Demonstration in front of the French Embassy in Cairo. (Photo: Anne Paxton)
A great many heroes have emerged from the Gaza Freedom March’s efforts in Cairo, where more than 1,400 internationals from 43 countries have come to demand an end to the Israeli siege on Gaza. The South African delegation have inspired us all by facilitating the drafting of the Cairo Declaration to End Israeli Apartheid, a document that reaffirms our commitment to the struggle for Palestinian liberation and self-determination and offers a concrete plan for moving forward. Small groups have flown the Palestinian flag from atop the Cairo Tower and one of the pyramids. Many delegates refused the 100 seats on two buses to Gaza that painted our historic political efforts here as yet another token humanitarian aid trip. We will all leave Cairo with far more hope, wisdom, and collective power than we had when we arrived.
Of all of the inspiring stories I have witnessed in the days I have spent in Egypt, the story of the French delegation remains a beacon in the darkening sky over the Sinai that separates us from Gaza. We tell their story again and again, engraving it into our hearts as a sign of how much we can accomplish when we stand together.
Organized by Euro Palestine, the French delegation numbers over 300. Their members are from all over France, and they have been preparing for the March for months. Euro Palestine and their partners held regional meetings every week to ensure that delegates would have plenty of time to discuss their plans for the trip to Gaza, how to bring their humanitarian aid to Cairo, and what the group would do if they were denied passage at the Rafah border. Some of their members have told me that in all of their strategizing, they never considered the possibility of being barred from leaving Cairo.
While the rest of us planned to meet our border-bound buses on December 28th, the French arrived to their embassy the night before, where their buses were expected at 7pm. They waited on the sidewalk of the busy Giza/Charles de Gaulle Street, their bags and tents in tow, but the buses never showed. All of a sudden one of the main organizers shouted "Onn’yva!" ("Here we go!") and, grabbing the hand of a woman next to him, ran straight into the heavy traffic of Giza Street. Without even thinking, hundreds of delegates dashed into the street, followed by Egyptian cats and dogs caught up in the excitement. Moroccan French activist Hamid Rabhi, a Muslim from Beaune, recalls these moments with a shine in his eyes, pausing to pull smoke from his shisha. "And then I understand," he says, "This is the beginning of the adventure."
The traffic on Giza Street was truly terrifying, but the French refused to move, holding the street for over an hour. Finally the police convinced them to move to the sidewalk, promising their buses would arrive soon if the hundreds would only allow traffic to pass. The French moved to the curb and soon began pulling sleeping bags and tents from their luggage, forming the camp we would come to call the "Giza Strip." Three rows of riot police guarded the narrow encampment of 300 on all sides, and more than 40 military trucks waited across the street, perhaps to bring the police back to their stations, or maybe to arrest the protesters and deport them back to France. "That first night was the worst," Hamid says, "We were forbidden to come and go. I think they were testing us, to see if we were serious." Over the coming days, the French would prove just how serious they were.
As negotiations between the Gaza Freedom March and the Egyptian Foreign Ministry continued to deteriorate, a growing number of us looked to the French as a beautiful vision of what our movement can be. The French delegation reached all decisions by consensus and with remarkable speed, yet they remained flexible enough to consider new ideas in smaller groups, and to take on smaller-scale actions while still honoring the vision of the whole: Upon hearing that four activists had raced an enormous Palestinian flag up the side of one of the pyramids, a group of about twenty-five French quickly planned their own action at the pyramid, this time bringing a little street theater to passers by:
On a cool, beautiful afternoon at Egypt’s top tourist attraction, two dozen French "tourists" encircle the unexpecting pyramid, dancing and prancing as they close in on their prey. And then, disaster! An elderly French woman collapses to Giza’s sand. As Egyptian police rush to her aid, the pyramid becomes a stage as eight activists race up its four faces, converging on one side as they spread a twelve-foot by six-foot Palestinian flag, proudly displayed before a cheering crowd of hundreds. After fifteen full minutes the police finally notice the cause of the excitement and rapidly climb the pyramid, becoming complicit in the highly illegal act of trespassing on one of the seven wonders of the world. Our French heroes know they cannot hold their stage for long, and so they bundle the flag into a ball and launch it into the sky, and then follow the flag as it drops to the ground, diving to the sand where they link arms and sit in a circle atop the flag, insistent that the red, black, green, and white will return with them to their camp at the French Embassy. When they do return to Giza Strip, not a single one has been arrested for their act, and the flag has come back with them as well. A few hours later a video of the entire action is posted to their website, europalestine.fr, which has been hacked repeatedly by pro-Israeli techies (another sign of how powerful the French’s efforts have been!). By the next day delegation members are distributing posters and postcards featuring an image of their comrades on the pyramid, the Palestinian flag between them, with the title "Gaza Freedom March in Cairo" in both English and Arabic. The same image has since run on the front page of newspapers in Egypt, Kuwait, Yemen, and throughout the Arab world.
The French have brought a much-needed sense of levity to our difficult situation here in Cairo. Their creativity is endless: When non-French campers were denied the use of the embassy’s bathrooms, the French began to chant "Toilet pour tous!" (Toilets for all!). Our French friends have also proved to be some of our bravest members: As dozens rushed to the aid of protesters being beaten and dragged by Egyptian police during our December 31st protest, the French, and particularly the French Muslims, were some of the strongest in their defiance of police violence. These same French Muslim brothers reminded us all of the honor and beauty in this struggle when they knelt in front of lines of riot police to pray at noon during the same demonstration. The next day, hundreds of activists followed the lead of the French when their delegation called for a protest at the Israeli Embassy, demanding that we keep our focus on the government that truly holds the power over the people of Gaza.
We were all sad to see the end of the French camp on January 1st. Their encampment had become a place of tremendous comfort for the rest of the Gaza Freedom Marchers, despite the hundreds of riot police that never left the borders of the Giza Strip. Many of us would visit in the night to feel the remarkable solidarity that reverberated from the most famous pavement in the world. And as more than 100 French delegates departed for Paris on January 2nd, they left Cairo with one more action to complete before returning to their homes: Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport, where they were greeted by the cheers of dozens of supporters, the contingent immediately made their way to the Israeli Embassy in Paris, luggage and all, to stage yet another protest there. Israeli Embassies beware: Sooner or later we will all return to our home communities, and we have not forgotten our mission to continue the struggle there!
As we each make our own arrangements to continue on to Rafah in smaller groups, the French remain an inspiration, even though their numbers in Egypt are now diminished: On January 2nd a group of about 15 French climbed into a bus bound for Rafah, but were removed from the bus at the first checkpoint. They sat in a circle in front of the bus, refusing to move until a checkpoint guard climbed onto the bus and explained to all passengers that these internationals had been removed for attempting to travel to Gaza. The people of Egypt will remember the Gaza Freedom March for a long time to come, and I believe they will remember the French most of all.
On January 4th we said goodbye to the last contingent of French delegates, who left for Paris the next day. Among them were a couple who had spent their honeymoon in the Giza Strip, and several Muslim brothers who have developed strong relationships with Palestinian and Egyptian activists living here in Cairo. They are all determined to return to Cairo on December 31st of 2010, for the second Gaza Freedom March. Their solidarity and tireless efforts have inspired many people in Cairo, Gaza, and around the world, and next year they will return even stronger than they were when they began. And until that date, the streets of Cairo, Gaza, Paris, and all of our communities around the world will be inspired daily by the chant that still rings in our ears: Palestine Vivra!
Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. She is a member of New Orleans Palestine Solidarity (NOLAPS) and the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). She can be reached at [email protected].