Still a bit dazed and confused from jetlag, I went down to the Lotus Hotel where Medea Benjamin and Anne Wright and many of the other organizers are staying. It is also peeling and seedy, and when people told me, “Thank you for putting your life on the line,” I didn’t quite imagine that the biggest mortal dangers would be elevators, with archaic wooden cages and exposed wiring and metal grates dating back to the Third Dynasty. Of course, that’s only if you survive the Cairo traffic. Crossing the street here is a bit like trying to dodge your way through a herd of stampeding mustangs.
So far unscathed, I got sucked into doing media work for most of the afternoon. 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?”
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 realy 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.
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 busses 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 busses. 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. I apologize for the typo in the previous post—the website is:
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.