Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 May 2009
Issue No. 947
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cairo's anti-war obituary

The seventh Cairo anti-war conference has been cancelled after being denied access to a venue, reports Amira Howeidy

Egyptian, Arab and international anti-war and anti- imperialist activists from across the globe were due to start the seventh Cairo anti-war conference today.

The four-day conference was first held in 2002, ahead of the war on Iraq, since when it evolved into an annual event, a meeting point for activists from the north and south. Despite organisational hiccups the Cairo anti-war conference remained, in the words of socialist activist Wael Khalil, the one event that foregrounded an anti-imperialist position in a region where imperialism is rampant.

All that's history now. The conference organisers announced this week that the event has been cancelled "due to state persecution". Conference coordinator Mohamed Sami says the Press Syndicate -- which has been the event's venue since 2003 -- refused to hire out its conference rooms. The organisers were subsequently turned down by every other syndicate they approached forcing them to cancel this year's conference. "It's a clear political message," says Sami.

Press Syndicate Chairman Makram Mohamed Ahmed -- who was elected in December 2007 and allowed the 2008 Cairo conference to take place -- said this time round he had qualms over the event's "politics".

"I won't allow any political movement to use the Press Syndicate as a platform," Ahmed told Al-Ahram Weekly, "even if it's the [ruling] National Democratic Party."

In recent years the Cairo anti-war conference has attracted many members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Since assuming the post of the movement's supreme guide in 2004 Mahdi Akef has addressed the conference's opening every year. The event also drew in high ranking Hamas leaders and later, Hizbullah representatives.

"Where else," British Trotskyist John Rees remarked of the conference in 2007, "can you sit down in a single evening and listen to senior people from Hamas, Hizbullah, the Muslim Brotherhood, people from the revolutionary left and the anti-war movement from around the globe?"

According to Sami, the Press Syndicate chairman told the conference organisers that he would not tolerate the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood, though this is unlikely to be the sole reason for what in effect is a ban on the event.

"It is part of an overall clampdown on political activism," argues Sami. "Public demonstrations are banned and activists are never allowed to gather in public places in Cairo."

Ali Abdel-Fatah, the Brotherhood's anti-war conference coordinator, offers a different reading, linking the ban to Cairo's "tense" relations with Hizbullah and Hamas.

"This is the year of the resistance, certainly after Gaza withstood the Israeli war. Uncovering the Hizbullah cell in Egypt was an attempt by the authorities here to halt support for these two resistance movements."

The first Cairo conference, held in 2002 in a five-star hotel, focussed on the run up to the war on Iraq with high-profile attendees such as former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Hans von Sponeck, former Algerian president Ahmed Ben Bella, British MP George Galloway and former British cabinet minister Tony Benn. Iraq continued to be the focus of the 2003 conference. The third Cairo anti-war round was held in 2005, with a broader agenda that argued the liberation of Iraq and Palestine should start with changing undemocratic regimes in the Arab world. In the years that followed the issue of democracy and local politics continued to be part of the forum, attracting international activists from across the globe. This cross-continent networking resulted in coordinated demonstrations and protests among activists, a phenomenon that became evident before and after the Iraq war. As the agenda shifted to wider but related issues, anti-war and human rights activists protested in front of the Egyptian embassy in Seoul in June 2005, chanting Kifaya, the domestic political slogan of the Kifaya (Enough) group.

Despite its success in delivering its anti-war message the conference provoked criticism even from its organisers as it failed to work out a mechanism for its evolvement. Year after year the conference's sessions were dominated by grandstanding speeches that left no room for discussion. And because a diverse group of political movements were involved in the organisation there was actually very little organisation going on. Now that it's been cancelled some are wondering if the event has lost not only its spark but any point at all.

Rabab El-Mahdi, a socialist activist involved in the conference's planning and organisation, says "the conference has been at a low point since 2004."

She points out, nonetheless, that "all social movements go through ups and downs and it remains crucial to sustain the event."

This year's theme was going to be the Palestinian Nakba (marking Israel's founding on Palestinian land on 15 May 1948). It was an especially compelling focus after the destructive Israeli war on Gaza earlier this year. Banning the conference thus comes at a time when the "resistance rhetoric is at odds with the sovereignty discourse that is taking place in Egypt" argues El-Mahdi, referring to critical coverage by the state run-media of Hizbullah and Hamas. The former is accused of running a cell in Egypt to aid the Palestinians and the latter of smuggling through underground tunnels in Rafah. Both were painted by the media as violating Egypt's sovereignty.

British activist John Rees of the Stop the War Coalition, who has attended the conference annually, is coming to Cairo nonetheless. Dozens of activists from Italy, Denmark, the UK and Iraq are doing the same. The Socialist Studies Centre will host them for a one day seminar on the Nakba.

"It's a very difficult moment for the anti-war movement and the democratic movement in Egypt," Rees told the Weekly. "The Cairo conference became a focal point for activists from the West and the Middle East, which made it unique."

While the Egyptian organisers are hoping that next year the conference will resume Rees, who shares the same hope "and determination", is still looking at Beirut as an alternative venue.

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