the reluctant radical

on 213 Comments
Protesters and police in Cairo’s Tahrir square.

Wednesday afternoon in Cairo, word went out among the Gaza freedom marchers that there was to be a general meeting in the Lotus Hotel restaurant at 7:30 to plan the next day’s demonstration. I got to the Lotus on time but the elevator only takes four, and there were so many gathered in the dim gray courtyard that I joined a procession walking up 9 flights. When we got upstairs the restaurant was jammed and the hall and stairwell outside the restaurant were filling up. I picked my way past others up the 10th floor stairway, sitting down just low enough that I could crane my neck and see inside the restaurant.

The meeting was being led by a muscular and charismatic Scotsman of about 60 named Mick Napier. He wore a red baseball cap and had a strong brogue and a humorous manner. On the issue of nonviolence, for instance, he warned us that the Egyptian security forces were adept at dispensing violence. “We need violence like a hole in the head. If you’re fighting Mike Tyson, play chess.”

Other times Mick pitched his voice to bugs in the ceiling, and addressed “our friends in Egyptian security.” That was part of the thrill of the meeting. 1400 internationals had gathered in Cairo to go on to Gaza to join a freedom march there, but we had been denied entry to Gaza and now denied even the freedom to meet; and so our meetings took place in stairwells and restaurants ala eastern Europe.

Mick ran the meeting like “a dictator,” as he himself acknowledged, to get it over inside an hour. If we went any longer, people would start arguing, and he didn’t want argument, he wanted a plan of action. “If anyone wants another chair, I’ll stand down.” But we were with him. Mick’s leadership was evidence of a shift inside the top of the Gaza Freedom March. When we got to Cairo we had been led chiefly by the American antiwar group Code Pink. But after that group’s decision to accept the Egyptian government’s offer of two buses of 100 people to visit Gaza, instead of all 1400 marchers, Code Pink had been attacked and even conceded error; and the result was that Europeans who were harder-line than we Americans took over some of the organizing function. I don’t think anyone would say that this was not a good thing. In fact, Medea Benjamin, a leader of Code Pink, was jammed in the stairwell just below me, showing the grace and toughness and indefatigability she has shown throughout months of organizing. But at this point a more stubborn spirit was in the air, and we were all going along with it.

The plan for tomorrow was largely set. Mick had talked it over with the “magnificent” French, the 300 or so marchers who were still barricaded/imprisoned on the sidewalk outside their embassy but had hopes of getting out. We would drift into Tahrir Square, the central downtown Cairo intersection, at 9:30 the next morning, Dec. 31, the day that we were supposed to be marching in Gaza alongside the Palestinian civil society group that had invited us. We would pretend to be just what the Egyptians wanted us to be—tourists– till 10 o’clock, and then the women leading the protest would give a sign, unfurl a banner outside the Museum of Antiquities, and we were to cloud together like bees, and start to march. The Egyptian security forces would surely stop us, but we would take as much of the square as we could and try to hold the space.

“Get ready to take your revenge on the Cairo traffic," Mick shouted, to cheers.

At this point, an Italian man with short hair and sharply owlish features who had sung a sweet tenor at earlier demonstrations said that he had another idea. Mick said that we didn’t have time for other ideas, we had to break up as quickly as possible. The crowd was fully behind Mick. Still the Italian became shrill- “At least hear me—no! at least hear me!”– and he was given the floor for one minute to present his counter-proposal. His idea was that we should go to the farthest stop of the metro and begin marching from there toward Gaza, as if to actually join the marchers in Gaza. No one took him seriously, he was self-involved. The French were on board and out at the zoo, what was the point of hearing an alternative?

When the crowd began to murmur, the singer’s voice rose angrily. Mick put the plan to a vote. The no’s were overhwleming. I saw the Italian leave a few minutes later.

Mick now asked for questions, "killing" them rapidly. He stood just inside the restaurant doorway addressing about 150 people in that room, and as he spoke Felice Gelman of the freedom march steering committee, who is also a very forceful person, called out his answers to what looked like 200 people in the stairwell and going up and down the stairs in both directions.

Avoid instigation. Do not yield to provocateurs. The legal team’s #s. A short speech from the medical team. There was very little discussion of political ideas, and what Mick offered was pithy and inspiring: We were here because it was “an obscenity in the 21st century” that the people of Gaza did not have the freedom to come and go. The walls had come down in Berlin and South Africa, they must come down here.

A lot of the questions were about violence. The Egyptians had shown little appetite for hurting westerners, but you did not know. And what if you felt uncomfortable with the idea of being arrested or clubbed? “The demonstration is for everyone," Mick said. "There’s always the option of walking away and saying, enough is enough.” Those who wanted to observe and support could do that. There would not be “a scintilla” of pressure on anyone to do what they did not want to do.

Sitting on the stairwell, I wondered what I was doing there. The jammed space had a romance, an air of the many freedom marches before this; and the word “provocateurs” was redolent of socialist activism. I’m not a radical, but a left/liberal; the doorways for my engagement here was not solidarity with suffering people but good old self interest: my concerns about American militarism in the Middle East and Zionism in Jewish life. And yet here I was; and it occurred to me that certain injustices become so disturbing to some people, to their understanding of history, that they must take a stand, and are willing to make great sacrifices to do so; and in that sense I was also a radical, if a reluctant one.

“The meeting is now over,” Mick declared. A great performance got cheers. It was 8:27.

The next morning when I came out of my room, Ted told me that the Egyptians had barricaded the Lotus and were letting nobody out. That meant a lot of the leadership. The Lotus is on Talaat Harb, the Madison Avenue of Cairo, and I walked past it going to the square. About 30 cops were lined up outside the barricades, and plain clothes guys milled in the streets and made threatening gestures if you got out a camera. Inside the barricade, women were holding a large pink banner. One woman wore a clown suit. A sympathizer sat on the sidewalk just outside the barricades and seemed to be weeping.

Tahrir Square is a large circle. The full circuit is probably a mile, and I kept walking around, trying not to smile at other marchers I recognized. It felt like a caper movie. Mick was the most relaxed. When I saw him, I stopped and asked if he knew where the Spinx was. He laughed. But most other marchers made a point of not recognizing you or even frowning. Some of the marchers you could see their Gaza tshirts under their shirts, white, poking out. At a certain point they would rip their shirts off. Even the Italian tenor was there.

It was 9:58. I was walking south when I heard a shout, then another. I turned and saw scores of people running toward the great pink Museum of Antiquities. It was a beautiful sight. They were flooding with purpose across the circle, dodging traffic and crying out Free Gaza, and I ran too, and within a minute or so we were all together in a large clot. There were probably 300 of us. Free free gaza, we chanted, and we made our way across the circle. Traffic stopped.

It did not take the cops long to descend. We hadn’t been marching five minutes when they too began to flood the square. They came from all directions. They formed a double line against our forward movement and then another police phalanx formed at our side to hem us in. They were penning us, and trying to get us out of the road. As the pen formed and began to be pushed, and people were knocked to the street, I escaped. I didn’t want to be trapped. I ran the other way and almost bumped into someone who looked a lot like Alice Walker, looking lost. I said, "Are you Alice?" She said, No no no.

I spent another hour in the square. You could not get too close, or the cops sensed your energy, and tried to herd you into the pen. After twenty minutes or so, a separate group of demonstrators who had made a demonstration outside the museum were marched inside a police cordon to the pen. Some people were in trees inside the pen. Some were being knocked down. My friend Michael called out to me to find his father and tell him he was safe. I saw Antony Loewenstein holding up a camera, and Bernardine Dohrn trying to give legal advice over the barricade. The Egyptians passing by seemed to regard the Gaza posters and cries with sympathy, but they did not join us. No, we were a bunch of "bloody foreigners," as Mick had said the night before.

I believe that the hunger strikers were the last to be cleared form the actual road. They had to be dragged by the young Egyptian cops. One of them was Hedy Epstein, 85.

I gather the group was detained for several hours. Later they did another action at the Israeli embassy, and some issued a declaration.

Myself, I had made a promise to myself to go to Israel; and I got a bus to Suez, where I waited hours for a minibus. That night, traveling through the desert under the full moon, I thought about radicalism. Mick’s statement that we are protesting an obscenity is the guiding thought; that is why we were all in Cairo. And yet there was considerable political diversity among us. We were not all fiery abolitionists. Some of us would probably accept a two-state solution, some of us would not. That may in fact be the line between Code Pink and the Europeans; I sense that the Europeans are mostly one-staters, while Code Pink would accept partition. Still: we came to Cairo unified, and we left it unified, and even stronger. We had made the international press, and in the streets we sensed our power.

Mick said that we are a nonviolent movement, and that is true. We seek the fulfillment of the Palestinians’ right of self-determination, and seek it not by a violent course. Still I wonder whether that will be possible. In the end, the question is whether this situation, politically/historically, is more like slavery or more like Jim Crow. The obscenity of American slavery only ended with a huge bloodletting; the obscenity of Jim Crow ended with a remarkable series of government reforms. The trouble with the Israel/Palestine situation is that it feels more like the slavery model. So far the governments with the greatest power have shown themselves completely incapable of handling the issue politically; the two-state solution and the end to occupation have gone nowhere, and these governments blithely shut down the sober Goldstone report, which is something like nullifying Brown v Board of Education with a shrug. There is as Lincoln said in 1858 a political "conspiracy" against the idea that all men are created equal; and so those who believe in that idea have little choice but to take to the streets. I fear what will happen if the political movement that flooded Tahrir Square is not soon recognized in the American mainstream. As everyone knows, the batons that we were so worried about at our meeting the night before are just a taster’s menu.

    Leave a Reply