THE OCCUPATIONS of Iraq and Palestine are provoking bitterness and unrest in the Middle East. This anger is directed against the US and local rulers who refuse to challenge Bush's imperialist project. That is the backdrop to the second Cairo conference against the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine, which will take place in Egypt on 13 and 14 December.
It is an opportunity for activists from the West and the Middle East to get together to exchange ideas and debate strategy. The Egyptian government tried to ban last year's conference but was forced to let it go ahead. Some 400 delegates attended, and joined a 1,000-strong demonstration through the capital.
Ashraf El Bayoumi is one of the organisers of the Cairo conference. He is a campaigner based in Egypt who was arrested recently for joining an anti-war protest. He spoke to Socialist Worker about the importance of the event.
How did the Cairo conference originate? Who took the initiative to launch it?
The idea emanated from my belief in the importance of Arab intellectuals and activists learning about activists in Europe and the biggest imperial power, the US.
The recent demonstrations have helped to break down myths about Europe, the US and the West. But having some of these people come to Cairo for the first conference was very important, as many Arab and Egyptian activists commented afterwards. It opened the way to networking with other activists. The conference came from the belief that imperialist globalisation has to be met with people's mobilisation.
Because I had lived in the US I knew many of the progressive movements and had participated on platforms with them during the first Gulf War in 1991. Having non-Arabs coming to speak is embarrassing for the Egyptian government and forces them to allow such meetings.
The people who participated from Egypt cover a wide spectrum of political views. They were mainly followers of Nasser's ideas, progressives and believers in socialism, as I am. But there were also Islamicists. For them it was a big eye-opener. It involved people who believe in social justice in general, and genuine peace.
What kind of discussions took place at the first Cairo conference?
The people who attended, especially those who were invited to speak, gave an anti-imperialist flavour to the conference. There were some professors and academics who were irritated by the injustice in Iraq and Palestine, like Thomas Nagy, a professor at George Washington University.
He exposed how the US government deliberately caused the water in Iraq to become infected and kept it infected by preventing Iraq from importing disinfectants.
This was one of the main causes of the deaths of at least 500,000 children in Iraq. That is the official figure quoted by Bellamy, the head of UNICEF. There were major people there from the UN, like Denis Halliday, who was the UN coordinator in Iraq, and Hans Von Sponeck.
They represented the voice against sanctions. Coming from non-Arabs, this came over with more objectivity. There were activists like George Galloway and John Rees from the Stop the War Coalition. There were also journalists and writers. Three individuals came from the Communist Party in Russia, plus a Cuban. There was also Christophe Aguiton from the ESF in Paris.
Ahmed Ben Bella became the chairman of the conference. He is a former president of Algeria and his name is linked organically with the Algerian Revolution against French settler colonialism. This meeting was very well attended in Cairo-perhaps the best attended meeting in the last five years. There were many Arabs from Lebanon, Syria and Iraq who attended.
There were pro-government and opposition Iraqis. This created some problems. I had to insist that Kurdish people and other opposition figures could speak.
What is set to happen at the conference in December?
This year things are different. First of all we don't have big funds. Last time we had £70,000 dollars given in air fares and hotel places by wealthy Egyptians. We announced their names so we couldn't be accused of taking money from the Iraqi government and so on.
This time people have to come at their own expense. We expect about 200 activists from Europe, which will create havoc with the Egyptian government. We don't know how they will react. There will be three basic papers-one related to internal issues and democracy, one related to globalisation, and one related to Iraq and Palestine. We have difficulties. The pace of action is slow.
Some people were lethargic after the defeat of Iraq, even though we predicted that there would be resistance. This element is reviving the movement everywhere. If there were no Iraqi resistance or Palestinian resistance things would be more quiet and much more to the liking of Bush, Blair, Mubarak and the Arab governments.
The two governments who benefit from this resistance are Syria and Iran because the resistance makes it less likely for them to be intimidated or attacked.
The war in Iraq has obviously had a big impact on people across the Middle East. Can you talk about reaction to the war in Egypt?
On 20 March after the war broke out we had 3,000 people in Tahrir Square (it means Freedom Square-really it is unfreedom square now). We, the organisers, were surprised and happy. But at 1pm we were stunned to see streets leading to the square filled with more demonstrators coming to the square! They were not organised people. They didn't belong to any political party. We were super-delighted.
The government were stunned. They started the brutality the next day. They blamed the demonstrators when a fire engine caught fire. We had a video showing that civilian-clothed security forces were behind it. Two members of parliament, and many of the people who demonstrated, were beaten. A few days later there was another demonstration planned.
It was a result of a court case challenging the system. The court said that the people not only have the right to demonstrate but also it is their duty. But the police and security prevented it and arrested perhaps 100, including me and my wife.
She and other women were released a couple of hours later, but the men stayed. I was in prison for two weeks. I am 69 years old. I have taught many physicians, scientists and pharmacists in Egypt. That is how Mubarak and his minister of the interior respect their professors and citizens in general.
What is happening in the movement in Egypt now?
People felt discouraged and disappointed by the collapse of Iraq. It took weeks to recover. The common person in the street was very sad. The people are very politicised-they are not well educated, but they are very aware. That is our strength. The resistance in Iraq and the continued resistance of the Palestinians are the reason for the revival of the opposition.
The resistance movement in Egypt is moving along. There are obstacles. We are far from having united, powerful opposition, but we are getting there. Things may take many years to develop but are not linear. If it was just linear we would wait hundreds of years. But it is not. They can develop suddenly. The resistance movement has many political currents.
Some people are exploiting it for their political ends, for example the Muslim Brotherhood. We also see the effects of a movement living under police oppression and intimidation with lack of finance. But the arrests of Egyptian activists energised the movement, as did the resistance in Iraq and your movements in Britain.
I will mention the post workers' strike to show the global connections. This is the core of the anti-globalisation movement. It is not simply dignity and wages of workers-it is also exposing the inequities and injustices of the capitalist system.
The intervention of British and US activists is welcome, but we oppose the interference of governments. They are liars. We are against our oppressive government. When I said that on television and publicly criticised Mubarak, I was arrested.
We refuse assistance from organisations funded abroad. These NGOs, under the umbrella of civil society, are tools of imperialism, whether they wish to be or not. This is not a conspiracy theory. If you look at the US funding agency called 'National Endowment Democracy' they say they were involved in covert operations in Eastern Europe. They mention CIA operations. They co-opt activists. I support civil rights, women's rights, etc, but not under the umbrella of the NGOs.
We want a dynamic, well organised, well connected international movement against imperialist globalisation. Step one was taken with the first Cairo conference. The second conference will help. It launches a process, not a one-shot affair. One has to look at it this way. We are learning from each other-not just being polite. That is very important.
More on Cairo
The Cairo conference will take place in central Cairo on the weekend of 13-14 December. All sessions will be translated into English. To register for the conference write to Cairo Conference, Stop the War Coalition, PO Box 3739, London E5 8EJ.