Gaza Freedom March update, Tuesday 29 December 2009
Guest post Sayed Dhansay, 29 December 2009
The Gaza Freedom March was thrown into disarray today after a surprise announcement by the Egyptian government that it would allow 100 march participants to travel to the Gaza Strip early on Wednesday morning. The decision was reportedly as a result of a direct request from Egyptian first lady Suzanne Mubarak to the Egyptian foreign ministry following intense lobbying by marchers and organizers over the last three days.
Organisers had two hours within which to accept or decline the offer, and the impossible task of deciding which 100 delegates to send. The quota amounts to a mere 7% of the more than 1,300 people who are registered for the march. After consultation with local organizers in the besieged Gaza Strip, the international steering committee decided that sending 100 delegates as a symbolic show of support was better than having nobody arrive in Gaza.
Due to time constraints, march organizers compiled a list of proposed delegates with each country being alotted roughly two places. Because marchers are dispersed across Cairo at various ongoing protest actions, these developments were only communicated to the representatives of each country’s delegation at an emergency meeting called on Tuesday night.
This meeting soon descended into a heated debate. Several marchers were enraged that a decision of this magnitude had been taken unilaterally by organisers. Many felt that this move compromised the unity of the international delegation by excluding more than 1,200 registered participants. Adding to the tension was the near-impossible task of deciding who would go and who would remain behind.
The intensive and at times emotionally charged discussion, which lasted several hours, saw the attendees split into two main opposing camps. Some were of the opinion that a small representative delegation of this nature was an important “victory” against Egyptian government policy vis-á-vis the Rafah crossing. They also argued that it was vitally important to have an international presence inside the Gaza Strip during the planned march on 31 December as a show of support to Palestinians, despite this delegation being a fraction of the originally planned size.
The opposing view, which seemed to be the dominant feeling amongst most countries represented at the meeting, was that the decision to compromise was a grave mistake. Proponents of this view argued that they had come “not to send another symbolic aid delegation to Gaza, but rather to break the siege en mass and challenge the policy in the region with respect to Gaza’s isolation.”
This group feared that by endorsing the 100-person quota, they would play directly into the Egyptian government’s hands, affording them much needed positive publicity in the international media, whilst a longterm change in policy regarding the closure of Rafah would be left unchallenged. “This just gives the Egyptian government a photo-op and the chance to say we allowed people through,” said Bassem Omar, a Canadian delegate.
Many here see this as merely an attempt by the Egyptian government to save face in the international community while the country is in the media spotlight and under global political pressure to allow the march to proceed.
After a chaotic few hours of wrangling with these issues, the group split up into their various national delegations and affinity groups to decide amongst themselves whether they would accept the offer and participate in the 100-person convoy. At the time of writing, the Canadian, South African and Swedish national delegations had decided not to participate as they felt that this approach undermined the very purpose of the march.
A spokesperson from the French delegation also slammed the idea as “divisive” and said that the sit-in at the French embassy would continue instead. Activists who remain in Cairo are planning to continue their protest action at several venues across the city, culminating in a single mass mobilisation planned for 31 December in direct contravention of a ban on large gatherings imposed by Egyptian police.