Friday, January 29, 2010
WHAT HAPPENED IN CAIRO / Gaza Freedom March
It's now February 18th. It took me a long time to get around to finishing and posting this article about the events of late December/early January. At first I thought I should just forget about it, but I also felt like I have to make some pretty heavy criticism along with talking about the positive things that came from the Gaza Freedom March
What Happened in Cairo:
With the Gaza Freedom March Dec. 23 to Jan 5
My (Rick Congress) narrative of events, evaluations and political conclusions insofar as I can draw them.
WHAT WE ACCOMPLISHED AS THE INTERNATIONAL GAZA FREEDOM MARCH WAS IMPORTANT
THE ROLE PLAYED BY CODE PINK WAS DAMAGING TO OUR MOVEMENT AND WAS NO MISTAKE; IT'S ABOUT WHO THEY ARE.
YOU MAY ASK WHY I'M "AIRING DIRTY LAUNDRY IN PUBLIC? BECAUSE WE HAVE TO LEARN FROM THIS EXPERIENCE
I went to Cairo as one of the approximately 1400 people from 43 countries who planned to enter Gaza through the Rafa border crossing in order to participate in a mass march along with thousands of Gazans to mark the first anniversary of the criminal Israeli assault on the people of Gaza. The major demand of the GFM was to end the embargo and open up the borders. The collective punishment inflicted on the Palestinian people of Gaza since 2006 for having the temerity to democratically elect the government of their choice is causing not just hardship but malnutrition and death. The totally unjustified military assault in December 2008 and January 2009 killed 1400 people destroyed neighborhoods and essential infrastructure. The embargo has made rebuilding impossible.
Unfortunately this embargo is not just another typical Israeli excess. It is designed to crush the will of the 1.5 million inhabitants of Gaza and is backed up by the Obama administration and the Egyptian government as well (the more than 30 year Mubarek reign can’t be correctly described as an “administration.” It’s more of a dictator/presidency for life…and now he is angling to be replaced by his son).
I had gone to Gaza in March 2009 on a 62 person Code Pink delegation. We were allowed, at that time, by the Egyptian government to go through (with the 350 person multi-vehicle Viva Palestina contingent from the UK coming in right behind us). In June of 2009 other delegations from the US had been able to cross into Gaza from Egypt.
But the Gaza Freedom March was distinctly unwelcome. The Egyptian government made it clear that they were not going to let us in to Gaza. It was decided to go to Cairo anyway and try to pressure the government to let us through.
Our pre-arranged meeting spot on December 27th for all 1400 members of the GFM to assemble for an orientation was a big meeting space at a location in downtown Cairo that was owned by a Christian church. But the Egyptian government had revoked all the permits and permissions for us to even gather. So began our cat and mouse game with the Egyptian authorities and police.
We held organizing meetings in restaurants, in open public squares and in three different hotels simultaneously along with cell phone and email communication and managed to organize protests over a five day period that had the riot police running around after us and generated a lot of publicity in the Egyptian and Mideast press. Most gratifying was the response of the people of Cairo. It didn’t take long for all the cab drivers to know what we were up to. We’d get in a cab to take us from the hotel to a planned illegal demonstration and the we’d get a “Gaza?!” and a thumbs up from the cab driver.
There was some attrition among the GFM participants. Some didn’t feel up to the pressure of our semi-clandestine protests and returned home, or decided to travel to Tel Aviv and participate in the "Open the Borders” protest planned for the Erez border crossing in Israel on December 31st. But most of us remained. We spent the better part of a week holding protests demanding that the border with Gaza be opened. There were several actions of 300 to 800 of us with banners and signs. We went to the location of the United Nations offices and rallied. We were invited by members of the Journalists Syndicate to their headquarters to join their protest against Egyptian policy toward Gaza. Many hundreds of us and Egyptians gathered on the steps of the Journalist's Syndacate, while inside the building 700 Egyptians held a meeting critical of the Mubarek government’s doing the bidding of the U.S. and Israel. We rallied 700 strong at the Israeli embassy demanding an end to Israeli war crimes and occupation...and this is only a partial list. Besides the Cairo actions some GFM participants tried to go to the Egypt-Gaza border. The police stopped them at various points along the way.
Egyptian activists used the political space we created by our presence to risk open protest against government policies. Whenever we gathered for a public protest we were immediately surrounded by riot police who put up metal barricades around the perimeter of our rally. Sometimes there were two or three rows of black uniformed police with more of them waiting in formation a few yards away. In general the police didn’t want to arrest the internationals. They wanted to contain our actions and stop any interaction between us and the people.
Passers-by shouted sympathy with our protests and thanked us for doing publicly what they couldn’t do without risking jail and or getting beaten up by the police. People brought us water, coffee, one Palestinian couple brought us lunch while I and others held up signs against Israeli crimes against the Palestinian people behind a barricade at the entrance of our Hotel (the Lotus Hotel, where we were staying—which was also the de facto nerve center of the GFM in Cairo) It was blocked by a police barricade and rows of cops to keep us from joining a protest that was held in front of the Egyptian Museum).
Organizationally things were catch as catch can…very ad hoc and ragged, maybe semi-organized is the best description, with last seconds changes happening. Code Pink had put out the call for the Gaza Freedom March and organized the registration of participants and made housing arrangements and arrangements for our itinerary in Gaza, which obviously was canceled. I wouldn't fault Code Pink greatly for having trouble keeping things organized under pressure. They tried. Many participants thought they should have had more of a "Plan B" instead of seemingly winging it.
Code Pink also deserves credit for getting the Gaza Freedom March going and for their previous work organizing Code Pink trips to Gaza. During the organizing work in the US and other countries many non-Code Pink activists became part of a steering committee which also met in Cairo to try and plan activities as best they could. This structure tried to function but again was stressed.
Of the various country delegations the French, some 300 strong, were the most organized. They basically occupied the entrance way and sidewalk in front of the French Embassy, demanding that they aid them in getting the Egyptians to let us go to Gaza.
Very important also was the presence of the South African delegation which included members of COSATU, the trade union that has taken the lead in South Africa in enforcing a boycott of Israeli goods. While in Cairo they drafted the “Cairo Declaration” which was an international call to renew the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement. It was enthusiastically embraced by all of us and helped point the way to future actions. They had a terrific, colorful banner they unfurled at our actions which quoted Nelson Mandela on South Africa’s solidarity with Palestine.
As the GFM activities seemed to come to a close, it looked like we had won a moral victory. Under extra pressure from the Obama administration and the Israeli government to not let the GFM into Gaza, the Egyptian government, knowing which side its bread is buttered on, stopped us from getting to Gaza. There was no way we could get around that.
But we had made waves and generated a lot of publicity for our demand of ending the Siege of Gaza. On that note and with a renewed commitment to working for a free Gaza and a free Palestine, we could have gone home knowing that we had accomplished something…fought the good fight. Many were disappointed that they didn’t get to see Gaza, meet with the people and join the freedom march. That’s understandable. But it’s important to think about these thing politically, and strategically—this is a long struggle, there are no short-cuts.
However things didn’t end on that note. Code Pink an organization dedicated to short-cuts, cutting political corners and flashy gimmicks, saw to that.
While representatives of the various country delegations met in steering committee meetings along with Code Pink leaders to supposedly decide as democratically as possible what to do, Code Pink by itself had been meeting with Egyptian president Mubarek’s wife, who is the head of the Egyptian Red Crescent.
In March of 2009 she had given her blessings to the Code Pink delegation to Gaza which went to celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8th. At first the Egyptians had hinted that maybe they wouldn’t let us in, or had to think about it. But then with Madame Mubarek’s support we were able to board buses and were escorted to the border for a fairly easy entry into Gaza. Members of the Egyptian Red Crescent were on our bus and at the Rafa border gate for photo ops.
This time around the Egyptian Foreign Minister made a public statement as we arrived in Cairo that the Gaza Freedom March would definitely not be let into Gaza. The catch turned out to be “…Gaza Freedom March not let in.” Code Pink getting in was another matter.
Without the knowledge of the GFM steering committee or rank and file, the leaders of Code Pink made a deal with Madame Mubarak that 100 people would be allowed into Gaza as a Code Pink humanitarian mission. The terms of the deal were that it would not be a GFM group, no citizens of Arab countries or French (the most militant and, I suppose, irritating, part of the GFM to the Egyptian government) could go.
When this became known to everyone on the GFM the reaction was negative, by a landslide. Code Pink leaders told the steering committee that this was a done deal and no one could make them back out of it. Constituent delegations of the GFM met and most were against this deal. Rather than being a “deal” or a “compromise” it was rightly seen by a majority as a dishonest maneuver and an act of backstabbing deceit by Code Pink. They didn’t care if the majority weren’t informed. All they cared about was that Code Pink could talk with the president’s wife and get their people in under the name of Code Pink and to hell with the Gaza Freedom March participants.
The reaction against Code Pink’s treason was so strong that they began to realize that they had to do damage control. Medea Benjamin came to a New York delegation meeting in a hotel room at the Lotus and tried to explain away their actions by saying they made a mistake by not notifying the GFM steering committee, but were under pressure to accept the offer on the spot, and were inexperienced in this sort of thing, and she was sorry if they were misunderstood and this would not split the movement, but was a partial victory, and that the Code Pink delegation would represent all of the GFM and that the Palestinians in Gaza wanted them to go, etc.
These argument didn’t fly and some of us predicted that the Egyptian government would use this against us. Her reaction was, "Oh not they can’t do that."
The next morning the newspapers ran a statement from the Foreign Minister that Code Pink and Egyptian government representatives had picked 100 of the "peaceful" people who really wanted to help Gazans and that the rest of the GFM participants were "hooligans" who just wanted to make trouble.
The same evening that Benjamin had come to the NY delegation, there was a marathon steering committee meeting that ran to 4 a.m. a majority prevailed to cancel the 100 person delegation, that it was all or none and that the GFM was unified. Code Pink went along with this too (so they said officially...probably with fingers crossed behind their back).
This was a Code Pink style “cancellation.” The buses were ready that morning to take the 100 “peaceful” people to Gaza and Code Pink leaders and Egyptian government authorities were out rounding up people to fill the two buses at the same time that non-Code Pink GFM members were telling them not to go. One of the Code Pink leaders was heard saying that it would “ruin my relationship with Madame Mubarek” if they didn’t fill the buses.
Eighty six people ended up going on the bus. Some were reporters, some were Palestinians who wanted to see family members and some, who didn’t understand or care about the political issues, just wanted to go.
Having your cake and eating it too must be some sort of principle of Code Pink. They realized that they had to go along with the majority and “reject” the deal, but they then sneaked off and tried to carry out their agreement with Madame Mubarek. Sucking up to her was more important than building a serious Pro Palestinian movement.
One of the arguments that was used in favor of sending the Code Pink-only buses in the all night steering committee meeting was that the Palestinians in Gaza wanted us to come. However, there is good reason to suspect that Code Pink didn’t tell the Palestinian GFM leaders in Gaza the full story of the conditions they agreed to (it was not to be a GFM group only Code Pink, no French etc). Early the next morning, having been told of the Egyptian government’s statement about peaceful people and hooligans, the Palestinian leaders in Gaza said they buses should not come, that it was a trick to split the movement and make both of the Mubareks look good.
Why am I laying out all of this? Airing dirty laundry in public. Should we let bygones be bygones. Wasn’t it a mistake, and Code Pink is sorry, so everything is OK now? Everything is not OK. Activists should know not to trust Code Pink in the future. Their actions in Cairo were not an abberation for them … it’s an example of how they function.
The problem is that this action by Code Pink was not a mistake. It was a calculated cutting loose of the Gaza Freedom March so that Code Pink could bask in the limelight and get the glory of succeeding in getting a delegation into Gaza. Any other consequences they didn’t care about, because all they care about is their own image.
Medea Benjimin and Jody Evans have been around the political scene for a long time. They were not born yesterday, they know what they want to do.
This act of treachery (and the fact that they were and are oblivious to the damage it has done) didn’t come out of inexperience or evil intent. It comes from Code Pink’s political outlook.
It wasn’t good enough for them to carry out a series of protests in Cairo, raise demands to open the borders and end the siege of Gaza and leave Egypt knowing that we had tried our best, gotten some good publicity for the Gaza Freedom March and developed some unity and trust that could be developed into a broader international movement around Gaza and Palestine. Code Pink isn’t interested in this sort of “boring” organizing work. They needed instant gratification.
The be all and end all of their activities consist in having influence in the Democratic Party. They are under the illusion, or better, delusion, that they are players in the big leagues. They can sit down with Madame Mubarek. They can persuade Obama, or some congressperson or senator to change their views on Israel and Palestine (fat chance) just by the powers of their persuasion.
Madame Mubarek is part of the ruling party’s apparatus. Her husband has been in power for over thirty years. He has turned Egypt into a kleptocracy, a police state and is a dependent client of the U.S. This also means he is an active collaborator with Israel’s crimes against the Palestinian people. Mubarek’s wife is part of the team. She’s not doing anything that Mubarek or the chief of security don’t approve of. They just put on different faces, hard cop, soft cop.
The Democratic Party is committed to the Zionist narrative and will give anything to Israel. Obama has stocked his administration with pro-Israel politicians (and even with Israelis, Rahm Emanuel anyone?) George Mitchell is blundering around like a pathetic clown with nothing to do and Obama and Netanyahu are partners, not adversaries. It’s clear by now that Obama supports Israel’s actions, all of them, will do nothing to stop or curb their ethnic cleansing campaign.
Obama supports Israel because he believes in Israel, not because he’s being restrained by some lobby, or hasn’t studied the issue. He’s just as much an enemy of ours as G. W. Bush was. The major difference is that his image and smooth talking makes him a more effective representative of U.S. imperialism and more effective in throwing sand in the eyes of the people about this issue.
I think it’s possible that the reluctance of the GFM leadership in Cairo, when it was pretty much in the hands of Code Pink, to raise demands that directly took on the U.S. and Obama’s role in keeping the attacks on Gaza going is a reflection of the illusions they have about Obama… that he’s secretly on our side…somehow he really doesn’t mean it when he gives Israel more military aid than Bush did, or send troops into Afghanistan, bombs Pakistan, maybe Yemen and Iran are next.
It also took pressure from the non-Code Pink GFM participants to finally get a protest rally organized at the Israeli embassy.
The real weight we can have to be “players,” and put pressure on Obama is not by small gimmicky and flashy publicity stunts, but by doing the hard work of educating the population about the reality of Zionism and the negative effects of our governments policies of aid Israel in its crimes.
We have to change U.S. public opinion. Serious bottom-up organizing has to be done on BDS, education has to be done to make the American people aware of what Israel has been doing. Demonstrations should be organized, marches on Washington demanding “end the siege of Gaza, end the settlements, no ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, equal rights for all…”
.We have to build a movement that has the capacity to draw in people who aren’t already convinced. We need to put our trust in that movement and use it as a way to effect change.
The experience of the Gaza Freedom March in Cairo pointed the way towards a more serious bottom up Pro-Palestinian rights movement in the U.S. and the around the world. I don't think we can rely on an organization like Code Pink to be a reliable part of such a movement.