United against empire
As Washington ratchets up tension against both Iran and Syria, the Cairo fourth anti-war conference expressed its solidarity with the Iraqi and Palestinian resistance and threw its weight behind Tehran's right to possess nuclear weapons, reports Amira Howeidy
As Arab leaders didn't quite flock to the Sudanese capital this week to attend the18th Arab Summit, international and Arab activists in Cairo were winding up a vigorous anti-war conference that could not have contrasted more with the diplomatic stands being taken in Khartoum.
The fourth Cairo Conference, held from 23 to 26 March in the Downtown headquarters of the Press Syndicate, under the title 'With the resistance of Palestine and Iraq... Against Globalisation, Imperialism and Zionism,' was attended by Osama Hemdan, Hamas's senior political representative in Lebanon, who sat on the podium throughout the four days of the conference. He was joined by the group's Yemen representative Gamal Eissa, and later by Attallah Abul-Sabh, fresh from his appointment as the minister of culture in the Hamas government.
Meanwhile, in Khartoum, not a single member of the Hamas government could be present. According to Hamas leader Mohamed Nazzal, their attendance had been obstructed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah faction, who postponed the formation of the cabinet to coincide with the summit and thus prevent Hamas officials from attending.
So, while Hamas and other resistance or Islamic groups were absent from the Sudanese capital, despite their growing influence, the Cairo anti-war conference in its fourth year took on board regional developments, most notably the rise of Islamists, since the occupation of Iraq in 2003.
In the halls of the Egyptian Press Syndicate posters of Gamal Abdel-Nasser decorated walls and pillars. There was a brisk trade in anti-globalisation T-shirts, Arabic "resistance" songs on CDs featuring Fayrouz, Marcel Khalifa and Sheikh Imam, and images of Che Guevara. A few metres away, socialist activists displayed posters and publications. The attendance of dozens of representatives from Western anti- war and anti-globalisation groups completed the international gathering.
The presence of many members of the Muslim Brotherhood, including crowds of male and female university students, was striking not for its conspicuousness, but because it appeared to fit in harmoniously in what was an intensely Arab-Western leftist environment. And, both sides recognised it.
Speaking to the audience during Sunday's closing session Greek activist Petros Costantine, from Stop the War, said he was "very proud" to be sitting among so many activists and politicians, "especially from Hamas which, in Europe, is labeled a terrorist organisation".
"The real terrorists," he added, "are George Bush, Tony Blair and also my own president, Karolos Papoulias. They are the coalition of the willing who kill and loot Iraq. As a socialist it's very clear whose side I'm on."
The hall rocked with applause.
The consensus on the right of Palestinian and Iraqi resistance groups to fight for the liberation of their occupied lands was reiterated by speaker after speaker. It was unsurprising, therefore, that Hamas's Hemdan should have emerged as the conference's star. His talks were repeatedly interrupted by applause.
"We are still in the stage of national liberation in Palestine and we are employing various tools for that purpose," he said. "Despite our electoral gains, let me assure everyone that the philosophy of resistance is still there and we will not allow the government to abort the resistance project."
Speaking about Hamas's obstacle-strewn road to forming a cabinet and international and Arab pressure on its leaders to recognise Israel and abandon armed resistance, Hemdan said: "It's about time [Arab governments] admitted that the peace process was a failure. And it is about time we talked about Arab rights."
Hemdan was among several speakers to address the "new realities" on the ground. Terrorism, resistance, aggression, the will of the international community and globalisation were all terms, he said, that needed to be redefined.
"As it stands today, when the Iraqi people resist the occupation they are labeled terrorists, but when the US-led occupation kills 150,000 Iraqis it is viewed as an attempt to spread peace and prosperity. When we in Palestine defend ourselves and resist the occupation we are also terrorists, but when Israel kills innocent citizens, demolishes their houses, steals their land and transforms entire towns into prisons Israel continues to be viewed as a victim."
His speech was met with another long round of applause.
Hemdan called on the conference to "defend" the resistance and relay the message in Europe.
For William Cook, an anti-war activist and professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California, such redefinitions are equally important for the American people who, he said, "do not understand the truth of what is happening in Palestine and in Iraq". It is Hamas's duty, he said, to expose Israel to the world "and call its bluff".
Solidarity with Iran was no less intensely felt, and US threats against Iran occupied the second half of the discussions as speakers, especially Western activists, called on the anti-war movement to place Iran high on its agenda. They agreed that in the event of a US strike against Iran the international anti-war movement would take to the streets in mass demonstrations.
One participant, who described himself only as an "Egyptian citizen", zealously argued that "although Iran doesn't have them we support its possession of nuclear weapons. The Arabs as well should have nuclear weapons to defend themselves from Israel's nuclear warheads."
British Trotskyist John Rose's brief talk on deliberate attempts to inflame sectarian tension in Iraq also met with much applause
"Since when did the Western media pay attention to 'Sunni' and 'Shia' affiliations?" he asked. Rose, of Jewish descent and the author of The Myths of Zionism, added that he would not at all be surprised if American forces were behind the massive explosion of the Samaraa Shia shrine in Iraq last month.
An exercise in preaching to the converted? Not as far as many participants were concerned. For them, the Cairo Conference has become more than a platform to vent their anger. It has evolved, they say, into a crucial meeting not only between North and South, but between a wide array of political movements and ideologies which had little in common before they were united by the American imperial project.
Hamas's Islamists, often the stars of the Cairo Conference, have also moved on, said Essam Noaman, a pan-Arab former Lebanese MP and minister. "Today the Islamists are the 'neo-nationalists'. They are Islamists and nationalists at the same time."
"We are very keen on interacting with the international anti-war movement," Hemdan told Al-Ahram Weekly. "We are all together in this as we struggle against American hegemony, and maybe our European friends from the anti- war movement can help us in our cause and relay our message better than we can ourselves."
The conference's communiqué expressed full solidarity with the Iraqi and Palestinian resistance and the Syrian and Iranian regimes and urged the boycott of US and British products.