10 January, 2009

Civil disobedience in the police state

Around 100 Egyptian and foreign activists, accompanied by journalists and camera crews from several TV-channels, took part in a solidarity convoy to Rafah yesterday. It was organized by the Egyptian Popular Committee for Solidarity with the Palestinian People, in order to demand the complete opening of the Egyptian-Gaza border. Few expected that the convoy would actually reach the border, myself included. But through a clever use of civil disobedience the caravan of 2 buses almost reached el-Arish before being turned back. According to the organizers this is closer to Rafah than any solidarity convoy of this scale has reached since 2004.

The group of activists managed to force three checkpoints by staging sit-ins in the street, effectively blocking traffic and causing panic among the police as trailer trucks and minibuses lined up from both directions. At the fourth checkpoint however, about halfway between the Suez canal and el-Arish, state security officers was present. After forcing the reporters of two TV-channels to turn back to Cairo - for reasons that soon became obvious - they allowed the convoy the continue with a police escort. While many of the activists at this point felt they had won the battle and were about to enter el-Arish, this soon turned out to be a trap.

10-20 kilometers before el-Arish, in the middle of the desert, the road was blocked by 4 central security trucks and a small army of police in full riot gear, including some with rifles probably loaded with rubber bullets or tear gas. With no TV cameras or witnesses present, the activists feared (and rightly so) that they would be assaulted as soon as they stepped down from the bus. Some wanted to get out anyway, but the bus driver refused to stop or open the door. Shouting "I can't, I can't" he turned the bus around, clearly horrified by the scene and knowing he was risking as much as the activists - or more - despite having nothing do to with the convoy.

While most of the participants had expected to be turned back by the police and several have plenty of experience of being arrested at demonstrations, many were chocked by this show of force, and terrified by the prospect of being surrounded by riot police and plainclothes officers in the middle of the desert. And even those who would have preferred to try and at least make a symbolic stand in front of the bus feared this would only lead to the loss of all photo and movie material taken on the trip so far.

On the way back to Cairo the mood on the bus consisted of mixed feelings of achievement - for reaching further than previous convoys - and anger and frustration. "The thing that makes me most angry," leftist blogger and digital design artist Mohamed Gaber explained, "is the fact that we celebrate the return of Sinai [after the 1973 October war] as a great victory, but still it doesn't belong to the people."

Above: The troops stand ready to confront the dangerous peace activists.
Below: a truck driver coming from el-Arish pass the demonstration on a side road, showing his support by honking his horn and giving double thumbs up (presumably steering the truck with his feet!?)

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