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Notes on the Cairo Conference
On page A37 of the December 19 Boston Globe I found a Reuters article under the understated headline, “Egypt Conference: Activists share their concerns about war.” I had just flown home from Cairo, from this very significant event organized by the Popular Egyptian Campaign to Resist U.S. Aggression on Iraq. So I was pleased to see it receive some coverage, if only in the back pages of the U.S. press. Speakers at the conference, held December 17-19 and involving over a thousand participants, ranged from the Muslim devout (many prefacing their remarks with the words, “In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate”) to the thoroughly secular. There were Marxists of various stripes as well as pacifists and at least one European who wanted to make his happiness with the fall of the Soviet Union crystal clear. Various faiths were represented, a particular welcome extended to Jews in attendance by an organizer in her introductory remarks. Prominent antiwar activists from the west, including former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark, former UN humanitarian director for Iraq Denis Halliday (from Ireland), and British MP George Gallaway; activists from Russia and Cuba, and delegates from Egypt, Palestine, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan and other Arab and Third World countries spoke against U.S. war plans, as well as “U.S. Globalization” and U.S. support for Israel. Legendary freedom fighter and former Algerian president Ahmad Ben Bella chaired the conference. Among the issues discussed was the need to organize greater resistance to war in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Some pointed out the incongruity of the fact that while organizers in Italy, Britain, and the U.S. itself have brought out hundreds of thousands opposed to an Iraq attack, the Arab “street” has been relatively quiescent. One speaker called for demonstrations of a million to take place in Damascas, Casablanca and Cairo. Gallaway urged Arab regimes themselves to organize their populations to powerfully protest U.S. action. But you see, this is precisely the problem. How can repressive regimes in the Arab (or broader Islamic) world that are either heavily dependent upon U.S. aid, or deathly afraid of U.S. attack if they should fail to keep the lid on anti-U.S. sentiment, tolerate, much less officially encourage, resistance to U.S. imperialism? Consider what happened in Pakistan. In the days after Sept. 11 Colin Powell phoned President Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and presented him a series of demands. These included the cutoff of Pakistani aid to the Taliban, provision of bases for U.S. military use, and prohibition of anti-U.S. street protests. In other words: “We demand that you deny the Pakistani people the rights of free assembly and free speech that the U.S. Constitution in theory guarantees the American people, insofar as the exercise of such rights might hamper our plans for war in your region.”
Musharraf agreed on all points, and thus the military dictator who had seized power in a coup condemned by the U.S. suddenly won “courageous statesman” status from the political and journalistic mainstream in the U.S. (As the bombing of Afghanistan began, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour reported that demonstrations in Pakistan “were smaller than expected,” failing to mention the fact that such demonstrations were illegal and participation in them punishable.) Statesman Musharraf’s task is to please the U.S. while retaining enough political distance from Washington to avoid uncontrollable street protests that might turn against his regime.
This is Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s challenge as well; ever since the Camp David Accords, Egypt has received two billion dollars in U.S. aid (that is, 2/3 the stated allotment to Israel) as its reward for making peace with Israel and opening diplomatic ties. Mubarak needs the money, so he plays ball for the most part, but he also has to deal with the Egyptian street. This was indicated by the relationship between Mubarak’s regime and the Cairo conference. The latter was organized by Egyptian academics and financed by local businessmen who believed that they had received a green light from government to hold the event. But on the weekend before it was supposed to convene, invited participants received an email from the organizing committee, indicating that the Egyptian government, in an “irreversible” decree, had cancelled the conference. The Sheraton Hotel backed out of an agreement to provide facilities. I was later informed that U.S. pressure had resulted in these decisions, but countervailing domestic and international pressure somehow put conference plans back on track. Within hours participants who had been told to seek refunds for their tickets were advised to arrive as earlier planned in Cairo.
Checking into the newly-selected hotel along the Nile, the day before the conference was to open, I asked about it at the desk. The clerks seemed clueless. I tried another hotel employee manning an information counter; he checked the computerized roster of hotel events and said there was no listing of a conference against U.S. aggression on Iraq. But he had heard something about it. “So it will happen tomorrow?” “Yes.” “It’s just a secret?” “Something like that.” Sure enough, the next morning there were beautiful glossy posters in the lobby announcing the meet, which went off without a hitch.
At the end of the conference the last speaker, after listing the businessmen who had financed the meeting, also dutifully thanked the Egyptian government for rescinding its ban and allowing it to happen. He didn’t, however, explain the details behind the flip-flop.
* * *
On December 18, the English-language Egyptian Gazette, provided to the hotel guests, headlined a Mubarak warning “against repercussions of striking Iraq on ME development.” It quoted him as saying that “there will be popular Arab and Islamic sympathy with the Iraqi people” in the event of a U.S. attack. But the next day the headline was “No tension in Egyptian-U.S. relations.” The article quoted the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Fayza Abul Naga. “Egyptian-U.S. relations are strong enough to allow leeway for mutual disagreements,” she stated. “The United States is a superpower whose priorities would normally differ from the priorities of a regional power like Egypt.” In other words, “We’ll understand if you do what you have to do, and trust that we’ll still have that strong relationship, and get the two billion a year, even if we don’t back you on this one. And maybe even if we allow some street protests against your war plans.”
According to Reuters, “several hundred people demonstrated outside the Qatari embassy in Cairo” three days later “to protest the West’s buildup to war and the U.S. presence in Arab states.” I understand there are more events planned. Surely Cairo could and should muster a million people. But if the warmongering cabal in Washington feels that Mubarak can’t muffle such people, then he’ll be on the wrong side (the side of evil) and likely targeted for regime change. Several at the conference matter-of-factly noted that possibility.
References to Gamal Abdul-Nasser, Egyptian leader from 1952-70, drew some of the loudest applause from the conference attendees. Ben Bella (leader of the Algerian independence movement from 1954 and president, 1962-65) was received with great warmth and enthusiasm. Why are these men—secular, leftist leaders—so popular? Because having taken on western imperialism, they are regarded as freedom fighters and symbols of Arab dignity. Few leaders in the Arab countries today hold such credentials. Without mass support from below, and obliged, in the face of a general U.S. assault on Arab independence and dignity unfolding daily, to yet insist “relations are strong despite disagreements,” how can they ever acquire such credentials?
* * *
Virtually all the Arab governments oppose, in words, a U.S. war on Iraq. But Donald Rumsfeld insists that “behind the scenes” many are in fact cooperating in clandestine ways. One would like to think this characterization is a product of a fevered imagination, of arrogant confidence that ultimately Third World elites must bend to the carrots and sticks he offers. But the confidence may prove well-founded, and the U.S. government may get the cooperation it needs from regional regimes to attack Iraq. Then the world will see the strength or weakness of the Arab street. I do not live on that street, and don’t know what to expect from it. But it seems to me that the powerful, who see geopolitics like a chess game, in which you move pieces around to capture and destroy your opponent, are incapable of grasping the fact that ordinary people enraged by injustice can (if properly organized) upset the board entirely. That is, the bosses don’t understand the power of the street. They don’t hang out in the street, and can’t respect or appreciate it. That’s probably a good thing because their ignorance (despite all their intelligence gathering) may cause them to miscalculate.
Imagine picking up a rook intending to checkmate the king on the chessboard, and just as you are pouncing triumphantly, the piece dissolves in mid-air. Imagine counting on puppet regimes, and suddenly finding them gone. You lose the game. Those playing this game of war on Iraq deserve to lose, and the pawns of the world, the potential victims and cannon-fodder of all nations, deserve to win in this International Campaign to Resist U.S. Aggression on Iraq.
GARY LEUPP is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program. He can be reached at: email@example.com