’Our opponents are on the defensive’

John Rees tells Amira Howeidy why the anti-war coalition outlived that of the willing

British Trotskyist John Rees has been a regular at the annual Cairo Anti-War Conference since it started in 2002, a year before the invasion of Iraq. Five years later and despite the changes that were introduced to the conference’s character, he still supports its goals.

A member of the Central Committee of the British Socialist Workers Party, national secretary of the Respect Coalition, co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition and vice-president (Europe) of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq, Rees has reasons to be optimistic about the achievements of the anti-war movement today.

Al-Ahram Weekly interviewed Rees at the Egyptian Press Syndicate which hosted the fifth Cairo anti-war conference. Following are excerpts of the interview:

There seems to be an ongoing dynamic between the anti-war movement and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood which is being prosecuted by the regime.

When I contributed to setting up the Stop the War Coalition in Britain five years ago, we had three aims and objectives, one was obviously to stop the war, the second was to defend civil liberties and third was to stop the racist backlash. The second two were because we understood right at the beginning that if the government was going to prosecute an unpopular war, it will end up trying to restrict people’s democratic rights and we also understood that Islamophobia would be deployed as a mobilising ideology for war. If you’re going to bomb another culture thousands of miles away, you’ll have to demonise that culture in order to justify. So we always understood that fighting for democracy, and against racism and Islamophobia, were going to be part of the anti-war movement. It was automatic for us to act where we see governments in other parts of the world who are allies of George W Bush, like the Mubarak government, suppressing the rights of other people to demonstrate.

How are you showing your solidarity?

We will start a campaign in Britain about the political detainees. Although the Muslim Brotherhood are the most numerous and the most harshly prosecuted, we know that other people, even liberals and socialists, certainly will be victims of the same legislation. So we understand that it’s the whole of the democratic and anti- war movement that is under threat here, even though those people in prison at the moment are mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood. So we will start collecting signatures from well-known MPs and others, and political activists and people in the arts will begin a series of protests in conjunction with what the people are doing on the ground here. We’ll make sure that people from Egypt are invited to Britain to speak at the anti-war conferences.

What happened to the anti-war movement? Why did it fade from political view?

I think that’s the wrong question. The right question is, what happened to the coalition of the willing? At the beginging of the war there was Jose Marie Aznar in Spain, who’s gone because of his pro-war stand and because he lied to the Spanish people about the bombings in Spain. Sergio Berlusconi in Italy is gone, primarily because of the war. Tony Blair gave support to Israel in the invasion of Lebanon last summer. We held a 100,000 strong demonstration at seven days notice. He was forced, because government advisors resigned in the wake of that demonstration to announce that he was going to leave this year. And George Bush is a lame duck president because of the chiding he got in the [congressional] mid-term elections. So I’d say that’s a pretty succesful anti-war movement. We’ve got rid of two heads of state, and we’re about to get rid of two more.

Yet the war hasn’t ended, and scores of civilians are getting killed everyday.

We haven’t achieved all that we want to, although the first British troops are now being withdrawn from Basra and I think that more will follow them. We’ve still got a job to do about Afghanistan, but it’s important to understand that our opponents are on the defensive and (that) we are on the offensive.

But their Arab allies are persecuting democracy activists with the blessing of Western governments.

The decisive support comes from the Americans. Anybody who understands the workings of the Middle East understands this; the biggest recipient of military aid is Israel. Israel is paid by the US to discipline its Arab neighbours. The second biggest recipients of military aid are Egypt and Jordan. And they’re paid not to attack Israel. This is the imperial “architecture” of the Middle East.

And I don’t mean this in the narrow sense. I mean this is the way stability in the Middle East is maintained. Israel is really a secondary factor — the primary thing for the US is oil and Israel is part of that. So is paying the Egyptian government not to do anything the US doesn’t like … Let’s review some recent history: first of all, America introduces its “Let’s democratise the Middle East” campaign. This doesn’t turn out so well because people in Palestine elected Hamas, people in Lebanon supported Hizbullah, and even in Egypt, Muslim Brotherhood MPs got elected in a completedly rigged election. So though [US Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice used to come here talking about democracy, the last two times she came here she kept mum, which the Mubarak regime understood to mean it could do precisely what it’s done in the last year or so, which is to attack the democracy movement.

You’ve been attending the Cairo anti-war conference religiously. In its fifth year its even less organized than the previous ones. Why do you think its important to be here?

Because where else in any Arab capital can you go and meet people from the entire international anti-war movement from all parts of the Middle East? Where else can you sit down in a single evening and listen to senior people from Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, people from the revolutionarly left and people from the anti-war movement around the globe? There is no other place. So whatever people’s criticism might be, at the conference, no conference is perfect. It’s just the best conference there is in the Middle East on this question. I also think it has helped in opening up some political space for the democracy movement in Egypt. These are not insignificant achievements. People always want more.

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