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.