Cairo meets the movement, with tears and chaos and exaltation

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Today the Gaza Freedom March fragmented slightly when in the face of stern opposition from their fellows about 80 people headed off to Gaza on buses, the rest staying in Cairo.

But wait, weren’t you trying to go to Gaza? Yes, but it has been quite a drama. How to state this clearly…

Over the last week, as the international marchers arrived in Egypt, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry made it very clear that it did not want them going into Gaza, and it would arrest them short of that goal. But these 1400 are not tourists or milquetoasts, they are activists; and they were not going to be stopped by any old Ministry, even the ministry of a police state. Many set out by bus and taxi to the Sinai desert, while the 300 members of the French group camped out in front of the French Embassy across from the Cairo Zoo, demanding to go even as they were ringed by riot police.

After hunger strikes and demos and international press, and supposedly too the intervention of the president’s clement wife Suzanne Mubarak, the Egyptians relented yesterday and said, Well 100 of you can go in, two busfuls. I heard about this first as a rumor last night at an Egyptian-led rally at the Journalists Syndicate building in opposition to Bibi Netanyahu’s visit to Hosni Mubarak (Down Down Hosni Mubarak!), and already many of us were wondering, who would get the call? Code Pink, the antiwar group that has led the organizing, claimed victory and sent out a bulletin to delegations to select the two or three members who could go. Some delegations duly nominated representatives. But the decision set off an angry and wrenching round of all-night meetings, some of them in hotel stairwells, with many coming out against the deal. Even the Gaza Freedom March steering committee voted against the slice of bread that was being offered, instead of the whole loaf.

Then, I gather, the Egyptians made the deal even more problematic by issuing a statement saying that the 100 peaceful people were being allowed to go to Gaza, implying that the rest of us were hooligans.

Still Code Pink went forward with its plan, and at 6:30 this morning the lucky few gathered on a sidewalk on Ramses Street near the bus station. Over the next 4 hours I witnessed agony and torment, and said a secret blessing that I had not tried to get on the buses last night. A crowd of those opposed to the 100 stood outside barricades set up around the buses and shouted "All or none!" and "Get off the Bus!" It turned out that they had many confederates among the 100 who boarded the buses– confederates who at a signal marched off the buses, some giving heroic speeches.

The people staying on the buses leaned out the doors to say that the Gazans wanted them to come so as to to join their march to the Israeli border on the 31st. But they wavered. Indeed, you saw some of the most resolute activists on the planet—Bernardine Dohrn, the law professor and former member of the Weather Underground; Ali Abunimah of Electronic Intifada; and Donna Mulhearn, an Australian woman who was a human shield during the beginning of he Iraq war, board the bus and get it off it, and then board it again and get off it, and on and on.

Abunimah, who had been roughed up by security at the American Embassy yesterday, told me it was the hardest decision he’d ever had to make. It was an individual decision, he had no clarity on it, and no one could tell you what to do, and he respected the decisions of all parties. Mulhearn said that going to Iraq in 2003 had been easy compared to this; for that choice was in the face of physical danger and she would take that any day, this was in the face of moral doubt. As for the Egyptian statement that only hooligans were staying behind in Cairo, she said it was a lie, she would say so on her blog, and the people who were against anyone going on that basis were giving the Egyptian security state power. Dohrn said that the principle of "All or none" was a miserable one for activist politics. You always took what you could get and kept fighting for more. A European man in a red keffiyeh screamed at her that she was serving the fascisti. Her partner Bill Ayers gently confronted him and asked him why he was so out of control. Between getting on and off the bus, Dohrn, who wore a flower in her hair, said that she didn’t like the absolutist certainty of the people on the other side of the police barricades, and having been in the Weather Underground, she knew something about absolutist feeling.

In the end Dohrn and Abunimah got off the bus. Mulhearn stayed on, I heard. A big reason for them was a call that Abunimah had with leaders of civil society in Gaza, who said, if this is going to hurt the movement, don’t come. We will march without you. (The message, from Haidar Eid and Omar Barghouti, says, "After a lot of hesitation and deliberation, we are writing to call on you to reject the ‘deal’ reached with the Egyptian authorities. This deal is bad for us and, we deeply feel, terrible for the solidarity movement.") Abunimah abided by that call (and later told me he had no regrets, he was clear now). I saw other friends sitting on the sidewalk crying, as they tried to figure out what to do.

No one had slept. Many were smoking (when in Rome…).

The argument for the majority went like this: We have come a long way with the support of an international community. We have come to march in Gaza to lift the siege against the people there. Many of us are walking our talk, by confronting the Egyptian power at the French Embassy. Now we are giving into the siege by accepting a piecemeal offering, when the core principle here is inarguable: the people of Gaza must have freedom of movement, freedom to come and go. We will show our power and solidarity not by acceding to the terms of a police state that is working with the U.S. and Israel, but by demanding our rights as a bloc here in Cairo. And by doing so, we will dramatize the Palestinian condition and serve the most important element of the struggle: activating an international movement.

I could see the other side, too. There is nothing like an actual trip to Gaza to politicize people, and having had that experience myself, I had urged some young people to have it. But I can see that I am a lousy movement person, and that the overall sense of the movement was clear and emphatic. We will work from Cairo to gain publicity for Palestinian oppression. Big deal we’re not in Gaza, it’s like being in Birmingham when the big march is going down in Selma.

By the way, the South African contingent, many of them veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle, were no-doubters on the question: we stay in Cairo.

I can see both sides, but it was a convulsive experience. People turned on one another, the Code Pink leadership was accused of being all hat and no saddle. Young people I saw last night walking around biting their lips in the hope that they might be chosen to get a seat on the bus were today enraged and vituperative at the idea that anyone was getting on the bus—a transformation out of As You Like It.

Yet I remind readers that good things are arising from this experience. The Americans, who are so conditioned to living with the Israel lobby, as an abused wife to her battering husband, are being exposed to a more adamant politics—we are having a rendezvous with the Freedom Riders. For another thing, our direct actions and demonstrations seem to be awaking Egypt, a little, and getting a lot of publicity. Helen Schiff told me that the front page of an official government newspaper today said, "Mubarak to Netanyahu: Lift the siege and end the suffering of the Palestinian people." We gave him that line! she said. A longtime civil rights activist, Helen told me it’s "fabulous" what happened, we are achieving more in Cairo than we would if we had gotten into Gaza.

So there’s a tumultuous and ascendant feeling here tonight, in the little hotels that we have to meet in to make our plans. I can feel the spirit of the Freedom Riders and of the abolitionists, who fought the limits on freedom of movement of black people for so long in my country. As for the divisions, and bitterness, I think they will go away. A European friend advised me tonight that those who take the Palestinian side will find that they share somewhat in the Palestinian experience. They will experience isolation, division, bitterness, failure, contempt, manipulation. Surely not on the scale of the Palestinians; still, they will experience some of those things, and they will grow from them.

Having weathered the storm, tomorrow this group has more action plans. I have to be quiet about them now, because I crunched into another stairwell tonight for a planning session. Still, it should be dramatic. The international street has come to the Arab street, and everyone is learning. 

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