ACTIVISTS FROM the anti-war and 'anti-globalisation' movement joined forces with delegates from across the Arab world at a remarkable conference in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, in late December. The Egyptian government tried to ban it. Then it was forced to allow it to go ahead. The 1,000-strong demonstration that followed the conference was surrounded by riot police and armoured cars.
An activist handing out leaflets for the protest was arrested and tortured. It went ahead anyway and, like the conference, gained extensive coverage in the region's press and TV. The Cairo Sheraton cancelled the conference venue even as the 400 delegates were arriving. But as they reassembled in the Conrad hotel on the banks of the Nile there could be no greater contrast between the five-star guests and the ideas being voiced in the hotel's conference hall.
'There's been a report issued in the US,' said former United Nations (UN) humanitarian coordinator for Iraq Dr Hans von Sponeck, 'that every American spends 55 cents a day on soft drinks. Under the oil for food programme each Iraqi gets just 47 cents a day to live on.' Von Sponeck resigned after 32 years at the UN in protest at the sanctions policy. So did Denis Halliday, once the UN assistant secretary general heading the oil for food programme.
Halliday told the conference that Washington has accused Baghdad of 'material breaches' of the new UN resolution because it 'plans to undermine the work of inspections and the work of the Iraqi government. The United States doesn't want a peaceful solution. They want an excuse to go to war, to conquer Iraq and control its oil.'
Ashraf el-Bayoumi, an Egyptian professor and one of the conference organisers, said Washington was preparing to go about 'launching an attack on Iraq, occupying Iraq, usurping its natural resources, oil and otherwise, in order to continue being the sole superpower in the world'. Soheir Morsy, another of the conference's key organisers, made a powerful opening speech insisting on the connections between the economic strength of the major corporations and the drive to war.
This became a major theme of the conference and the central thread running through the Cairo Declaration issued at the end of the conference. There were delegates from across the Middle East, but the delegates from Egypt were the core of the event. They included socialists, academics and artists, some Islamic groups, and supporters of the political trends established by modern Egypt's founder Gamal Abdel Nasser.
These included MPs from the Egyptian parliament. There was also a powerful insistence that the conference should not simply be a talking shop. The illegal demonstration on the day following the conference was announced from the platform by the conference organisers. Many at the conference were also on the streets.
So were the international delegates. Speakers, lifted on the shoulders of demonstrators, spoke to the crowd confronting the riot police and armoured cars. George Galloway MP denounced both the Blair government and the corrupt puppet regimes across the Middle East.
Sara Flounders from the US called for solidarity with the action planned for the US on 18 January. Most impressively of all, the conference established the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq to organise anti-war activity and promote the Cairo Declaration.
The coordinating committee's president is Ahmed Ben Bella, leader of the great struggle for Algerian independence and the country's first president. Radical Ben Bella was a powerful radical voice at the conference. He urged that links be made with the 'anti-globalisation' movement that had so impressed him at November's European Social Forum in Florence, when one million marched against the war.
In coordinating committee meetings Ben Bella urged the Egyptian delegates to move swiftly and, even under illegal conditions, to organise anti-war demonstrations that would exceed the numbers on the streets of Europe.
The committee decided to attempt solidarity actions with both the US demonstrations on 18 January and the London and European demonstrations on 15 February. This is a vital political initiative that needs the support of everyone who is opposed to an attack on Iraq.
AHMED BEN Bella will be speaking at the Stop the War Coalition national conference on 11 January. The conference will take place in Camden Town Hall, central London, from 10am to 5pm. He will also give a talk in the evening after a showing of the classic film Battle of Algiers, which he commissioned, about the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria. For more information phone 020 7053 2155 or go to www.stopwar.org.uk
John Rees is the vice-president of the International Campaign Against Aggression on Iraq.