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Cairo Conference: Middle Eastern Promise

News Article by Anne Ashford, January 2004

The Cairo conference brought to a close a momentous year for the global anti-war movement. Over 1,000 activists from Europe, North America and around the Middle East met on 13 and 14 December at the Egyptian Journalists' Union headquarters to debate strategies for building worldwide resistance to imperialism and globalisation.

Egyptian campaigners told how thousands of protesters took over central Cairo on the first day of war against Iraq. British trade unionists spoke about building the local Stop the War Coalition groups which mobilised millions on 15 February. US activists described launching a mass movement to bring the troops home.

Anti-war MP George Galloway, Tony Benn, Salma Yaqoob from Birmingham Stop the War Coalition, and former US attorney-general Ramsey Clark were among the international speakers. Prominent Egyptian campaigners taking part included Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahy, Galal Aref, head of the Egyptian Journalists' Union, and Ma'mun al-Hodeiby, leader of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim and human rights activist Aida Seif-al-Dawla were among the conference organisers.

For many in Egypt Sonallah Ibrahim in particular has come to symbolise a new mood of defiance. In October he turned down Egypt's Novelist of the Year award live on television in front of the minister of culture, telling the audience that the repressive Egyptian government 'did not have the credibility to award it'. He attacked Arab governments for their 'collaboration' with the US's occupation of Iraq and the Israeli government's crimes against the Palestinians.

Sonallah Ibrahim's personal challenge to the authority of the state reflects the growth of a wider protest movement. The huge demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq on 20 and 21 March pulled thousands onto the streets in spontaneous protest. Most of those taking part were simply ordinary people enraged by the assault on Iraq, but the presence of organised networks of activists at the heart of the protests has meant that despite ferocious repression the anti-war movement today is broader than it has ever been.

However, as the stormy debates at the conference demonstrated, this fragile unity has not been easily won. The presence of Muslim Brotherhood leader Ma'mun al-Hodeiby brought a large number of Islamist activists into the conference. The Muslim Brotherhood, although officially banned, is by far Egypt's largest opposition organisation. The funeral of the group's previous leader last year filled the streets of Cairo with hundreds of thousands of mourners. But some delegates were critical of the Muslim Brotherhood's cooperation with the government in a series of stage-managed anti-war rallies held before the invasion of Iraq.

Salma Yaqoob from Birmingham Stop the War Coalition challenged both sides of the movement to find ways of working together more closely. Socialists, nationalists and Islamists should look for common ground against a common enemy, she argued. Muslim women who choose to wear the hijab should not be attacked by the left in the name of defending women's rights, while Islamists should recognise that women have the right to choose whether to wear the veil or not, she said.

The relationship between the movement and the state also provoked sharp debate after an electrifying call by a member of the Revolutionary Socialists group, for 'a world without Bush, Blair, Sharon and Mubarak'. The sharp intake of breath around the packed auditorium showed clearly that for some a direct challenge to the state was a step too far. But the loud cheers which followed his speech demonstrated that many others supported his call. Despite attempts by the government to crush the anti-war movement - five socialist activists are currently standing trial on charges of contacting international human rights groups and attempting to overthrow the state - many activists argue that the only way to push the boundaries of the movement further is by bringing the fight back home to the Egyptian government.

And on several levels the Egyptian ruling class is under increasing pressure from below. Egypt's rapidly worsening economic situation is driving millions of people further into debt. Prices are rising, and the Egyptian pound has halved in value in less than two years. At the same time, the ageing president Mubarak is attempting to speed up a process of reform within the ruling party which will allow his son, Gamal, to take the reins of power. This has deepened splits within the ruling class between an 'old guard' of ministers and bureaucrats, and Mubarak's closest supporters, who hope to rebuild confidence in the ruling party by presenting the president's son as a reformer. Nasserist MP Hamdeen Sabahy spoke for many when he told the conference that 'we must oppose the inheritance of power'. As a rallying call which links anger at corruption and economic crisis with opposition to the Egyptian government's support for US imperialism, the campaign against Gamal Mubarak has the potential to forge a powerful movement.

The final sessions showed how far the movement has come in the past year - delegates agreed a strong statement against imperialism and capitalism, despite differences which could have split the conference. During sharp debates over the capture of Saddam Hussein some activists argued that the conference should take a stand in support of the Iraqi leader, while others attacked him as a Ceausescu-like dictator. It was Sonallah Ibrahim who reminded activists, to loud applause, what the real issues were: 'The key question is - are we with the resistance in Iraq or not? Are we with the resistance in Palestine or not?'

John Rees from the Stop the War Coalition in Britain summed up the mood of many when he told the conference that, despite the media frenzy around the capture of Saddam Hussein, 'it is our movement which is the real story'. The links which have been forged in Cairo are helping to knit the global anti-war movement closer together, and build a resistance which takes its strength from below.

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