Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Dec. 29: American Embassy and Hunger Strike

Yesterday was an eventful day for MPT. The day started with an update of the ever-changing news and events here in Cairo. Following the meeting, MPT accompanied a couple of the Gaza Freedom March organizers to the American Embassy where they were to join other Americans in requesting a meeting with the embassy. Several other delegations have had successful meetings with their embassies, most notably the French. For several days, the French have camped out at their embassy and have been joined by their ambassador and embassy staff who have stood with them in solidarity. While not expecting the same reception, the team was not prepared for what it observed at the embassy.

After being turned away at two of the guarded entrances, team members arrived at the third entrance where they were joined by approximately 30 Americans. When access was denied, the Americans linked arms in groups of threes and marched to the gate where they held up their passports. Within a couple of minutes, one of the Americans was on the other side of the fence and on the ground. As she yelled for help, she was surrounded by a large group of Egyptian security personnel. MPT members decided that they would photograph and document the quickly-escalating situation. As a K-9 Unit arrived with leashed German Shepherds, MPT was able to document the situation although, at several points, they were warned not to photograph. A few minutes later, a large group of riot police arrived on the scene and barricaded those in front of the fence in a metal pen and then surrounded the Americans by forming a ring around the pen. The group then unfurled a colorful "Free Gaza" banner and began to sing.

Since this area is recessed and not too visible from the street, the team decided to continue observing from the sidewalk in front of the area where the Americans were being detained. Team members felt it was important both to see and be seen, and the sidewalk gave them a good vantage point. Almost immediately, they were ordered to move off the sidewalk by one of the security personnel who demanded that they reenter the recessed area and join the others who were being barricaded.

There were two other American women, including one who walks with a cane, who were seated on the sidewalk. Plainclothes security forces, led by a man named Mr. S., physically shoved one of the woman and shouted at her. As this occurred, MPT moved in between her and the men who were shoving her and, almost immediately, a police van arrived and two MPT members found themselves ringed and barricaded by a group of policemen.

Team members remained in this position for about two hours, and since their efforts to photograph the situation were physically thwarted, they decided to simply observed what was going on. It should be noted that while the woman with the cane was being treated roughly, a man in shirt and tie who appeared to be American or European simply looked on.

At one point, when his supervisor was not looking, one police officer hummed along when those in the large pen began singing "We Shall Overcome." The attitude of those in charge - both uniformed and plainclothes - was another matter, however. The team observed a young man who appeared to be of Arab ancestry shoved and screamed at by Mr. S. who then directed a group of security officers to pick the man up and hurl him to the ground. MPT members also saw a young woman of color dragging luggage behind her being shoved and pushed. When a group of people on the sidewalk positioned themselves between the woman and the authorities, they too were barricaded and encircled by police officers next to where MPT members were barricaded on the sidewalk.

After a couple of hours, people were still being penned, but the tenor of the earlier part of the morning was much calmer. When the other MPT members arrived, they were ordered away from the area where the others were being barricaded. Crossing the street, they were met by a group of plainclothes officials, including Mr. S., who screamed at the team and then roughly pushed one team member. Since it appeared that the situation was relatively calm outside the embassy, notwithstanding the number of law enforcement and government personnel milling around, the team negotiated a release, but left wondering why a desire to visit one's embassy would prompt such a response, especially when other internationals were graciously received by their embassies?

Later that afternoon, the entire team headed to the Egyptian Journalists Syndicate for a press conference announcing the GFM hunger strike, initiated by Holocaust survivor and human rights advocate, Hedy Epstein. Standing on the marble steps of the large building, Hedy gave a statement to the press and the world that people are fasting for an end to the siege of Gaza. There are over twenty people in Cairo fasting for an end to siege, including two members from the Michigan Peace Team. After the press conference, bright banners were unfurled and the chant "Let us go!" filled the air. Soon after that, the police set up barricades in front of the building, but the chanting continued. A reporter from the New York Times was present and an article about the hunger strike appeared in today's Times.

(left) among the fasters with our friend John Dear, SJ.

(below) Egyptian police at the press conference.

1 comment:

  1. Hi guys! Love and strength from stateside! I'm forwarding your updates to the #p2 progressives on Twitter. Let me know if you'd like anything specific flashed out to them. Sheri knows how to get to me. Cara Lynch