Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

Peace forum breaks Middle East’s spell of fear

After decades of silence, over 1,200 dissidents and activists from across the Arab world found their voice at Cairo's anti-war forum in December 2003.

February 1, 2004
3 min read

In keeping with Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s increasingly jittery attitude to any criticism, the conference was surrounded by riot police, but this did not quell the debate inside. When told by the chair to keep his contribution to two minutes, one Egyptian delegate replied: “I have waited over 30 years for this opportunity to speak. I will not be silenced now.”

The meetings, which drew intellectuals, trade unionists and activists from Morocco to Syria, were often stormy. There are three traditions within the Arab world: nationalist, Islamist and leftist; and years of defeat and repression have bequeathed a legacy of distrust and rancour between them. But in the conference hall of the Egyptian Journalists” Institute, these three currents forged a united opposition to US and Israeli aggression. Whether this unity will last is another question.

Divisions surfaced when Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood refused to support a call by Salma Yaqoob of the Birmingham Stop the War Coalition for Islam to give women the right to choose whether to wear the veil. But surprisingly, a motion to put anti-capitalism and the struggle for democracy at the heart of the burgeoning new movement was won easily by the left. More contentious was a debate on how far criticisms of the resistance in Iraq and Palestine could be raised.

One defining moment came when several British anti-Zionist Jews won an argument for the conference to refer to supporters of Israel as “Zionists”, not “the Jews”. In a country where “Jewish conspiracy” theories are rife, an acceptance that not all Jews are Zionists was a major advance. However, an attempt to endorse Israeli pilots and soldiers who refused to suppress the intifada was a step too far for many. Notably, though, it was supported by the Palestinian and Lebanese delegations – the people directly under threat.

Events outside the conference hall informed the debate within. As the conference opened, the socialist activist Ashraf Ibrahim was being tried at a military court for his role in organising the “Tahrir Square intifada”. Tahrir is Cairo’s central square, and as the war in Iraq began in March thousands of Egyptians gathered there to defy the martial law in place since the assassination of Anwar al-Sadat in 1981 and demand the downfall of the Mubarak regime. The protest ended in running battles with security forces, and Ashraf is facing treason charges and a possible life sentence if convicted. The stakes are high for activists in the Middle East.


Meet the frontline activists facing down the global mining industry
Activists are defending land, life and water from the global mining industry. Tatiana Garavito, Sebastian Ordoñez and Hannibal Rhoades investigate.

Transition or succession? Zimbabwe’s future looks uncertain
The fall of Mugabe doesn't necessarily spell freedom for the people of Zimbabwe, writes Farai Maguwu

Don’t let Corbyn’s opponents sneak onto the Labour NEC
Labour’s powerful governing body is being targeted by forces that still want to strangle Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, writes Alex Nunns

Labour Party laws are being used to quash dissent
Richard Kuper writes that Labour's authorities are more concerned with suppressing pro-Palestine activism than with actually tackling antisemitism

Catalan independence is not just ‘nationalism’ – it’s a rebellion against nationalism
Ignasi Bernat and David Whyte argue that Catalonia's independence movement is driven by solidarity – and resistance to far-right Spanish nationalists

Tabloids do not represent the working class
The tabloid press claims to be an authentic voice of the working class - but it's run by and for the elites, writes Matt Thompson

As London City Airport turns 30, let’s imagine a world without it
London City Airport has faced resistance for its entire lifetime, writes Ali Tamlit – and some day soon we will win

The first world war sowed the seeds of the Russian revolution
An excerpt from 'October', China Mieville's book revisiting the story of the Russian Revolution

Academies run ‘on the basis of fear’
Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) was described in a damning report as an organisation run 'on the basis of fear'. Jon Trickett MP examines an education system in crisis.

‘There is no turning back to a time when there wasn’t migration to Britain’
David Renton reviews the Migration Museum's latest exhibition

#MeToo is necessary – but I’m sick of having to prove my humanity
Women are expected to reveal personal trauma to be taken seriously, writes Eleanor Penny