(Because most conference participants face repressive conditions in their homelands, individual’s names are omitted from this report. — JR)
A New Pole of Anti-Imperialist Leadership
CAIRO, EGYPT — More than 1,500 activists from the Middle East and around the world met in Cairo, March 29-April 1, under the banner “Towards an International Alliance against Imperialism and Zionism.” The conference — the fifth held in Cairo since 2002 by the International Campaign against U.S. and Zionist Occupation — brought together Islamic, nationalist, and socialist forces from the region, together with delegates from anti-war coalitions in Canada, Korea, Venezuela, and many countries of Europe.
The conference revealed increased cohesion among these currents in the struggle against both imperialist aggression and the dictatorial pro-U.S. regimes in the Middle East.
The success of the Cairo conference is an encouraging sign that a new pole of international leadership in anti-imperialist struggle may be emerging in the Middle East — analogous to what we see arising in Latin America under the impulse of Venezuela and Cuba. Socialists need to strengthen their ties of solidarity with these vanguard fighters in the Middle East.
Four Steps Forward
Opening the conference, the head of a major Egyptian union commented, “This year has written the death sentence for the U.S. project in the region.” This optimism was widely shared among delegates, who drew confidence from four major setbacks to imperialism in the region during the past year:
- During last year’s July war, the Lebanese revolutionary movement Hizbullah dealt a stinging setback to Israel’s invasion army.
- After the victory of Hamas in the January 2006 parliamentary elections, Palestinians have successfully withstood efforts by Israel and imperialist powers to blockade and starve them into submission.
- The resistance movement in Iraq has held firm against the U.S. and other occupation forces. In the words of the conference declaration, it has “pushed the U.S. into a hopeless swamp.”
- In the face of intense repression, the Egyptian people repudiated dictator Hosni Mubarek’s moves to further diminish democratic rights by abstaining in his March referendum in a proportion variously estimated at 73% (the government) or 95% (independent observers). This victory coincides with a continuing wave of militant strikes and peasant resistance.
Egypt: United Resistance
For the Egyptian oppositionists who made up the majority of those present, attending the conference was an act of defiance against the country’s pro-U.S. dictatorship. “We see growing national rejection of the corrupt regime,” the conference chair told delegates. “The countdown has begun.”
The coalition of democratic forces that led the recent abstention campaign in Egypt — Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, secular nationalists in the tradition of former president Gamal Abdul Nasser, and socialists — also joined in calling and organizing the conference. The conference debates revealed mutual respect among these currents and broad agreement on their common political course.
Among delegates from other countries, the most authoritative voices were those of Hizbullah and Hamas. The Egyptian government blocked delegates from Iran and Iraq from attending, but delegations were present from a half-dozen other Middle Eastern countries and a similar number of countries in Europe. Delegates also came from India and Venezuela.
The Canadian delegation of 20 was among the largest, but it was overshadowed by a youthful, energetic, outgoing, and extremely well-organized contingent of 75 sent by the South Korean anti-war and anti-imperialist organization All Together.
The conference was organized simultaneously with the Third Cairo Social Forum, which featured discussions with worker, peasant, student, and women activists, in a large downtown union headquarters. Plenary took place alongside many panel sessions. Discussions were in Arabic, English, and, occasionally, Korean; simultaneous translation between Arabic and English was professional and effective.
For Egyptian activists, whose events are routinely banned or attacked by police, this was a rare opportunity to speak their minds freely, and the conference was imbued by their joy, optimism, and enthusiasm. Outside the crowded meeting halls, literature stands of different groups were arrayed in a foyer that was usually filled by several hundred participants in intense discussion. Again and again I was approached by young Egyptian delegates, eager to find out who I was, to talk of their experiences, and to exchange information.
The Muslim Brotherhood
The Egyptian groups utilized the conference to build defense for the 40 Muslim Brotherhood supporters now facing trial before military tribunals for their dissident views. Brotherhood members made up the majority of the younger delegates, and young women were very numerous among them.
Among the Egyptian currents, the Brotherhood is the main target of Mubarek’s heightened repression, which aims to drive its 88 representatives out of parliament. The Brotherhood enjoys mass support among Egyptian working people and would be odds-on favorite to win a free election.
But the Brotherhood’s proclaimed goals reach beyond forming a government. “Not a single political, religious, social, or cultural group should be excluded from Egypt’s political life,” the Brotherhood’s jailed vice-president has written. “The objective must be to end the monopoly of government by a single party and boost popular engagement in political activity.”
In the opening session, a central leader of the Brotherhood called on conference participants to apply this inclusive approach to resistance on a world scale. He denounced the U.S. “military-industrial complex and the capitalist elite” that profit “at the expense of the poor in America and all over the world.” The conference “proves that we can reach a common agenda,” he said. But “a mere meeting is not enough; we should develop our common action” as part of a “popular transnational coalition.”
The conference declaration points out that, in the Middle East, resistance against “U.S. and Zionist colonialism” is inseparable from the “struggle against despotism” in the Arab countries. A leader of Egypt’s secular nationalist Karama Party said there is a “real axis of evil” in the Middle East, consisting of “Egypt, Jordan, and Arabia, which promote the imperialist project.” She stressed that “we must all fight against our own governments.”
Inclusive Social Vision
Spokespersons of different currents stressed their inclusive vision of Middle Eastern society. “We stand together with Christians and Jews — this was decided by Islam 1,500 years ago,” said a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood of Sudan. The Egyptian Brotherhood distributed their program, which calls for partnership with the country’s sizeable Christian minority and respect for their beliefs and worship. Many speakers stressed that they held no antagonism against Jewish people. “We are not against Jews but against Zionism,” said an Egyptian leader of anti-Zionist work. “And there are many who are Zionists but not Jews, like George Bush and most of the Arab leaders.”
Close to 150 participants crowded into a panel discussion of Jews and Zionism. Drawing on material in his new book, The Myths of Zionism, British socialist John Rose reviewed the historic harmony of Jewish and Muslim communities in the Middle East; an Egyptian scholar presented the views of Jewish Marxist Abram Leon (The Jewish Question); and Suzanne Weiss from Canada discussed the holocaust and defense of the Palestinians (see “The Holocaust and
Defense of the Palestinians,” Socialist Voice 111, 3 February 2007).
Another crowded panel, where delegates presented their experience in combating Islamophobia, was summed up by a Canadian delegate: “It is not enough to defend civil rights; we have to defend religious freedoms. For us secularism means defending the maximum of religious freedom especially for minorities.”
Addressing a plenary session, a central leader of Hizbullah said that “Islamic movements must apply democracy,” which he described as “the bridge to a better world in the Arab region.” The state, he insisted, must be religiously neutral. “The government may be Islamic, but society must be open to all points of view. As the Koran states, we cannot force religion on people.”
The Hizbullah leader criticized some Islamic groups who consider everyone outside — even other Islamic groups — to be the enemy. “They will therefore fail,” he said. But Hizbullah and Hamas “have no problems collaborating with the left,” he said, pointing to Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci‘s insistence on broad popular unity. “The work against imperialism cannot be carried out by just one current.”
Nor did Islamic delegates see any iron wall between their aspirations and those of anti-capitalist movements. A delegate from the Muslim Brotherhood of Sudan, recalling his country’s Cold War-era alignment with socialist movements, added, “When the Soviet Union fell, the principles remained: freedom and equality, embraced by both socialist and religious movements.” The conference declaration cited the importance of “linking the struggle against colonialism and racism on the one hand and the struggle against capitalist globalization and new liberalism on the other.”
The Challenge of World Unity
Delegates at this year’s Conference against Imperialism and Zionism, held in Cairo March 29-April 1, searched for ways to express the urgency of unity between opponents of imperialism in Islamic, socialist, and antiwar movements, East and West.
- “There is no essential difference between dictatorship in Egypt and Britain,” said a young woman from the Muslim Brotherhood. “There is no difference between the antiwar movement and women [in Iraq] who have lost their sons the war.”
- Another Brotherhood student activist said that previously, “the left thought Islam was just an anachronism, while Muslims accused the left of trying to destroy their way of life.” But that was changing, due in part to “Latin American leaders such as Hugo Chávez . . . reaching out to the Muslim resistance” (qtd. in Eric Walberg, “Anti-globalists Reach Out to Islamists,” Al-Ahram Weekly 839, 5 – 11 April 2007).
- Aisha, a young woman member of the Brotherhood student organization, told me: “We tend to think support [from the West] is with words only. But we are becoming more aware. European people say their beliefs change when they come here. All the West is not against us. If we cooperate we can change the world.”
- A young woman delegate from Caracas said, “We need to build in Venezuela the culture of resistance that we find at the conference here, because we face daily threats from imperialism.” Meanwhile, the Middle Eastern peoples “need our culture of social activism.” (See Suzanne Weiss, “‘Venezuela Depends on Resistance Everywhere’: Interview with Venezuelan Delegate to Cairo Conference” below.)
And from conference leaders:
- A leader of Hizbullah: “We went to the European Social Forum: some approved us and some refused us. Many Marxist parties refuse to work with us because they consider resistance to be terrorism.” However: “We are for unity of the weak regardless of religion, color, ideology, language.”
- The Muslim Brotherhood: “The Islamic Movement . . . condemns any attempt to make splits among the various parties of this alliance. . . . We are proud of all our guests, specially those who came from long distances to participate.”
- A leader of the Stop the War Coalition, Britain: “Movements on the left and Islamic movements who stand for the poor can unite. But it has to be won in struggle. And on each side we have taken losses in order to make these alliances.”
- An Arab leader of the Canadian Peace Alliance: “Regardless of our differences, we have no choice but resistance, whether in arms or in demonstrations. Because when the people are united, they will never be defeated.”
Latin American Allies
The only delegate from Latin America was a Venezuelan of Middle Eastern origin and a member of a community action collective in Caracas. Conference organizers asked her to speak in two major plenary sessions, where she was warmly received. Introducing her, the conference chair pointed to Venezuela as “the country that was more courageous than many Arab regimes” in opposing the U.S.-Zionist war against Lebanon; a country “that is talking of socialism and nationalizing while [our countries] privatize.”
In the closing session, the Hizbullah leader returned to this point: “The fighters in Venezuela are closer to us than the Arabs that agree with imperialism or that impose injustice.” And the conference declaration highlighted the task of “linking the rising movements of the left in Latin America with the antiwar movements on the one hand and the resistance movements and nationalist forces in the Arab region on the other.”
World Anti-Zionist Boycott
The election of a Hamas majority to the Palestinian parliament last year was significant, one of its central leaders said, “not because of Hamas but because the Palestinians chose a different road — not to submit.” Since then, he said, “the resistance has accomplished things that we had never done before,” including forcing Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Lebanon.
The conference drew encouragement from the recent formation of a united Palestinian cabinet, but its declaration warned against the continuing “American, Zionist, and Arab pressures to surrender” and efforts to “impose a civil war” on the Palestinians. It called for “campaigns to break the siege imposed on the people and resistance in Palestine.”
Meanwhile, as the Hizbullah leader noted, “Defeat [in Lebanon] has struck Israel like an earthquake, causing a shakeup in all levels of society. The role of the Zionist state as imperialist policeman has ebbed.”
The conference called for increased pressure through “organization of an international campaign for the boycott of Israel,” including through development of a website to coordinate the boycott worldwide.” A panel, attended by 100 participants, heard reports of such efforts in Britain, Canada, and Egypt — where an anti-Israel/U.S. boycott in recent years caused losses, by one estimate, of US$13 billion to imperialist concerns.
Struggle for Unity in Iraq
The conference declaration paid homage to “the fierce resistance against the American occupation” of Iraq that “has pushed the U.S. administration into a hopeless swamp.” Yet the resistance is menaced by an “ugly sectarian conflict” promoted by the occupying forces. “The resistance will not be able to liberate Iraq except through . . . turning the resistance into a unified national one that unites Shiites and Sunnis against the American occupant.”
In this regard, several delegates criticized the role of the Iranian government in Iraq. One Lebanese delegate called on Iran to “cut relations with the Iraqi Shiite puppets, support the resistance, and really make things tough for the Americans.”
However, a Muslim Brotherhood parliamentary representative cautioned that Iran’s interest in Iraq is “legitimate.” Iran is “a free country, taking orders from no one,” he said, while the Arab regimes “simply carry out orders from the U.S.” Still, in his view, “Iran could induce a shift toward unity in Iraq.”
A Hizbullah leader said that “we must hold the Arab leaders responsible for the religious dispute in Iraq and not blame Iran.” The conflict in Iraq is “more complicated than what has been said,” he added. “I think Iran is trying to help the resistance — that, at least, is what the U.S. is saying.
This issue was held over for further discussion.
All delegates agreed, however, on the urgent efforts to defend Iran’s right to nuclear energy and oppose U.S.-led threats against Iran. The declaration declared that “we have to join our efforts to stop this crazy war by organizing protests, demonstrations, and campaigns all over the world.”
The conference declaration took an initial step toward structuring a year-round movement by projecting three coordinated worldwide actions:
- July: Protest aggression against Lebanon and demand withdrawal of UN occupation forces from that country.
- September: Defend the rights of the Palestinian people.
- March: Demand an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq.
In addition, the declaration called for a worldwide response to any U.S. act of war against Iran through an international demonstration. It also invited all anti-imperialist and anti-globalization forces worldwide to the next Cairo conference, to be held March 27-30, 2008.
Toward Cairo 2008
The annual Cairo conference has emerged as an important vehicle to unite and coordinate forces for world anti-imperialist struggle. Its unscripted and candid debates provide a profound education about the world of Mideast resistance. The conference stands in the front ranks of efforts to bring together in common endeavor opponents of imperialism in the First and Third Worlds.
Moreover, the Cairo conference stands as an example of unity among forces in the Middle East that have been previously divided by bitter antagonism — an achievement worth emulation by progressive forces in the West.
Representation from non-Middle Eastern countries in Cairo, while significant, needs to be broadened. Here we are up against significant barriers. To start with, progressive forces in North America and Europe are not well informed about Mideast resistance movements, and some still hold misconceptions about Islamic “fundamentalism.”
But more important, the Canadian and other governments occupying Middle Eastern countries are intensely hostile to collaboration between their citizens and Mideast resistance forces, which in their eyes gives aid and comfort to the “enemy.” Ottawa, for example, has blacklisted Hamas and Hizbullah as “terrorist” organizations.
The best way we can overcome these divisions is to build the antiwar, anti-occupation, and Palestinian defense movements. At the same time, we can also explain and defend the movements that lead the Cairo conferences and prepare for expanded representation at the next meeting in 2008.
A new “Baku”?
Eighty-seven years ago, the world communist movement convened a “Congress of the Peoples of the East” that united about 2,000 delegates from Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries in Baku, capital of Soviet Azerbaijan. This historic gathering was significant above all as a step in consolidating a new, revolutionary leadership of liberation struggles in Asia.
The Cairo conference this year resembles Baku in many ways: size, geographical location, range of political currents, anti-imperialist focus, and its call for coordinated international resistance. Above all, the Cairo conference reflects important progress in the development of anti-imperialist leadership in this decisive sector of the world.
There is a significant difference. The call for Baku was made by Marxists based in Russia and Europe, appealing to nationalists and Islamists in Central and West Asia. The call for Cairo comes in reverse: from the Mideast currents to antiwar and anticapitalist forces in the West and elsewhere.
This is as it should be. It reflects the leading role now played internationally by resistance struggles in the Third World. It is now the progressive forces in the Western countries that must struggle against many obstacles, including some misconceptions and prejudices, to make their way to the event.
The following words from the call of the Communist International, announcing the Baku Congress in 1920, are thus worth heeding:
“Spare no effort to ensure that as many as possible may be present. . . . Make your way over mountains and rivers, through forests and deserts, to meet and discuss how to free yourselves from the chains of servitude and unite in fraternal alliance, so as to live a life based on equality, freedom, and brotherhood. . . .
“May the congress proclaim to your enemies in Europe and America and in your own countries that the age of slavery is past, that you are rising in revolt, and that you will be victorious.”1
Or, as a Hizbullah delegate said at the closing session in Cairo, “Through the conference the world is more beautiful, more promising — and tomorrow is for us, not for imperialism.”
1 The quotation from the Baku Congress is from John Riddell, ed, To See the Dawn: Baku 1920, First Congress of the Peoples of the East, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1993, p. 40. The Baku Conference proceedings are also available online at the Marxists Internet Archive.
“I was sent here by my organization, the 13th of April Movement, because resistance in Venezuela depends on resistance elsewhere, from which we must learn,” said Venezuela’s one delegate to the Cairo Conference, a member of “Resistencia por la Paz” in Caracas.
“I am proud to be here,” she said. “We are sharing different forms of resistance. We see we in Venezuela are not alone.”
Noting the heavy police presence around the conference site, she stressed the courage of the Egyptian participants, “who know they can be jailed for coming here.”
She criticized the leftist groups, especially in Europe, who “support the popular upsurge in Latin America but not in the Middle East.” They are falling for hypocritical imperialist arguments against Islam, when its real campaign is “not against Islam but against resistance [to imperialism].”
Noting the prominence of women in the conference, the Venezuelan delegate said, “Women have an important role as protagonists here and in society as a whole.”
Machismo is found everywhere in the world, she added, flowing from capitalism’s scorn for “work that does not produce direct value.”
But in Venezuela, “women assume more responsibility than men” in the popular movement. “That will happen here too, and, indeed, it is already almost the same,” she said. She noted the balance in Hezbollah’s conference delegation: one man and one woman.
She praised the role of Hugo Chávez in encouraging women’s social involvement. “When he speaks to women, he asks, ‘What do you do in your day? Why so much time watching TV — you should get together with other women: make a bakery in your community; make your own laws. You have to learn to read, even if you’re eighty.'”
More Latin Americans are needed at the Cairo conference, the Venezuelan delegate said, especially from Bolivia and Venezuela. “We need to build in Venezuela the culture of resistance that we find at the conference here, because we face daily threats from imperialism.” While the Middle Eastern peoples “need our culture of social activism.”
John Riddell is a co-editor of Socialist Voice.