Al-Ahram Weekly Online   27 November - 3 December 2003
Issue No. 666
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Against empire

Egyptian and international anti-war organisations will meet in Cairo next month to voice strong opposition to the US imperial project. Amira Howeidy reports

A line from 20th-century Egyptian diva Um Kulthoum's song of solidarity with the Palestinian people goes, "My brother, those who committed injustice have exceeded all limits." This line, according to Soheir Morsy, summarises the theme of the anti-war conference scheduled to be held in Cairo in December. Morsy, an Arab-American academic, is one of the conference organisers.

"All the lines which we thought were red have been crossed. [What's happening in Iraq] is plain occupation," she said, "which does not only involve redrawing the regional map in geographic terms, but also redrawing the future of our region as part of a global [US] strategy for control."

Hundreds of Arab and international activists throughout the world share the same vision and will come to Cairo next month to attend what is expected to be the region's biggest anti-occupation conference. Organised by the International Campaign against US and Zionist Occupations (ICAUZO), the Cairo conference will be held in the Egyptian Press Syndicate headquarters on 13 and 14 December. The meeting is convening under the slogan "Yes to resistance in Palestine and Iraq. No to capitalist globalisation and US hegemony."

The group, previously known as the International Campaign Against US Aggression, organised the first Cairo conference in December 2002 in the run-up to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, at a time when the anti-war movement was at its peak. The Web site of the UK-based Stop the War Coalition referred to last December's conference as a "landmark in the construction of an international anti-war movement". It was attended by 400 delegates from the Middle East and international anti-war activists, including former Algerian President Ahmed Ben Bella, former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, British MP George Galloway, and two former senior UN representatives, Denis Halliday and Hans von Sponeck.

The organisation issued the Cairo Declaration during the conference, stating their opposition to the war on Iraq and their solidarity with the Palestinian resistance, as well as with all of those who oppose neo-liberal "globalisation" policies which have done so much to create international instability and inequality. The Cairo Declaration also served as a point of reference for significant anti-war events such as the Jakarta Peace Consensus and the Tokyo Declaration (May 2003). According to Wael Khalil, an activist involved in the second Cairo conference, "the day of action for the massive 18 January anti-war demonstrations was decided upon in Cairo last year".

The conference's steering committee, which had been assigned the task of following up on implementation of the Cairo Declaration, disappeared from sight, as did the anti-war movement, which fell silent after the fall of Baghdad on 9 April. Although the global anti-war movement started recovering recently -- as seen in last week's massive London demonstrations marking Bush's visit to the British capital -- the Egyptian arm seemed to remain dormant. Critics were quick to point out that since last year's conference, very little, if anything, has been heard from the steering committee. The international anti-war movement, in fact, took on the lion's share of the work with regard to advancing the recommendations of the Cairo Declaration. Egyptian activists reluctantly admit their shortcomings, blaming them largely on "government repression".

"Demonstrations here were brutally suppressed," Sonallah Ibrahim, a prominent novelist involved in the second Cairo conference, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "Three students in Alexandria lost their eyesight because anti- riot police fired shotgun pellets at them." He also claimed that the police plant agents provacateurs among the demonstrators to incite them to what the police considers extreme action, thereby justifying heavy-handed counter-measures. This type of behaviour, he continued, resulted in a fire engine being set aflame during the anti- war demonstrations of March. Actions like this, he says, also affect future demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters were arrested throughout the year, the majority of whom had been involved in demonstrations on 20 and 21 March, which began just hours after the start of the Anglo- American invasion of Iraq. Local and international human rights groups, and anti-war organisations, condemned the security clampdown, demanding an open investigation into allegations that protesters had been tortured while in detention. But while detention periods remained brief, the security apparatus continues to show intolerance. In August, five activists were referred to an Emergency State Security Court for allegedly forming a clandestine communist organisation which intended to overthrow the government and replace it with a "hard- line communist" regime. Four of the defendants remain at large while the fifth, anti-war activist Ashraf Ibrahim, has been in jail since last April. The first court session has been scheduled for 16 December.

The second Cairo conference will focus on three main points: the imperial structure and global and domestic manifestations of hegemony; popular movements against capitalist globalisation; and imperialism and support of resistance in Iraq and Palestine. Morsy maintains that dictatorship is not far removed from imperialism. "Look at the regimes in the region or in Latin America. Who is supporting them?" she argues. "Who quashed the demonstrations on 20 and 21 March? The links are there, we don't make them. By focussing on imperialism during the conference, we are looking at the source from which all this is being generated."

Organisers say that more Arab activists than last year will participate in the upcoming event. International activists expected to attend include veteran British politician Tony Benn; British MP Jeremy Corbyn; and Walden Bello, head of the Focus on the Global South Centre, or a representative. Dozens of anti-war and anti-globalisation groups such as Stop the War Coalition and ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) will be present as well. The final list of attendees will be confirmed by the beginning of next month.

"This conference is an attempt to reinvigorate the global popular movement," said Sonallah Ibrahim.

Unlike the first Cairo conference, which was funded by businessmen and held at a lavish five- star hotel, the event in December will be a low-budget affair with participants covering their own costs of attendance. According to Mamdouh Habashi, the conference's organiser, individuals, syndicates and organisations participating in the event are donating only small sums of money and international participants are paying for their own flights and accommodation.

"We really don't want funding from anybody. We're a group of independent activists with one objective, and funding has not constituted a problem at all. In fact we're receiving requests from activists from all around the world, including Asia and Iraq, to participate."

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