Gaza Freedom March Madness: Part One
Cairo: While its official day one was the 28th of December, Code Pink’s Gaza Freedom March began in Cairo to commemorate Israel’s Gaza offensive, Operation Cast Lead, and to call attention to the blockade with two meetings and several events on the 27th.
I went to the Select Hotel in Downtown, next to Cairo’s largest synagogue at a chilly 8:30 in the morning for a group meeting with part of the delegation. There was a lot to discuss, the Egyptian government had days earlier prohibited the planed trip to Gaza, a journey designed to call attention to the blockade of goods to Gaza. The blockade, Israel and Egypt say, is to isolate Hamas, but has caused suffering and hardship among the ordinary Palestinians living in the strip. The government had also taken away Code Pink’s permit to use a church for a pre-Gaza march orientation meeting place.
An organizer brought the group of weary travelers together in a small room, some only having arrived to Cairo hours earlier, to discuss plans for the next few days. She reminded us that our gathering was technically illegal under Egyptian law as we were without a permit (under Egyptian law only groups of 5 or less can gather). She remained hopeful about crossing into Gaza, as the boarder would be open to Egyptians over the next few days. At this point a rather proud older Dutch lady rose and said, “I will go to Gaza by myself if I have to, with or without the delegation!” Perhaps there would be a chance we, too, could cross.
For the first event for the day activists were to write the name of a Palestinian that had died in the fighting a year ago and a message to Gaza and tie it to the 6th of October bridge. Activists were warned not to go in groups of more than 5. When I arrived at the bridge, I met a French woman and an American man from Texas tying their message to the bridge. “Free Gaza with peace and love from Dallas, Texas. Let them live,” it read. “These Palestinians need a chance,” grumbled the man from Texas. Next, two ladies from England came by and tied colored ribbons to the bridge railings. I moved on to grab something to eat, and it was only later I learned the police had come by shortly afterwards and removed the letters and ribbons from the bridge and stopped protesters from tying their messages to the railings.
The police caught wind of the planned afternoon felucca boat ride, where activists would release small biodegradable boats into the Nile and prevented people from boarding boats. When activists returned to their hotels that afternoon, they found in the hallways men dressed in cheap suits along with police officers in black. It seems Egypt’s security apparatus realized, after closing the boarder to Gaza, the protestors would not just give up and melt away into Cairo’s numerous tourist attractions.
The last activity of the day was to hold a giant open-air meeting for the 1,300 foreign activists at Tahrir Square right in the middle of Cairo’s Downtown. When I arrived at the meeting place, at the front of the notorious Morgama building (the place for visa extensions and nightmares), I found hundreds of foreigners gathered together, ringed by curious Egyptians with the police looking on. After living in Cairo for 7 months, I had never seen so many foreigners gathered together at one place. I wondered what the Egyptians made of it all. Speakers then voiced the latest news, shouting to be heard over the traffic and general Cairo noise.
There was good news and bad news. A separate delegation of French activists had threatened to camp out in front of the French embassy in Giza if they were not allowed through, and we were told that with this threat the French Ambassador managed to iron out a deal to take them to Rafah. The bad news was that the bus company that had agreed to take Code Pink to Al Arish was forced to withdraw its offer after threats from the government. We would not be leaving Cairo, however Code Pink didn’t want to leave us high and dry. We would meet again the next morning to hammer out a new plan.