‘There have been massive spontaneous demonstrations throughout the Middle East over the last ten days. Around 15,000 people protested in the city of Alexandria in Egypt on Sunday. There have been regular clashes with the police.
‘Demonstrators took over Tahrir, the main square in the capital, Cairo. This is close to the British and Israeli embassies. Things are exploding every day. The Arab regimes are meeting the movement with massive repression.
‘In Jordan there are similar huge protests every day. Again, there is severe repression. Bahrain is ruled over by pro-US Sunni Muslims. The majority of people are Shia Muslims, like those in the south of Iraq.
‘They are organising protests against war. People are running out of control. Schoolchildren are fighting running battles with the police. In Lebanon we have been running a successful anti-war campaign involving independent left wing groups. We have been able to pull off big demonstrations for the left.
‘The big question in the Middle East is, ‘What attitude do you take to the Arab regimes?’ We say they must tumble.
‘Because of this we are being repressed by an alliance of the state and the major political parties. No one expected the Iraqi resistance. People are saying, ‘If Iraqis under Saddam Hussein fight back, then why can’t we?’ The Lebanese state is in a panic. It raided a number of gay clubs last Saturday. One of the most striking things about the protests in Lebanon are the big gay contingents on them.
‘Usually, the repression means that things calm down. This time they haven’t. Things are hotting up. In the Middle East people don’t go on demonstrations unless they feel that they can influence events directly. We face beatings, shootings, arrest and torture. This was what happened when hundreds of thousands took to the streets against the Israeli offensive against the Palestinians last April.
‘Before the war everybody was shamed that more people protested in Tel Aviv in Israel than in Cairo. The Arab street hadn’t moved. Now it has. The rage is incredible. The starting point was the events at the Iraqi port of Umm Qasr. When Iraqi people fought back against the US invasion it was the trigger for an explosion. Umm Qasr changed everything. Everyone felt it would be a short war. Now people are flooding through Syria to join up to fight the US. People feel Iraq can win.
‘Older fighters are talking about Umm Qasr as being like the battle at Karameh in 1968 when the Palestinian resistance against Israel won a great victory and inspired the struggle. People in the Middle East think the war is now a stalemate. This has created an opportunity for people.
‘Around 40 of us stormed the Kuwaiti Embassy to protest against its support for war. We were beaten up. But that is the mood – you can’t hold people back. I was on a 50,000-strong demonstration in Beirut on Tuesday of last week. The Hezbollah Islamicists and Socialist Party youth groups broke away to head for the British Embassy. The stewards tried to stop them but they couldn’t. There are very few pictures of Saddam Hussein on the demonstrations. All the chants are about the Iraqi people.
‘There has been a resurgence of Arab nationalism. This is not something felt by the Arab leaders. It is the street mood. I was with a group of young communist Shia when they heard about the Umm Qasr resistance.
‘I had previously argued with them that the US wouldn’t liberate Iraq. Now they ran around the room shouting, ‘The Shia. The Shia. We knew they’d fight back’.’
‘Robert Fisk in the Independent put it brutally: ‘One million people demonstrate in London, while the Arabs, faced with disaster, are like mice.’ Even before it appeared in translation in one of the opposition papers, Fisk’s article was picked up on with almost masochistic relish and forwarded by e-mail.
This was testimony perhaps to the profound effect the day had on popular consciousness in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. Not only was the perceived confrontation between Arabs and Muslims on one hand and a monolithic West on the other proved absurd, but Western Christians and atheists were defending an Arab cause much better than the Arabs themselves could hope to do.
On day one of the invasion, thousands of protestors collected in Tahrir Square, in Cairo. ‘It’s like Hyde Park,’ was the common refrain. Whatever the course of the war in the coming days or weeks, for the moment the Arab masses have two things going for them: they are not mice and they are not alone.’ HANI SHUKRALLAH, editor of the Cairo Al Ahram weekly, about the impact of anti-war protests in Britain on the Middle East
‘More anti-war protests have rocked the regime in Egypt. Despite intense repression, tens of thousands of people continue to take to the streets of Cairo. There have been demonstrations in many smaller cities. The regime is uncertain how to react to the movement. It is still reeling from the events of 20 March when protesters took over the centre of Cairo.
‘Tahrir Square – a huge space near the River Nile – was occupied for hours. Many of those who had watched TV coverage of demonstrations in London declared that Tahrir had become Cairo’s ‘Hyde Park’. The slogans raised in Tahrir have been heard all over Egypt: ‘Down with the USA – we won’t be ruled by the CIA’; ‘Down Bush, down Blair, down Aznar’; ‘Why are the Arab leaders silent?’
‘The head of the Egyptian Lawyers’ Association, Sameh Ashour, said that the authorities had never seen anything like it: ‘The police are obviously in shock.’ Since 20 March there have been widespread arrests – at one point over 1,500 were being held.
‘According to Ashour the clampdown reflects ‘the government’s fear of the power of the people, as well as America’s fear of this same power’. Despite the repression 50,000 people marched again last Friday. Older activists have been stunned by the huge turnouts – and by the fact that demonstrators include many workers and poor people. There are also many more women than on earlier, smaller protests.
‘The government is attempting to control events by allowing certain demonstrations like those led by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has promised only to raise slogans against the US and Britain, not against the Mubarak regime. But every day people are more angry and bitter about the invasion of Iraq. They have also had a taste of freedom in the streets. We believe that this movement has only just begun.’
Mohamed Ahmed, Cairo
An opinion poll by the Arab-American Institute and Zogby International found
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