Arabic here. The imperial language of English with the accompanying cultural assumption that everyone is expected to speak it is another colonial disease.
The language of colonialism is not accepted here today with the exception of shopkeepers, taxi drivers, and others who offer support and encouragement to the demonstrators, however discreetly and when they dare.
It must be said, regardless if the reason and cultural and political context here, police are no worse so far than Canadian or European police who routinely beat and gas people, even in legally sanctioned marches, let alone when people exercise their right to assemble in public without permission. It is likely a different story for Egyptians.
Christian Martel, of Quebec and a union leader representing Syndicat des travailleurs et travailleuses des postes, penned in on the sidewalk by police at his hotel said ":This is an illogical situation.. There is no credible reason to keep us here. We ask the authorities why they are doing this and no one can answer. They only say it is for your protection. What are they protecting us from?’ The 54,000 members of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers -Syndicat de travialleurs de travailleuses des postes (CUPW-STTP) was the first national union in Canada to join the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israeli "apartheid".
At hotel Lotus where I was permitted to speak with demonstrators another postal worker told me she had been in contact with her embassy. Toni MacAfee asked by a consular official whether she was part of the Gaza Freedom March and whether she would be demonstrating any more if released. Given the Canadian governments behavior towards Canadians in foreign custody, MacAfee reported asking bluntly "are you going to help me or not?"
The Egyptian Foreign Minister visibly seething at a press conference two nights ago said those remaining in Cairo are here to disrupt Egyptian society. Marchers have said they want to go to Gaza "to have people to people contact", break the siege of Gaza, and deliver much needed supplies like food, school books, and medicine.
Lisa Fithian, one of the organizers of the Gaza Freedom March, reached by phone inside the police dragnet, said "we took unified action today, using our bodies in a peaceful way, and were brutally confronted with punches, kicks, and then dragged in a very rough way, making this a Gaza Resistance Camp. She asked that water and bathroom privileges be arranged. We will bring in the New Year in our Gaza Freedom Camp".
One local man, refusing to give his name out of fear explained that "this is not an Egyptian problem but one you Europeans created…. you don’t have a clue what is happening here. I think the Europeans have lost every sense of reality – living in their created world which is not real. They created the problem. There is always a typical and predictable western angle to problems they created."
Perhaps the most disturbing and inspiring moment today was when a U.S. Palestinian family stopped to congratulate and encourage demonstrators in front of the Lotus. Hadeel Assali explained "our families are in Gaza. The last time I tried to see them in 2006 I was held by the Israelis in jail for eleven hours and then they would not let me enter Gaza to see them." Another said "we cannot go visit our Families, why are the Egyptians, the same people as us, building their own wall? Shame on them, they are cowards." As they came to the aid of an Egyptian man who was about to be detained for showing modest encouragement for the confined freedom marchers plainclothes police attacked and assaulted the women. One security agent referred to them as "trash"…another attempted to kick one of them. "This makes me ashamed to be Arab" said one.
Such are the results of the policies of the United States and Israel, directing the Egyptian government, a government lacking integrity and independence which requires a massive police apparatus to control the population whether through religion or hate while the people of Gaza starve. Ten percent of children in Gaza currently suffer from severe malnutrition. People here now surrounded by police are prevented from delivering food, medicine, and school supplies and are beaten for it.
This New Year we shall all create our Gaza Freedom Camps.
Indeed, shame on them.
Dave Bleakney is a national representative with the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, currently writing from Cairo.