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A chance to speak out

CAIRO: During Egypt’s Fourth Annual Cairo Conference, a meeting place for a diverse group of political parties and movements, delegates vowed on Sunday during its closing session to continue their struggle against imperialism, lack of press freedom, the ruling party’s monopoly and the powerlessness of the people. The conference, held on the grounds of the …

CAIRO: During Egypt’s Fourth Annual Cairo Conference, a meeting place for a diverse group of political parties and movements, delegates vowed on Sunday during its closing session to continue their struggle against imperialism, lack of press freedom, the ruling party’s monopoly and the powerlessness of the people.

The conference, held on the grounds of the press syndicate and the Bar Association, attracted as many political groups as some of Egypt’s first protests for change. The Kefaya (Enough) movement, Al-Karama political group, the banned-but-tolerated Muslim Brotherhood, the labor party, the socialist party, the Nasserites and various human rights groups all sent delegations. In addition to the local groups and organizations sending representatives, British and international groups such as the London-based Stop the War Coalition, the International Campaign against Aggression and the Canadian Workers Union were also heavily involved.

The range of political and social groups turned the conference into a haven for free expression, tackling current local problems like freedom of the press in Egypt, repression of blue collar workers, speculations concerning power and international issues like the war on Iraq, the hegemony of the United States and the occupation of Palestine with equal intensity.

More importantly for some of Egypt’s underrepresented groups, the conference served as a discussion forum and a space for group orientation and one-on-one presentations.

One of the press syndicate’s floors was dedicated to offering political forces, like legally unrecognized and independent student groups, a chance to present their ideas, distribute publications and establish contacts. Small booths, each representing a different group, carried signs and logos of their respective organizations. Some of the booths sold T-shirts with either logos or slogans supporting a certain cause, like “Free Palestine . Tear down the Wall shirts. Others gave away Palestinian flags, stickers and badges against the use of violence and war.

Muslim Brotherhood members distributed copies of their reform initiative, a booklet that had previously led to turmoil on the political arena and caused some Muslim Brotherhood members to be shunned or detained. The initiative, including what the Brotherhood sees as the general principles of reform, concentrates on seeing Islamic sharia (law) as “the real effective way out of all sufferings and problems, both on the internal front and the external one, be these political, economic, social or cultural. The initiative, however, said the Muslim Brotherhood, refused all violent means or dominion of power and authority.

In the syndicate, some of the walls and bulletin boards were used by groups to post announcements, recently published organization reports, comic strips and even pictures taken during demonstrations or confrontations with the police; some featured captions noting that the pictures were unseen and withheld from the press.

During lectures and discussions, the forces were given room to present their demands and opinions concerning the political and social status in Egypt and the Arab world. On the international level, the anti-war Greek section of the Stop the War Coalition group said that they hoped to put an end to Greek participation in “Bush’s War on Iraq and Afghanistan.

“We want to get the Greek troops out of Afghanistan and shut down the Greek Guantanamo military base in Souda, their demands read. “We [also] oppose Islamophobia and the new crusades.

The Stop the War Coalition and other Palestinian and Iraqi sympathizers called on conference participants, “in cooperation with other forums, bodies and non-governmental international personages resisting hegemony, racism and hostile wars, to take part in the Palestine International Conference for Resistance of Racial Zionism and American Hegemony, held annually in Beirut.

On the local level, the issue of freedom of expression took utmost priority. Afaq Arabiya journalists, whose newspaper has been barred for weeks as a result of inner conflicts, were given a hall to present their case.

The journalists, mostly Muslim Brotherhood members, said that they did not understand how the dominion of one editor could result in a halt in the paper’s publication, consequently threatening the journalists’ careers without any legal or official interference from the state.

The crisis of Afaq Arabiya newspaper, published by Al-Ahrar Party, intensified when the newspaper’s current managing director and editor decided to cut back on the involvement of Muslim Brotherhood writers in the newspaper. The decision contradicted a deal the Brotherhood had previously cut with the party allowing the former to have dominion over writing and editing in return for Brotherhood support of the paper, which had boosted its distribution.

During the conference, journalists and sympathizers with Afaq Arabiya signed a petition asking all concerned organizations to interfere and reinstate the “unwanted Muslim Brotherhood journalists.

On another level, Labor Party demands centered on forming an active bulk of opposition groups; a force whose main objective would be to limit the presidents rule. According to party representatives, one of their main demands and objectives is to legalize and legitimize protests and demonstrations since they are an accurate reflection of grassroots sentiment concerning Egypt’s status quo. Under Egyptian law, protests and demonstrations, without prior permission from the police are illegal.

In the Bar Association, blue collar workers convened to present their problems. The former workers of Oramisr Company gave a statement on behalf of 5,000 workers, saying that many of them had suffered from health hazards as a result of years of exposure to deadly asbestos dust. According to the workers, many of their colleagues suffer from lung or pleural cancer and blood pressure irregularities.

The workers, who had previously sat-in in front of their factories and the Worker’s Union, were denied even the minimum legal compensation for these occupational diseases after what they called “an abusive dismissal from their company. Egypt’s courts repeatedly postponed their cases and a medical examination ordered by the minister of health in similar cases was never carried out.

During the busy conference, around a dozen Kefaya members sat-in at the press syndicate gate to protest what they saw as another governmental violation against the people. On Friday, Kefaya called for protests against the demolishing of houses in Port Said governorate. According to a statement by Kefaya, “The houses were destroyed so that rich business men can build high buildings and tourist resorts on the same places where the houses stood.

The statement read that although inhabitants of the demolished houses were promised compensations, none were given any. “They said they would give the 30 families that were affected 30 apartments . They will not receive these until they pay bribes to the social workers looking at their cases. Kefaya claimed that the former inhabitants had protested, although they were harassed each time.

The sit-in, which lasted no more than 20 minutes, did not attract many of the conference’s participants, who were busy with presentations and lectures; however Kefaya members distributed hundreds of copies of their Port Said statement to the delegations. The Kefaya statements explained the recent event, while providing contact information for the now homeless Port Said families.

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