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Cairo played host last week to an international gathering protesting war against Iraq. Though participants sparred over whether the launch of the International Campaign against US Aggression on Iraq was a whimper or a bang, the meetings pulled Arab activists into the fold of a growing anti-war movement worldwide

Raising a voice

Anti-globalisation and anti-war activists from around the world closed ranks with their Arab peers in Cairo in pursuit of a 'different world'. Omayma Abdel-Latif reports

"We have no option but to demonise the United States because it poses the greatest danger to humanity. We have a powerful enemy that wants to take over." Those are not the words of an Arab or Muslim radical, but of Gabrielle Muzo, an Italian economist who, with some 50 internationalists, came from around the globe to participate in a two-day conference organised by the International Campaign against US Aggression on Iraq (ICAA).

Muzo's sentiments were shared by scores of activists and observers, and even those who say that they don't identify with the anti- globalisation movement. Though the mood was one of defiance, the most pressing question was how such shows of solidarity, which are bound to multiply in the coming few weeks as the countdown to the war begins, can face down the war machine that is swiftly gearing up.

This sense of urgency was reflected in the words of British MP George Galloway who said, "We are at the 11th hour and there will soon be no more time for gatherings and conferences like these. Action speaks louder than words," he told the audience in a fiery statement.

But in Egypt, where acts of political protest are not welcomed by security apparatuses, merely holding such a conference in Cairo is a powerful action, as conference organiser Soheir Mursi said. "Even when the gathering was threatened with cancellation, owing to security reasons, we felt that we had already achieved a significant part of our goal of linking up with the worldwide struggle against global apartheid," Mursi said at the opening of the conference.

This link-up has indeed turned what was meant to be a show of solidarity with Iraq against a pending US attack into a show of support for the world's underdogs from Iraq to Cuba and Palestine to Venezuela. Among the items on the event's agenda were "US globalisation", "empire, globalisation and struggle", "genocide and ethnic cleansing as a new world order" and "popular movements and imperialist discourse".

Explaining the rationale behind including other struggles among the conference's topics, Muzo said, "The agenda should not simply be against the war, but against all sorts of ideological and economic domination by the only super power. This is not about solidarity, because one cannot express solidarity with oneself. It is about the complementarity of our struggle to liberate ourselves." A minute of silence, hence, was devoted to the martyrs to struggles for freedom the world over.

The talk of resistance and the sense of profound and intense international solidarity has prompted some speakers to liken the anti-war movement with the solidarity movements of the 1960s and 1970s. "This is not only a resistance movement, it is a movement for global justice whose roots begin with the youth, not only in the US, but in Europe, Asia, South America and in the Arab world," said one speaker.

For the first time in the history of the anti- globalisation movement, this closing of ranks between international and regional activists was launched from an Arab capital. ICAA organisers said that it was a symbolic gesture to launch the campaign against US hegemony from Cairo -- the so-called heart of the Arab nation.

The gathering was the culmination of efforts that date back to 1997 when Egyptian activists launched a campaign to lift the sanctions imposed on Iraq. The conference, entitled, "Together Against US Globalisation and a War on Iraq", is the first event organised by the Egyptian Campaign Against US Aggression on Iraq, which was launched a few months ago. Perhaps the most important achievement, in the view of the conference's main organiser, Ashraf Al-Bayoumi, was establishing a dynamic through which both Arab and international activists were brought together to outline a plan to contain US hegemony. "We wanted to break away from prevailing defeatist notions. Understandably, we are on a very difficult path but we are confident of the results at the end of the road, and we are confident that American hegemony can be contained," Al-Bayoumi told Al- Ahram Weekly.

This sense of defiance on the part of the organisers was essential as the conference comes at a time when, as Edward Said put it in his message to conferees, "Arab lives, resources and land will be lost with scarcely a note of complaint from regional governments who have abandoned their people." Said stressed, "It was not too late for intellectuals and activists to mobilise opinion in the Middle East and elsewhere against the terrible injustices and sufferings soon to be endured on a vast scale."

While participants agreed on the need to steer clear of rhetorical statements and apocalyptic scenarios, there was an evident surfeit of rhetoric demonising the US. "We should not succumb to this colonisation force that is reproducing itself in the worst form and is led by a Fascist right-wing administration," warned Mohamed Sami, an Egyptian businessman who helped fund the conference. "We should stand up to this barbaric war which has been waged against our nations and peoples because the Arab nations will be on the front- line defending all humanity," Sami added. Former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella gave a passionate speech, saying that the war was not only against Iraq, but that Egypt would be a future target. "Why is this war waged?" asked Ben Bella, "because -- they tell us -- they want to teach us democracy and enjoy democratic rule. But I say this is the ninth crusade. Bush is waging a ninth crusade which will begin in Iraq then move to Tehran, Sudan and then Saudi Arabia. We are facing a fundamentalist administration; [Secretary of Defence Donald] Rumsfeld is a fundamentalist, [Vice-President Dick] Cheney is a fundamentalist. All of them are. This new world order they want to impose on us should change."

Ben Bella's anger was shared by at least one non-Arab, Dutch journalist William Oltman, who was keen to explain that he was not "anti- American" since he had lived in the US for 38 years. He also said, "I am a journalist, not an activist." Nonetheless, he had some very harsh words for US President George W Bush. "If Bush and [British Prime Minister Tony] Blair are allowed to go ahead with this war, they will be like Mussolini and Hitler. Bush is very closely approaching the behaviour of the Nazis and what we see now is very frightening. I just don't understand why Arab nations don't stand together against this aggression and arrogant use of power?" he exclaimed.

While Oltman was certainly not expecting any answers to his question, veteran German journalist Harold Schuman, author of The Global Trap , expressed impatience with arguments that put the brunt of the blame for the region's chronic problems squarely on the shoulders of the US. Schuman noted that most speeches did not analyse the situation, but rather took the easy way out by demonising the US. "To say that the US is responsible for the misery in the Arab world is only half the truth, the other half is that some people are trying to conceal that Arab governments are as much implicated in this worsening situation as the US is, simply because Arab governments don't have to fear the public vote," Schuman said angrily. He was in fact keen to point out that the conference was not meant to "defend the Iraqi regime and Saddam Hussein in any shape or form". "I am here," he said, "to defend the Iraqi people." That remark raised the ire of the Iraqi official delegation headed by Nabil Negm, the chief political adviser to the Iraqi president, and Negm protested to the conference organisers about the comment.

The incident, however, brought to the fore the question of drawing a line between the Iraqi people, who are bound to suffer in a coming war, and the Iraqi regime. One interesting feature of the gathering was the meagre representation of those in whose defence it was organised.

There was, however, a member of the Iraqi opposition present. Abdel-Amir Al-Rikabi, described as a member of "the honest opposition" (in contrast with opposition figures who met at a US-sponsored event in London), referred to "a reconciliation initiative that was launched by the Iraqi opposition," which he described as having the potential to foster a mechanism for democratic change in Iraq without a war. Under such an approach, the immediate goal would be to establish a "unity government" that would work to develop a constitutionally- enshrined system that ensures the right to representation "for all political and national forces including the Ba'athists". The response from Saad Qassem Hammoudy, a leading member of the Ba'ath Party and secretary-general of the Iraqi Conference of Arab Popular Forces, was, "Iraq welcomes any opponent who does not deal with American, British or Israeli intelligence."

Unlike the Iraqis, the Russians had a very strong presence at the event and their rhetoric evoked that of the Cold War era with many references to "Nasser the leader", "standing shoulder to shoulder with our Arab brethren" and "fighting imperialism and social injustices".

Russian indulgence in a "good old days" discourse reached a low point when Vassilli Safronchuk, who was former deputy permanent representative of the USSR at the United Nations and under-secretary general of the organisation, said, "unfortunately present-day Russia is different from the Soviet Union which stood shoulder to shoulder with Abdel-Nasser and the Arab people in Palestine in their fight against Israeli aggression." Putting aside nostalgia, Safronchuk suggested that the use of force against Iraq could be averted if one of the permanent members of the Security Council vetoed such an action. "We should call upon Russia, France and China to veto any resolution that permits the use of force. This should be the first goal of this international campaign because such a resolution is coming," he added.

It was, however, a voice from the United States that offered a less gloomy picture. Peter Phillips, a media professor, who supervises an initiative entitled, "Project Censored" that draws attention to issues that the mainstream media overlooks, said, "There is an outrage emerging in the US. Some sections of the public no longer view it as a war, but rather as a march to slaughter. We know more about Winona Ryder's shoplifting incident than we know about the destruction of Iraq. PR people spin the news." He went on to explain that despite this gloomy picture, there is a growing interest in alternative sources of information, "because we know that the corporate media is not telling the truth".

The Cairo Declaration against US hegemony, war on Iraq and in solidarity with Palestine

[Excerpts]

The international meeting organised by the Egyptian Popular Campaign to Confront US Aggression was convened in Cairo on December 18 and 19 to launch the international campaign.

We, the participants reaffirm our resolve to stand in solidarity with the people of Iraq and Palestine, recognising that war and aggression against them is but part of a US project of global domination and subjugation. Solidarity with Iraq and Palestine is integral to the internationalist struggle against neo-liberal globalisation. The Cairo meeting is not an isolated event, but an extension of a protracted international struggle against imperialism, from Seattle and Genoa to Lisbon and Florence, to Cordoba and Cairo.

The Cairo Conference Against War on Iraq and In Solidarity with Palestine represents the launching of an international popular movement that creates effective mechanisms for confronting policies of aggression. The participation of international activists who are prominent for their struggles for human dignity, rights and justice, as well as intellectuals, authors, unionists, human rights workers, journalists and artists -- from Egypt and the rest of the Arab World, Africa, Asia, Latin America, Europe, and the United States -- will no doubt accelerate this noble endeavour in spite of the numerous obstacles that we have to confront.

It is important that this international popular initiative of solidarity with Iraq and Palestine proceed according to an action plan which includes clearly defined priorities:

1. Condemnation of US military presence on Arab land along with pressuring the Arab governments that allow US military bases on their territory to close them down, and not to provide air, naval, or land facilities.

2. Develop co-operation among popular organisations of the South to reinforce solidarity in confronting the policies and practices of neo-liberal globalisation and US hegemony.

3. Work towards co-operation with the international anti- globalisation movement of the North and South, and participation in activities and meetings organised by this movement.

4. Promote the unity of democratic forces and popular organisations in different parts of the world, and form solidarity committees which oppose war on Iraq, and the genocidal crimes faced by Palestinians, supporting their right to resistance and struggle for liberation.

5. Under the banner Together Against Globalisation and US Hegemony add Iraq and Palestine to the agendas of international progressive meetings, particularly the next Social Forum at Porte Allegre.

6. Invite Arab and international human rights organisations to evaluate humanitarian conditions in Iraq and disseminate their findings worldwide.

7. Prepare to send human shields to Iraq.

8. Introduce the boycott of US and Israeli commodities in solidarity campaigns in support of Iraq and Palestine, with emphasis on the right of return for Palestinians.

9. Elect a steering committee to follow up on the implementation of the Cairo Declaration, and co-ordination among organisations which commit to its principles, and enhance awareness through appropriate actions ranging from the preparation of posters to organising marches and demonstrations in solidarity with Iraq and Palestine.

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