A lot was happening across the world in Cairo yesterday as I and a friend painted faces on our "I am Gaza" signs in preparation for our upcoming "Gaza Freedom Solidarity" march in Minneapolis on Wednesday, December 30 (see my prior HuffPost with details here).
My friend, Sylvia Schwarz, in Cairo as part of the Minnesota delegation, told me in a telephone conversation this morning that despite the great disappointment she and others are feeling with regard to the Egyptian government's continuing intransigence on allowing the international human rights activists to travel to Gaza and the state of flux and uncertainty they all face, they are making the best of the situation. Sylvia said that the number of activists assembled in various hotels in Cairo now far outnumbers the 1400 that was initially projected and that the thousands assembled include seven Minnesotans. Sylvia reported that various peaceful vigils have been held around the city and at the international participants' respective embassies.
As of this writing, the Egyptian police have apparently reacted in a respectful, non-violent manner at the various peaceful gatherings in Cairo which have been occurring. I have personally just called staffers in both Minnesota Senators' offices (Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken) asking that the Senators contact our U.S. Embassy to ensure the safety of the Minnesotans and other human rights activists in Cairo who are attempting to participate in the "Gaza Freedom March" and to do what they can in terms of asking for the impasse with Egypt to be resolved with diplomacy.
One of the activists in Cairo, "Starhawk" got some great photos and posted this update yesterday. Here's an excerpt from Starhawk's blog:
About a hundred people went out to the Kasr al Nil bridge around noon--the bridge to the large island in the middle of the Nile. They placed cards and flowers on the bridge to commemorate the more than 1300 Gazans who died in the Israeli assault that began a year ago today, on December 27, 2008. The police eventually showed up and ordered them off the bridge, but didn't arrest anyone.
The plan for the afternoon was to meet at 4 pm down by the Nile and take feluccas, the small sailboats that go up and down the river. On the boats, we could meet in small groups and then converge later for a larger meeting. We hurried down there (I spend a lot of these actions trailing after people who are younger, faster and slimmer) and eventually I jumped in a taxi with a few other women at Lisa's suggestion. A knot of activists were surrounded by a thicket of cameras. The police were blocking us from getting on the boats, and shut down the rental place. But we gathered, a group of several hundred, which we had been expressly forbidden to do. Medea Benjamin, one of the Code Pink leaders, jumped up and made an impromptu speech. "Who here wants to take a boat on the Nile, like tourists do?" she asked. Everyone raised their hands. "Who here wants to go to Gaza?"
Medea Benjamin inspired the crowd
The crowd began cheering and unfurling banners and chanting "Free Gaza!" We lit our candles in cups and held them aloft.
There were people from all over the world in the crowd--young students and old people, every imaginable mix of countries and races and religions. The spirit was strong, and as more and more police arrived, everyone remained calm. The crowd began marching back down the riverside, and then the police threw up a cordon and blocked us in. Lisa was trying to negotiate and persuade the head officer to let us march down back to the bridge and disperse there, but he wouldn't go for it. The police were not in riot gear--most of them seemed to be in plain clothes, and their hearts weren't really in keeping us blocked in. They held hands to barricade us, and they kept smiling. People lifted up their arms and ducked under and got out, and from time to time they opened up and let people out, without much rhyme nor reason. Basically, they are personally in sympathy with our cause, and that's working in our favor.
The Candlelight vigil to commemorate the Gazans who died in the Israeli assault one year ago.
Eventually, they moved aside and let everyone go. People felt strong and empowered by the action. We had been told that the Egyptian government did not want us to protest in Cairo, to be interviewed by the press, to interact with Egyptians. And we had done all of the above.
Our cancelled meeting had been rescheduled and moved several times, but finally we had it outside, in the middle of Tahrir Square, a big central square in downtown Cairo, right out in the open. What I love about explicitly nonviolent actions, and what sometimes gets lost in the attempts we make to accommodate diverse tactics and security culture, is that in-your-face attitude we can adopt when we aren't trying to hide what we're doing. The authorities say, 'you cannot meet in groups larger than six people,' and cancel our permit for a building, so we meet in the center of town in the public square. We create a dilemma for the authorities--either arrest us or concede this political space.
The cops left us alone. But--all the buses that we'd rented for our attempt to go to Gaza tomorrow have been cancelled due to pressure from the government. Ordinary Egyptians, who live here, don't have the privilege we enjoy and are not immune to threats.
The French contingent went en masse to their embassy, threatening to encamp on its lawn, and got them to intervene with the Egyptian government and they got security permits for their buses. Or so we've heard--I don't know yet if the busses actually arrived or were allowed to leave.
With all the stress and continually changing conditions, I'm still deeply thrilled to be here. Under the clamor and the smog lies a sense of age and a whiff of ancient things. That river we're walking besides is the Nile! I see a scraggly cat and think, 'This is where cats come from!" I see a man in flowing robes and kaffiyeh who could have been standing there for a hundred years.
Tomorrow Anne Wright, a U.S. diplomat who resigned in protest against the Iraq War and who has become a dedicated activist, will take another delegation to the foreign office to continue their negotiations. Please keep up the calls and the writing--the website is: www.gazafreedom.org and http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/424/p/dia/action/public/?action_KEY=1946
Your support is keeping us safe and will hopefully open the road to Gaza--not just for us, but for the people whose lives and health and freedom are blighted by this siege.
Here's part of an even later update from other Gaza human rights supporters in Cairo:
Everything is in flux... Urgent update: as we are writing this hundreds of French delegates are camped outside the French Embassy, pitching tents and sleeping bags on the sidewalk, chanting "Palestine Freedom!" The French Ambassador and his wife are outside negotiating with the delegates and the police and Egyptian authorities. It is a powerful action and the French invite solidarity and support - come wherever you can! The French Embassy is located at 29 avenue de Charles de Gaulle (Mourad Street) next to the Four Seasons Hotel, and opposite the zoo, in Giza, Cairo. This is a critical situation and the police are surrounding the group. Check it out if you can. We will send out an update when possible.
11 am: Small press conference to update the press on our actions yesterday. Press Conference will be held at 24 Mohaned Shafik Street at Wadi El Nil Street, in the area of Cairo called Mohandessin.
12 noon: Action at the United Nations, at the UN Agencies and World Trade Center, (1191 Corniche El Nil St., World Trade Centre, Cairo), where we will solicit the UN to intervene on our behalf to get us and our supplies inside Gaza. We'll be bringing some of the humanitarian aid and asking for a meeting. Additionally, we will announce the launch of a hunger strike by Gaza Freedom March participants, led by grandmothers including 85-year-old Heddy Epstein. The is next to the Conrad Hotel and about 1/2 km past the Foreign Ministry on the Corniche El Nil.
3 pm: The Women's Contingent will deliver a letter to H. E. Suzanne Mubarak at a location to be determined tomorrow. The group invites you to wear pink and join, will depart from UN action...
Please remember that we are not acting alone here in Cairo - dozens of cities held moving and beautiful memorials on the one year anniversary of Operation Cast Lead yesterday. Solidarity actions will continue throughout the week around the world.
Which brings me finally to my reminder to those in the Twin Cities area who wish to show their support for those in Cairo and in Gaza. Please demonstrate your concern for Human Rights in Gaza by peacefully marching with us in the Minneapolis Skyways this Wednesday, Dec. 30th! We will be meeting at 11:30 a.m. on the 2nd level of the Hennepin County Government Center, 300 South Sixth Street, Minneapolis. People are encouraged to wear pink and also we will have copies available of the "I am Gaza" image below to pin onto clothing as well as extra signs (no sticks allowed). We are especially hoping some children might come, on whose shirts we can pin on the "I am Gaza" image.